Tu B’Shevat for Beginners

January 7, 2014

There’s a wonderful Jewish holiday coming soon – 15 Sh’vat, also known as Tu B’Shevat.  It’s coming at sundown on January 15, 2014.

It’s not a huge big deal, unless you choose to make a big deal of it. However, if you are around a synagogue, you may hear about it. If you know Jews who are very concerned with the earth and its care, you may hear about it.

All Jewish holidays have changed through history. This one may have changed the most, because it has gone from being an accounting device (really! see below) to being Jewish Earth Day. What hasn’t changed is its other name: The New Year of the Trees.

Here are the basic facts for Tu B’Shevat:

1. THE NAME.  “Tu B’Shevat” means “15th of Shevat.” Tu is a way of pronouncing the letters that make up the number 15 in Hebrew. (For more about Hebrew numbers, check out this article in Wikipedia.) Shevat is the month in the Jewish calendar that includes the deep winter in Israel, generally January and a bit of February.

2. ORIGINAL MEANING. Tu B’Shevat is often referred to as the “New Year for Trees.” But didn’t we already celebrate a New Year at Rosh HaShanah?  And a secular New Year on January 1? This is the beginning of a fiscal year for agricultural accounting of plants in the Land of Israel. Originally, it was a calendar date at which farmers began counting the year for trees, so that they’d know when trees were old enough to reap the fruit according to Jewish Law (Leviticus 19:23-25), and the point from which tithes could be calculated.  At this time of year, the trees are either dormant or just beginning to blossom.

3. MYSTICAL MEANINGS. After the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, some traveled east to the land of Israel. Most settled in and around the town of Safed, in the northern Galilee, which became a center for Jewish mysticism (kabbalah.)  These mystics began to mark the holiday with a seder (ritual meal eaten in a particular order) somewhat like the Passover seder. At a Tu B’Shevat seder, four cups of wine are drunk and seven different kinds of fruit.  The seder was a celebration of rededication to the Land of Israel and an appreciation of its trees.

4. ZIONIST MEANINGS. With the return to the Land of Israel in the 19th and 20th centuries, Jews revived the observance of Tu B’Shevat as a rededication to the land and a celebration of the relationship between Jews and this particular plot of earth. Many Jews worldwide observed the custom of planting trees in Israel, to replace trees that had been stripped from the land during the Roman and Ottoman periods.

5. JEWISH EARTH DAY.  In the late 20th century, as concern for the environment has grown, Tu B’Shevat has taken on more meaning as a day for Jews to express their concern for ecological issues.  The Tu B’Shevat seder has been revived as not only a celebration of the Land of Israel and its trees, but as a celebration of the holiness of the earth and its creatures.

Image from Flickr Commons, no known copyright

Why I Love Shavuot

May 9, 2013
English: Sunrise on Mt. Sinai in Egypt

English: Sunrise on Mt. Sinai in Egypt (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m so excited:  my favorite Jewish holiday is coming!

I love Shavuot. I’ve loved it ever since the first time someone suggested I go to Tikkun Leil Shavuot, the Study for the Night of Shavuot, which might better be called the Jewish All Nighter.

I was a new convert, fresh from the mikveh. I’d been going to Torah Study at my synagogue for a while, but I found it very intimidating. Everyone was so sure of themselves! And loud! I was a bit timid, and while I loved study, Torah study was overwhelming. Still, when someone turned to me and asked if I was going to attend the all night study session to celebrate the giving of Torah on Mt. Sinai, I nodded.

I learned a lot of Torah that night, but I learned more about Jews, and about myself. I got a feel for the joy of study, for the adrenaline charge in a good machlochet [difference of opinion]. I learned that even the most scholarly people get silly after 2 am. Most of all, by the end of the night I was one of the gang. I never again felt timid in that room.

It’s been a long time since that first Tikkun. Now I’m a rabbi, and I’m teaching one of the 11:30pm sessions at the community gathering at the JCC. The rest of the night I’ll go from session to session, learning and getting silly and yawning and learning some more. But there will still be that giddy feeling of sitting up all night with the Torah, loving it and loving the people of Torah. What could be more wonderful?


