Beginner’s Guide to Brit Milah (“Bris”)

April 5, 2013

English: A new born baby in his Godfather's ha...

You’ve been invited to a bris! If this is your first bris, there are some things that you should know.

1. WHAT’S A BRIS? A bris, or brit milah, is the ritual circumcision of a Jew. A bris is not merely a medical procedure, however. It is a symbol of the Jewish partnership with God, the covenant of Abraham. For the son of Jewish parents, a bris is usually on the 8th day after birth.

2. WHERE? A bris may take place in a home, in a doctor’s office, or in a synagogue. If you have been invited to attend as a guest, dress for the place: a bris at a home will be a bit more casual than one at a synagogue.  When in doubt about dress, ask!

3. TIME? A bris is often scheduled for the morning, usually on the eighth day after birth.  The actual bris takes only a few minutes, but there will be schmoozing before and schmoozing and a festive meal afterwards, so allow an hour or even two.

4. WHO PERFORMS THE BRISA bris is performed by a mohel (moyl),  a Jew who has been trained specifically for this ritual. Generally,  liberal (Reform or Conservative) mohelim (mo-heh-LEEM) are physicians who have received additional ritual training. Orthodox mohelim may be doctors, or they may have graduated from a program that trains mohelim in surgical techniques, aseptic techniques, and Jewish ritual and law.

5. DO I HAVE TO WATCH?  No. The mohel will tell everyone where to stand, but unless you are the sandak (the person who holds the baby and delivers him to the mohel) you are unlikely to see much anyway. If blood bothers you, don’t look.

6. DOES IT HURT THE BABY? At most of the brissim I have attended, if the baby cried, it was when his diaper was removed (cold air).  An experienced mohel will do the circumcision as painlessly as possible.

7. PRESENTS? It is not customary to give a present at a bris. However, if you wish to take a baby gift or something for the parents, it is OK to do so.  “Gag gifts” such as one might have at a baby shower  are in poor taste, however; this is a serious religious ritual.

8. GREETINGS “Mazal tov!”  A bris is one of the happiest occasions in Jewish life, when the covenant moves to the next generation.

9. NAMING A Jewish boy receives his name at the bris. Many parents do not call him by name until after the bris; before that he is simply “Baby Lastname.” If you ask about the name and they are cagey about it, that’s what’s going on – go to the bris and you will learn the name when everyone else does.

 


Giving Justly

November 26, 2012
Food Bank Donations

Food Bank Donations (Photo credit: NJLA: New Jersey Library Association)

After the last long weekend (almost a week, really) of consumption (Thanksgiving aka Turkey Day, Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday) two clever nonprofit executives have come up with the idea of “Giving Tuesday.” So let’s see:  first give thanks, then consume, then give?

Jewish tradition suggests that giving be part of our budget from the beginning, not an afterthought at the end.  However this new holiday (?) offers is a reminder near the end of the secular year that our lives are not just about us. One measure of a person is the good that he or she manages to do in the world.

How much should we give for tzedakah? That’s the Jewish word for charitable giving. Let me ask you that question another way:  guesstimate the following figures:

  • the cable bill per month
  • amount spent on coffee drinks per month
  • or some other not-necessary-for-survival budget item

Now compare that to “given in tzedakah a month.” Tzedakah includes:

  • money to charities
  • to your temple
  • to Cousin Fred to pay his rent last month
  • in-kind gifts to charities (canned goods to the Food Bank)
  • the dollar to the homeless woman

The idea is that this giving relieves suffering and makes life more livable for people who need help. The question is, how much was it? And how does that compare to your cable bill? Your coffee bill? How does it compare to any other nice-but-not-necessary-for-life item in your budget?

If the numbers appear to be out of balance in favor of tzedakah, good for you! If they are out of balance the other direction, I encourage you to think about writing a check  on Giving Tuesday. It’s another way of keeping life in balance.

(If you’d rather do this by a more traditional method, you can use Maimonides‘ rule of thumb: 5% of income if you have a low income, 10% if you are well-off. I know, those are challenging percentages, but it is the ideal, and there are people who manage to do it, most of them on the lower, not the upper end of the income scale.)

Consider giving for justice’s sake, not just on Tuesday, but on a regular basis.  As Hillel says, “Who is rich? The person who is happy with what he has.” (Avot 4.1) The more we give, the richer we feel.  That’s the miracle.


Recognizing the Good: Veterans Day

November 12, 2012
Joseph Ambrose, an 86-year-old World War I vet...

