Bar and Bat Mitzvah Etiquette for Beginners

July 8, 2012
Bat mitzvah in the United States.

Bat mitzvah in the United States. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is another in a series of posts to make Jewish life a little more accessible. Click on “Especially for Beginners” in the menu on the right side of your screen to find more articles about the basics of Jewish living.

You or your child have been invited to attend a bar (or bat) mitzvah. The only problem is, you’ve never been to one. The closest you’ve come was a bit of one on TV, perhaps Freddie Crane’s bar mitzvah, where his dad blessed him in Klingon. Now what?

Despite the fact that the service is often given a humorous treatment in movies and on TV, the bar or bat mitzvah is a major event in the life of a Jewish family. The young person works for years to prepare for it, and the family saves and plans for just as long. A bar mitzvah (for a boy) or bat mitzvah (for a girl) falls sometime around the 13th birthday, and it marks the beginning of ritual adulthood.  That is, once a Jew has reached that age, they are responsible for themselves in keeping the commandments and participating in Jewish life.

There are a few things to know about attending a bar or bat mitzvah.  Here are some basic tips:

1. RESPOND PROMPTLY. As with a wedding, these are complicated affairs and numbers matter. Respond to the invitation as soon as possible. Do not ask to bring extra people.

2. DRESS MODESTLY. Dress will depend on the synagogue, but do not depend on your 13 year old for the dress code. The service will be fairly formal: a bar mitzvah boy will wear a suit and tie. Dress for girls should be tidy, clean, and modest: outfits cut “up to here” or “down to there” are inappropriate.  A party dress with bare shoulders can be supplemented with a shawl for the service.

3. PRESENTS. Gift-giving is traditional at a bar or bat mitzvah. One may give money to the bat mitzvah, or make a charitable donation (tzedakah) in her name. Bar mitzvah money often is put towards college or study in Israel. That said, if you cannot afford a present, it is not required.

4. THE SERVICE. Arrive on time for the service. The bat mitzvah may lead the service, and she will read from the Torah Scroll in Hebrew. She’s been studying for years for this moment. Just follow the rest of the congregation in sitting and standing. If you have never been to a Jewish service before, you may find another article on this site “New to Jewish Prayer?” useful. It’s OK to look around you, or to look through the prayer book. However, fiddling with a cell phone (much less talking or texting on one!) is not appropriate. Electronics should be turned off and put away, if they are carried at all. (In a Conservative or Orthodox synagogue, the use of such devices is forbidden to Jews on the Sabbath. Using one will immediately inform everyone that you are an outsider and a bad-mannered one, at that.)  For more about the service, check out More Etiquette for Bar and Bat Mitzvah Guests.

5. THE PARTY. The party afterwards may be very simple or very elaborate. For dress and other specifics, check your invitation. Again, do not bring uninvited guests!  Usually there will be speeches at the party, and it is polite to listen. There will also be dancing, which is optional but lots of fun. Even if you aren’t much of a dancer, circle dancing for the horah is fun. There will be food.

6. GREETINGS. If the service falls on Saturday (or in some congregations, on Friday night) you may be greeted at the door with “Shabbat shalom!”  This literally means, “Sabbath of Peace!” and it is the traditional greeting for the day. You can reply “Shabbat shalom!” or simply “Shalom!”  If you wish to congratulate the parents or the young person, you can say “Mazal tov!” 

7. ENJOY! This is a moment of great joy for a Jewish family, a milestone in a young Jew’s life. It will involve good music, a beautiful service, good food, dancing, and new friends. Open yourself to the experience, and enjoy.


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.

 


Just Shabbat

June 3, 2012

Dawn

Have you ever had a perfect day?

I think I came as close as I ever have this past Shabbat.  Linda and I went to the children’s service at Temple Sinai on Friday night, sat with friends and met some people who may be new friends. Went home tired, and slept the sleep of the worn out.  Rose Saturday morning, had breakfast, went back to shul for services: a bar mitzvah of a young man I didn’t know, with an aliyah honoring the 30th wedding anniversary of our close friends, Dawn and Mark.  Afterwards, lunch with more friends, and a long slow June afternoon at home. Heaven!

A bar mitzvah, you say? Of a young man you didn’t know?  Yes: for those of you who avoid bnei mitzvah services, a point to ponder: sometimes the 13 year olds approach a Torah portion in new and exciting ways, precisely because they haven’t been reading the same words over and over for 50 years.   And yes, sometimes they don’t.  But Torah is always good, and my mind is free to pursue the portion wherever it is led.