Shavuot for Beginners

May 6, 2013
Ruth in Boaz's Field

Ruth in Boaz’s Field (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Shavuot (“Weeks”) is just around the corner, and although it is a major Jewish holiday, it’s one of the least known.

HISTORY Shavuot combines two ancient observances: a festival for the first grain harvest of the summer and the chag, or pilgrimage holiday, celebrated in Temple times. All Jews who were able traveled to Jerusalem to observe the sacrifices and bring the first fruits of their harvests, remembering and celebrating the covenant at Sinai.

THIS YEAR Shavuot begins at sundown on May 14.

OBSERVANCE TODAY Today we observe Shavuot in a number of ways:

  • Counting the Omer – Ever since Passover, we’ve been counting UP to Shavuot, building the anticipation for the holiday. Every night observant Jews say a blessing and announce the “count” of the day.
  • Tikkun Leil Shavuot – How better to celebrate the giving of Torah than to sit up all night and study it? Many Jews gather to study the night of Shavuot (this year, May 14).
  • Dairy Foods – It’s traditional to eat dairy meals on Shavuot, since if the law is newly given, there’s not yet time for meat to be kosher.
  • In the Synagogue – We read from the Torah, we recite Hallel (a service of praise) and we have a special Yizkor (mourning) service.  For service times, check synagogue websites or call ahead before the holiday begins.
  • The Book of Ruth is the megillah (scroll) read and studied on Shavuot.

 


Tu B’Shevat for Beginners

January 20, 2013
Tu B'Shevat Tree Planting

Tu B’Shevat Tree Planting (Photo credit: Hillels of Georgia)

In a few days we will celebrate Tu B’Shevat (in 2013, it begins the evening of January 25).  Here are the basics:

1. THE NAME.  “Tu B’Shevat” means “15th of Shevat.” Tu is a way of pronouncing the letters that make up the number 15 in Hebrew. (For more about Hebrew numbers, check out this article in Wikipedia.) Shevat is the month in the Jewish calendar that includes the deep winter in Israel, generally January and a bit of February.

2. ORIGINAL MEANING. Tu B’Shevat is often referred to as the “New Year for Trees.” But didn’t we already celebrate a New Year at Rosh HaShanah?  This is the beginning of a fiscal year for agricultural accounting in the Land of Israel. Originally, it was a calendar date at which farmers began counting the year for trees, so that they’d know when trees were old enough to reap the fruit according to Jewish Law (Leviticus 19:23-25), and the point from which tithes could be calculated.  At this time of year, the trees are either dormant or just beginning to blossom.

3. MYSTICAL MEANINGS. After the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, some traveled east to the land of Israel. Most settled in and around the town of Safed, in the northern Galilee, which became a center for Jewish mysticism (kabbalah.)  These mystics began to mark the holiday with a seder (ritual meal eaten in a particular order) somewhat like the Passover seder. At a Tu B’Shevat seder, four cups of wine are drunk and seven different kinds of fruit.  The seder was a celebration of rededication to the Land of Israel and an appreciation of its trees.

4. ZIONIST MEANINGS. With the return to the Land of Israel in the 19th and 20th centuries, Jews revived the observance of Tu B’Shevat as a rededication to the land and a celebration of the relationship between Jews and this particular plot of earth. Many Jews worldwide observed the custom of planting trees in Israel, to replace trees that had been stripped from the land during the Ottoman period.

5. JEWISH EARTH DAY.  In the late 20th century, as concern for the environment has grown, Tu B’Shevat has taken on more meaning as a day for Jews to express their concern for ecological issues.  The Tu B’Shevat seder has been revived as not only a celebration of the Land of Israel and its trees, but as a celebration of the holiness of the earth and its creatures.


Hanukkah for Beginners

December 5, 2012

Hanukkah is coming! Rather than write a redundant “how-to” post, here are resources from around the web for celebrating the holiday.

How to Light the Menorah:  

In the video, Rachael talks about the nine candles being on the same level. That’s the most common arrangement and according to some sources, the most correct one. However, some artists have made chanukiot (menorahs) with candles at many different levels. To find the shamash [helper candle] on those, look for the one that stands out in some way.