Joseph Ambrose, an 86-year-old World War I veteran, attends the dedication day parade for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1982. He is holding the flag that covered the casket of his son, who was killed in the Korean War (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

הכרת הטוב, Hakarat Hatov, means “recognizing the good.” It’s the Hebrew phrase we use to convey the concept of gratitude. Our tradition encourages us to appreciate every bit of good is in our lives, no matter how many legitimate complaints we may have.

November 11 was originally designated Armistice Day because it was the day that the hostilities of WWI stopped. The Treaty of Versailles would not be signed for months, but the people of every nation involved in that war had learned to recognize the goodness of peace. One of the causes of the war had been the tendency of international leaders to forget that war is horrible: they were focussed on potential gains, offended honor, and on their alliances. WWI was a terrible lesson, with more terrible lessons to follow.

In 1958 in the United States, President Eisenhower changed the name of Armistice Day to Veterans Day, in order to include the veterans of WWII and Korea in the appreciation. It became a day to recognize the good in each of those individuals, and the goodness of their gift to the rest of us. When a soldier is drafted or enlists in the military, he or she takes the oath of enlistment:

I, (NAME), do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.

This oath effectively limits the exercise of many constitutional rights that ordinary citizens enjoy. A soldier in uniform cannot criticize the President or the military, and must be careful about doing so out of uniform. A soldier must follow all lawful orders (and must be prepared to justify in court why an order was not lawful if he does not follow it.)  Search and seizure are perfectly legal on a military base. Most Americans would chafe mightily at these restrictions and others under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.  Military service requires the voluntary relinquishment of freedoms the rest of us take for granted.

Add to that the hazards of serving a nation at war: the physical and mental toll of battle, the stress of living in a war zone for an extended period of time, the strain on family relationships and friendships, and the challenge of return to civilian life, and it’s obvious that we owe our veterans many thanks.

Where we fail, though, is that often all they get is thanks. “Thank you” will not provide health care, education, housing, or mental health care. “Thank you” is cheap, but all those other things are expensive. We and our politicians are quick with thanks and lip service, but not so quick with the rest.

When I am writing a check for taxes it is easy to think about all the things the government does that I  don’t want. (I’ll spare you the list, but trust me, it’s long.) Hakarat Hatov, recognizing the good, demands I look further than the things that are bugging me. It demands that I recognize the good that those men and women have done for me, and that I make sure that enough of my taxes go to at least ameliorate their lost health and lost opportunities.  (If you think that we already take good care of our veterans, I suggest you read this earlier blog post of mine, or this article about veterans and suicide.

In Pirkei Avot 4.1, Ben Zoma says, “Who is rich? He who appreciates what he has.” The question for us each Veterans Day is, do we appreciate what we have? Do we appreciate what these people have given us? And if we say we appreciate it, what are we going to do about it?


It’s a Mitzvah: Save a Life!

July 4, 2012
Blood donation drive

Blood donation drive (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Lo ta’amod al dam re’echa.”  – “Do not stand by while your neighbor bleeds.”  Leviticus 19:16

If someone is in dire danger, this commandment in the Torah insists that we must act. The ancient rabbis took this commandment so seriously that they teach us that even if it means breaking the Sabbath, even if it means breaking almost any other law, we must not stand by while someone is in danger of death.  (The exceptions? We may not engage in murder, incest, or idolatry, even to save a life.)

 Right now, in the United States, we are in the midst of a critical blood shortage. Last week, the American Red Cross reported that the nation’s blood banks were down by 50,000 pints.  That is not a typo: FIFTY THOUSAND PINTS of blood — blood upon which people’s lives depend! — are simply not there.  Each of those pints could make the difference between life and death for someone injured in the storms in the East, for a firefighter injured in Colorado, or for a mother with a complicated childbirth. Cancer patients sometimes need many pints of blood and blood products to continue fighting the disease.

Today I stopped by my local Red Cross Blood Donation center, and when the nurse looked at my record, she said, “Oh! Your blood type is negative! We really need those!” I asked her about the shortage and she shook her head: “Yes, it’s really, really bad.  Now let’s get your blood pressure.”

Now I have a bandaid in the crook of my left elbow, and a sticker on my shirt. I don’t know where my pint of A negative will go, but I’m told it may save as many as three lives.

Some people can’t donate: my partner, a cancer survivor, is barred from ever performing this mitzvah ever again. A person with a fresh tattoo or piercing may not donate until 12 months have passed. A person who may have been exposed to any of several diseases may not donate. People who have taken certain drugs cannot. If you wonder if you are eligible, or you have other questions, you can find the answers on the Red Cross Blood Donation website.  That site can also direct you to the nearest place to donate, and in many areas, you can make your appointment online.