But more than anything, it was the slow time of the whole 24 hour period, the songs at night, the long service in the morning when my brain was set loose to freewheel through prayer and inspiration, the affection of friends, the sense of there being “enough” in this moment, that made the day for me.

This is Shabbat.  This is my treasure as a Jew.


Ready to Receive the Torah?

May 24, 2012

A Sefer Torah, the traditional form of the Heb...

“Today is forty-seven days, which is six weeks and five days of the Omer.”

Almost there!  Shavuot will be here in just a few days – am I ready?  What does it mean, to be ready to receive the Torah?

Memory: my first Tikkun Leyl Shavuot, when I finally felt a part of the Torah Study group at my synagogue.  I think it had something to do with studying so late and so long around the table that we all got giggly.  At any rate, I finally relaxed and felt like “one of the gang,” which was good, since momentous things were to follow.  Soon after, it was time for me to go to the beit din and the mikveh to complete my conversion to Judaism.  And then, on the same day many years later, I got on the plane to go to Jerusalem to begin rabbinical school.  Lots of memories, indeed!

The question remains: what does it mean to be ready to receive the Torah?  That magical night when I felt I truly belonged to the group, that was part of it.  The Torah is given to Am Yisrael, not to any individual on his or her own.

A little later, when the beit din questioned me, they were looking to see: was I there for the right reasons? Was I truly free to make this decision?  Was I holding back some piece of my old life?  And all of that, too, is part of being ready to receive the Torah.  Sinai wasn’t possible until Passover was done: only a free People could make a covenant with the Divine.  They didn’t quiz me on the fine points, because after all at the original deal, at Sinai, the People said, “Na’aseh v’nishmah” [We will do and we will hear]. Both the Jews and this individual Jew had to make the leap without knowing every detail:  this covenant requires risk.  It takes heart. One must have heart to be ready to receive the Torah.

Then, the mikveh:  I had heard about warm and lovely mikveh experiences, but mine was more like, well, a dash of cold water.  A whole mikveh full of cold water, actually, because they’d forgotten to turn on the heat.  I took a deep breath, and walked down into what felt like the Arctic Ocean until all but my head was submerged in the water.  I called to my mikveh attendant, our cantor, and when she came in, she saw me cringing  and said, “Are you OK?” “I’m freezing!” I said.  “Let’s get this over with!”  So we said the blessings in between dunks, she made sure it was all kosher, and I came flying back out of that icewater as soon as modesty permitted.

And that, too, was appropriate, even if it wasn’t the usual way.  We motored through those blessings, but nothing was skipped.  Sometimes, in Jewish prayer, you just do what you have to do.   I dressed hurriedly and went out to the mazal tovs of family and friends with my hair still wet.  Na’aseh v’nishma: we will do and we will hear.  And sometimes we will “do” in a hurry.  The sages tell us to run to do a mitzvah: and so sometimes run we must!

And then, in a later June, but still in that same week of Shelach L’cha, my friend Fred drove me to the airport with three enormous bags for my flight to Jerusalem.  I had no inkling of what lay ahead.  Na’aseh v’nishma:  Doing before understanding.  Had I any idea how hard the next six years would be, I’d never have gotten on that plane, and I’m so glad now that I was ignorant, because being a rabbi has filled my heart and my life beyond all my dreams.   I suspect that had the Hebrews at Sinai been shown all that lay ahead, they’d have said, “No thanks:”  no thanks to the years of wilderness, no thanks to the lawless age of the Judges, no thanks to Babylon, no thanks to Rome, no thanks to the Inquisition, no thanks to the Nazis.  But they didn’t know.  I am so glad we didn’t know.

And now we are about to stand at Sinai yet again.  And yet again we will say, “Na’aseh v’nishma,”  And now, unlike the first time, when we trembled at the fire and the thunder, we know to tremble at the wild abandon of this promise: We will do it, whatever it is!  We will understand it later.

And then we will be ready to receive the Torah.


Misogyny? Or Something Else?