What to Eat:

This holiday, like many holidays, has special foods.  Since one of the Hanukkah stories is a story about oil, it’s traditional to eat fried foods.  Ashkenazim (Jews of Eastern European descent) eat latkes, potato pancakes:

Latke Recipe

Sephardim and Mizrachim, Jews of Spanish or Eastern descent, eat Sufganiot, a fried pastry like jelly doughnuts:

Sufganiyot Recipe

I’m a Jew who grew up in the American South, so I make Hush Puppies for my family (this is not a tradition except in my house, but I offer it to you. Hush Puppies are delicious and are fried in oil, which makes them Hanukkah-appropriate.)

Hush Puppy Recipe

Songs to Sing

We are supposed to stop work and celebrate Jewish culture while the lights are burning. I’m going to leave you a project for this one: go to youtube.com and search on Hanukkah and see what you find!

How to Play Dreidel

The Story (Stories!) of Hanukkah

This holiday has some interesting stories and ideas connected with it.  This article from MyJewishLearning.com will get you started.

How To Spell Hanukkah

The correct way to spell Hanukkah is חנכה.  If you transliterate the word (change the Hebrew letters to Latin letters) then it can be spelled many ways: Hanukkah, Chanukah, Chanukka, etc.  In other words, it’s a hard word to spell, and a harder word to mis-spell.

How are you going to celebrate חנכה this year?


#BlogExodus: The Jewish Future

April 6, 2012

Passover Seder 013

I will see the Jewish future tonight,

around a seder table:

children, young people, and adults

with mikveh water still behind the ears,

telling the story to the fogies, the regulars.

They will be shy at first

because there are Professionals at the table

but if we play it right

they will seize the story from our hands.

They will cast it, laughing,

beyond our reach, and we will pretend

that we don’t know what Judaism is coming to.

Secretly we will gloat

because the stories will not stop here.

—–

This post is part of the Blogging the Exodus project.   A group of rabbis are blogging from the 1st of Nisan to the beginning of Passover on Passover topics.  My sincere thanks to Rabbi Phyllis Sommer,  the imabima,  for instigating and publicizing this effort.  If you want to discover some great rabbinic blogs, or some interesting things to ponder as you clean up the chometz, you can locate these blogs via the Twitter hashtag #BlogExodus
.


Do You Ask Enough Questions?

April 5, 2012

“This is probably a stupid question…”

That line prefaces a good half of the question asked in my Intro classes. Students say it and pause, looking at me for the go-ahead, and then after I nod reassurance, they ask.  It often precedes a really good question, either something basic that should be answered in the class, or my favorite kind of question, something that opens up a good discussion.

I think I understand it. Nobody wants to look stupid, but if you’re the first to say it, it lowers the risk. It also generally gets reassurance from a teacher, and most of us like to be reassured and told that something we’re doing in class is good. And granted, Judaism is intimidating to people who perceive themselves as outsiders or ignorant.

One way I reassure students is to tell them that Jews ask questions. It’s what we do, whether we are the most sophisticated Talmudist or the most rebellious fourteen year old.  We celebrate questions, and put them at the center of the Passover seder, one of the holiest events in our year. The writers of the Haggadah were so concerned that we ask questions that they put four (or is it really one?) of them into the text, to model the behavior of questioning.

One good question to ask ourselves is, am I asking enough questions?

HOW ARE YOU?  is a question we ask, and generally it is assumed to be the social equivalent of white noise. But how often do we ask it again, with real concern?

WHAT CAN I DO?  is a good question to ask myself when I see something wrong happening before my eyes. Am I accepting something I should not accept?  One of the big problems connected with bullying is that too few people question hurtful behavior. We can ask that question to another person, too:  what kind of help do you want from me?

WHY ARE YOU TELLING ME THIS?  is a fine question to ask when someone brings you information you do not need (e.g. gossip).  Listening to information about others that we do not need to know is lashon harah [evil speech] just as much as being the informant.

WHAT ASSUMPTIONS AM I MAKING?  Am I asking myself questions about the assumptions I make?  Why do I assume that one person walking towards me on the sidewalk is more of a threat than the other people?  Is an article of clothing or a tattoo or a way of dressing a reason to be suspicious in this situation?

There are also the grand three questions for editing out improper speech:  IS IT TRUE?  IS IT KIND? IS IT NECESSARY?