Rabbi Simon Glustrom writes in an article on pikuach nefesh, preservation of life:

The preservation of human life takes precedence over all the other commandments in Judaism. The Talmud emphasizes this principle by citing the verse from Leviticus [18:5]: “You shall therefore keep my statutes…which if a man do, he shall live by them.” The rabbis add: “That he shall live by them, and not that he shall die by them.” (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 85b)

In Deuteronomy 30, Moses speaks to Israel with a message from the Divine, and near the end he says:

I call heaven and earth to witness you this day, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life, that you may live, you and your descendants.

For those of us able to donate blood, we have a the opportunity to choose life in a very literal way. The choice before us is indeed a choice between life and death, blessing and curse.

Choose life and blessing, that you and others may live.

Afterwards, cookies.

 


Why Count the Omer? Five Reasons (and counting!)

April 8, 2012
Omer table, depicting the number of days in th...

Omer table, depicting the number of days in the omer (top) and its equivalence in number of weeks (middle) and days (bottom)  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Why count the Omer?

In my effort to get myself to do it properly and on time, I have asked this question and looked for answers.  Here are some ideas about why we count the Omer.

(1).  GOD SAID TO:  “You shall count from the eve of the second day of Pesach, when an omer of grain is to be brought as an offering, seven complete weeks. The day after the seventh week of your counting will make fifty days, and you shall present a new meal offering to God (Leviticus 23:15-16).”  In other words, God said to make sacrifices to mark these days.  We don’t have the Temple anymore, so instead we count after dinner each night.

(2) IT CONNECTS PASSOVER TO SHAVUOT:  Passover is a big holiday of celebration.  We celebrate freedom, which is mostly a happy thing (no more slavery, yay!) By preserving the count of the Omer, even without the Temple, the rabbis are reminding us that the Passover is not truly complete until we commemorate the giving of the Torah at Sinai on Shavuot.  Freedom without responsibility is incomplete and unreal.  By counting, we remind ourselves that the process is not yet finished.

(3) SELF IMPROVEMENT:  In preparation to receive the Torah, we work to become better Jews.  The Kabbalists point out that the Omer is counted for seven weeks of seven days, and they match them with the seven sefirot through which God interacts with the world.  Each of the seven days within those weeks are matched with the sefirot, also, and those various permutations of Godliness provide an opportunity for study and self improvement.  Another tradition is to read and study Pirkei Avot [the first chapter of the Mishnah, which consists mostly of advice on proper behavior and attitude] during this season.

(4) AN EXPRESSION OF ANTICIPATION: When we are excited about something, we count the days to that event.  It is also true that when we behave a particular way, we cultivate the emotions and the thoughts that go with that behavior.  When we count the Omer, we cultivate excitement about Torah in our lives.

(5) MINDFULNESS:  This one is my own, as far as I know.  I know that the reason I never make it through the omer is that I get distracted.  It’s as if I have ADD of the soul.  49 days is a long time to do anything, especially something as small and easy to forget as an additional blessing after eating.  This year I want to improve my attention span for Torah.  I want to be mindful of Jewish time, and in the process, perhaps make better use of my time.

If you count the Omer, why do you do it?  Do you know any additional reasons for counting?


Counting the Omer

April 8, 2012

A Polish abacus (liczydło)

I have a confession to make:  I have never made it all the way through counting the Omer at the proper time, Passover to Shavuot.  This year I’m going to do it (she says, feeling a little like Charlie Brown facing Lucy and the football one more time).

The #BlogExodus project gave me an idea, though:  I’m going to blog the Omer.   Today I’m announcing my intent to do this thing.  Last night I counted Day One of the Omer, but since it was the second day of Passover, I figured I’d wait to blog it until the yomtov [holy day] was over.  With the next post, I’ll begin looking at Pirkei Avot, a rabbinic text that we traditionally study this time of year.  Occasionally I may have something else on my mind but the point is, this year I will (1) say the blessing (2) count the day of the omer and (3) post something to this blog.  If I have to choose, (1) and (2) will take precedence.  I’m hoping that the commitment to do something public in connection with it will generate sufficient Jewish guilt or shame to get me there.

You see, rabbis struggle with observance too.  For years I have struggled privately, but this year I am going to struggle in public, with an eye to improving my observance and maybe also to let others who struggle have some company. I try my best to observe the mitzvot, and sometimes I succeed.  Other times I fall short.  Then I try again.

Last night I counted at the community seder at Temple Sinai.  Tonight I counted here at my home.

May this year the the year I finally manage to stay mindful enough to do it!


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