April 11, 2012

Yosi ben Yochanan of Jerusalem said: Let your house be wide open and let the poor be members of thy household; and do not talk much with women. This was said about one’s own wife; how much more so about the wife of one’s neighbor. Therefore the sages have said: He who talks too much with women brings evil upon himself and neglects the study of the Torah and will in the end inherit Gehenna. – Pirkei Avot 1.5

This verse from Mishnah begins with sentiments that are challenging but easy to affirm:  let your house be wide open!  Let the poor be members of your household!  Then it serves up what looks to be the worst sort of misogyny.

When I see something troubling in a text, the first thing I do is back up and look at the Hebrew.  What EXACTLY does it say?  Here’s a very literal translation:

Yosi ben Yochanan, a man of Jerusalem, says: let your house be wide open, and let the poor be members of your household.  But do not engage in excessive conversation with the woman.  In speaking to his wife, so much the more so his friend’s wife.  Therefore the sages say, excessive conversation with the woman causes evil to himself and neglect of Torah and he will eventually inherit Gehinnom.

At first reading, that’s not much better.

Short of shrieking and throwing the verse away, I see only one possible way out with this text. That’s the phrase תרבה שיחה, which I translated as “excessive conversation.” We might also read it as “too long a conversation.”

Excessive how?  Too long for what? Let’s look at context. The verse begins with two statements about the household:  “let your house be wide open” and “let the poor be members of your household.” In the patriarchal society of the sages, the household was women’s domain, specifically, the wife’s domain.

Given this context, is it not possible that this is a warning to the men to back off and not interfere in the domain of their wives? That also makes sense of the phrase, “so much more so his friend’s wife”: Don’t tell your wife how to run her house, and definitely don’t tell your friend’s wife how to do so!

There is also a detail in the text that most translations gloss over that supports this interpretation. The phrase “the woman,” repeated twice in this verse, includes the definite article:  it is not “all women” but a particular woman about whom Yosi ben Yochanan is speaking. HaIshah, the woman, can also be translated “the wife.”

So let me try for a paraphrase:

Yosi ben Yochanan, a man of Jerusalem, says: let your house be wide open, and let the poor be members of your household. But do not micro-manage your spouse about it, much less the spouses of your colleagues. Nothing good will come of it; it will lead to neglect of Torah and a bad end.

I believe this text may be read not as a misogynist rant, but as a reminder to the men that they are not the bosses, or the experts, of everything.  They should not meddle in the domain of their wives, and meddling in how other people’s homes are run is even worse.

What can this teach us today? Stay humble.  Remember that everyone has his or her area of expertise. The large principles are good — don’t neglect those first two items! — but I should respect the expertise of others, no matter how much Torah I think I know.

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The Chain of Tradition

April 9, 2012
The Aleppo Codex is a medieval manuscript of t...

The Aleppo Codex, a manuscript of the Tanakh.. The Masoretic scholars wrote it in the early 10th century, probably in Tiberias, Israel. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Pirkei Avot 1.1:  Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua; Joshua to the elders; the elders to the prophets; and the prophets handed it down to the men of the Great Assembly.  They said three things: Be deliberate in judgment, raise up many disciples, and make a fence around the Torah. 

The transmission of Torah is like a bucket brigade:  starting with God on Sinai, the Torah has been handed down, hand to hand, from that day to this.  We call this the sharsheret shel masoret, the chain of tradition.

I learned to chant Torah from Cantor Ilene Keys at Temple Sinai in Oakland, CA.  She learned from Cantor Nathan Lam at Stephen S. WIse Temple in Los Angeles.  I don’t know who Cantor Lam learned from, but I know that the style of chanting we do is a variant of a style that goes all the way back to Eastern Europe.

Once, in the British Library in London, I saw a 9th century text of the Tanakh with the te’amim (cantillation marks – the musical notations) in it, and I was able to stand at the case where it was displayed and chant the text softly to myself.  That codex was ancient — more than a thousand years old! — but I could read it just fine.  That was the first time I really felt the weight of that chain of tradition.  I could imagine the masorete who wrote that book teaching his student… and then the student teaching his student… down through the centuries until Cantor Lam taught Cantor Keys and Cantor Keys taught me.

The same is true of every d’var Torah — every word of Torah — that I know.  Someone taught it to me.  God willing, I will teach it to others.

A hundred years from now, I do not expect that many people, if any, will remember me.  But I take great comfort and pride in the knowledge that the students of my students will still be learning Torah and teaching it to their children and their students.  I may be just a link in the chain — but what a chain!


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