And then there is the grand old question of activists everywhere:  DOES IT HAVE TO BE THIS WAY?

What questions would you like people to ask more often?  What questions do you not ask often enough?

Is there any new question you plan to ask at your Seder this year?

 

 


#BlogExodus: In the Midst of Chaos

April 4, 2012
NO CHAOS

NO CHAOS (Photo credit: alles-schlumpf)

Plagues.

I’ve heard many interesting drashot on the plagues, but to me the unifying factor of all plagues is that they are chaotic.  In the Creation narrative, the world is tohu vavohu, “formless and void,” some translations say, but fundamentally, chaos.  God hovers over it all, and speaks, and by speaking, separates dark from light, one thing from another, until the world is organized and peaceful.

Now, in Exodus 8 and 9, here come the plagues:  water turns to blood, frogs swarm out of the Nile, then die and stink.  The dust that is everywhere turns to lice, tormenting man and beast, followed by flies, which bite and swarm and carry filth everywhere.  Then disease:  first the cattle begin to die of anthrax and hoof-and-mouth disease, and their meat and milk are no longer good, then human beings are struck with boils that erupt everywhere on their skin.  The sky goes crazy, raining hailstones that cut the crops to shreds, and locusts gobble up everything that’s left.  Then the sun and moon fail, and the chaos seems complete:  all is dark, itchy, sticky, dis-eased, and there is nothing decent to eat or drink. And then the human promise of a future is erased:  firstborn children die.  Tohu vavohu:  Creation is unmade and all is chaos.

I read those passages in Exodus 8 and 9, and I think of all the suffering people and animals. Pharaoh and the Hebrew God have their confrontation, and I am angry at both of them.  They are like politicians talking about eggs and omelettes.  “You have to break a few eggs, etc.”  – NO.  I understand that I am supposed to root for God, and cheer, and I just can’t bring myself to do it.

In a bad year, on a bad news day, we can feel the chaos all around.  Two days ago a crazy man shot and killed seven people at a little college in the city of Oakland.  I’ve been involved in a conversation on my local Patch.com site (San Leandro) about the fact that little San Leandro seems to be in the midst of a plague of violent crime that has become so commonplace it doesn’t even make the news.  People are angry.  We feel helpless.  We feel like Egyptians.

What are we to do?  I keep thinking of the line from the Mishnah:  In a place where there are no human beings, be a human being.  (Pirkei Avot 2:6)  In the midst of the mess, whoever made it, we have only our humanity, our ability to connect to other suffering beings.

So let’s reach out.  Let’s talk.  Let’s touch.  Let’s quit fantasizing about how great the world would be without plagues and instead, reach across the mess to one another.  I don’t know how else we can navigate, in a time of plague.  We have the example of God in Creation:  the power of words.

Somewhere in there, we seek holiness.

—–

This post is part of the Blogging the Exodus project.   A group of rabbis are blogging from the 1st of Nisan to the beginning of Passover on Passover topics.  If you want to discover some great rabbinic blogs, or some interesting things to ponder as you clean up the chometz, you can locate those blogs via the Twitter hashtag #BlogExodus.



The Miracle of Parsley

April 3, 2012
This is a curly leaved parsley plant (the comm...

Petroselinum hortense (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“That stuff has to go visit the devil nine times before it comes up,” grumbled Mrs. Smith.  She pointed to a row of plants in her herb garden, or rather, a row that had been marked as seeded.

“What is it?” I asked, thinking it must be something awful.  Henbane, hemlock, foxglove: one of those plants that can knock you dead, maybe.

“Parsley,” she said, “It’s too valuable not to plant, but it is a slow one.  I planted new this year, and it’s taking it’s own sweet time.”

I had that conversation thirty years ago, one summer when I was living in the Cumberland Mountains, a spur of the Appalachians. Mrs. Smith was a herbalist who had learned her art from her grandmother, back when there were no doctors in that part of the mountains.  She had strong opinions about many plants, but parsley‘s devil-connection made it instantly memorable.  (I’m pretty sure she meant it only as a sort of verbal garnish — pretty sure.)  Certainly I could never again see Petroselinum hortense without remembering Mrs. Smith and her garden.

It’s true that parsley is slow to germinate.  It is slow, and sometimes doesn’t come up at all.  However, once you plant it, it’s difficult to get rid of it, because it has a long tough tap root that goes deep into the soil.  While it is officially a biennial, in the mild climate where I live, once you have it, you have it.  If you don’t want it, tough.  It will just keep coming back, so you might as well pick some and eat it.

Besides being pretty and green, it’s highly nutritious:  high in vitamin K, vitamin C and flavonoids.  It’s also a source of iron, vitamin A, and folate.  Long before the Greeks began using it as a food, they used it for medicine.  It lowers blood pressure and has a chemical in it called apigenin, which inhibits the growth of tumors.   Eventually, though, someone discovered that it was pretty tasty, too, and the result is a panoply of Mediterranean dishes, including my favorite, tabouleh.

Which brings us back to the dinner table, and the seder plate.  I know that we include parsley as karpas, greens, but it is so much more than just green!  Its roots are deep.  It takes nutrients from the soil, and builds life-giving, life-preserving compounds.  Give it a warm patch of dirt and some water, and it will feed you generously.  Some varieties are quite bitter to the taste, and some are mild.  Dry it out, and it will still flavor food.

It is a stubborn little plant, not unlike a certain stiff-necked people.  This Friday night, when I sit at the seder table, and dip my bit of parsley into the bowl of tears, I will remember Mrs. Smith and her aggravation with the blessing that is parsley.

 


#BlogExodus: Springtime & Memory

April 1, 2012
Tomb of Joseph at Shechem

Tomb of Joseph at Shechem (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“April is the cruelest month, breeding / lilacs out of the dead land” wrote that brilliant old anti-Semite, T.S. Eliot, and I believe him. Spring is often spoken of as the season of blooming and rebirth, but for me it will always be tinged with loss.

I lost my beautiful grandmother, Mary Fulghum Menefee, on April 17, 1974, and the sights and smells of springtime are hard to take some years. I particularly hate the smell of Easter lilies, because after she died everyone we knew brought some to the house. I remember the white dogwood trees that she planted by the driveway, laced with blossoms, and it just seemed so wrong that anything would bloom after she was dead.

Years have passed and her absence has become a presence of its own in my heart. I doubt that she would have approved, in life, of my becoming Jewish, but many of the impulses that led me to Judaism were learned (or inherited?) from her. She encouraged my questioning mind, my love of scholarship, and my curiosity about the world. She told me a few days before her death that she’d been secretly voting Democratic for years. “Never tell your husband how you vote, it’s a secret ballot and none of his darn business,” she counseled me. Prudent words, coming from a woman in a family where everyone was very noisy about their conservative politics.

After my grandfather’s death, years later, I learned that she was a battered wife and had hidden it from all of us. She longed to get away but she could not, not in that time, not in that place. My grandmother never left Tennessee; twelve years after her death, I drove away and in many ways, never looked back.

I carry her along with me wherever I go. That, too, is very Jewish:  we remember the dead and bring them along with us. These days we do it in memory, by keeping yahrtzeits and attending yizkor services. But in that first Exodus, we are told that Moses actually carried a box with the bones of Joseph (Exodus 13:19) to fulfill Joseph’s prophecy and request in Genesis 50:25: “And Joseph took an oath of the children of Israel, saying: ‘God will surely remember you, and ye shall carry up my bones from hence.’”  Indeed, after many years of travel, Joshua finally laid Joseph’s bones to rest in Shechem (Joshua 24:32.)

Beyond mourning, it is important to honor the memory of family by telling stories about them. Passover seders are a wonderful time for that, a time when children are gathered around the table with adults, when memory  can flow. Was there a passage from an Egypt, a tight spot, in your family’s past?  Was there a beloved grandmother or a scholarly  uncle?  Are there funny stories, or sad stories, or stories with missing pieces that can be shared?

This Passover, tell the Exodus story, all the Exodus stories. Remember those who left Egypt, and those who could not.

—–

This post is part of the Blogging the Exodus project.   A group of rabbis are blogging from the 1st of Nisan to the beginning of Passover on Passover topics.  If you want to discover some great rabbinic blogs, or some interesting things to ponder as you clean up the chometz, you can locate those blogs via the Twitter hashtag #BlogExodus.


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