Ceremonial Handwashing for Jews?

Image: A person washing hands with soap in a white sink. (Shutterstock 2604171440)

A reader asked: “I was recently at the home of friends for Shabbat dinner, and they all trooped into the kitchen to wash their hands before the blessing for bread. They washed with a funny two-handled cup in the sink, and mumbled a blessing as they did it. What was going on?”

Reader, what you saw was netilat yadayim, the washing of hands. There are specific moments in Jewish life when we wash our hands. In Reform households that observe this mitzvah, you’ll most often see it as handwashing before the blessing for bread (motzi) with a meal.

The blessing you heard was as follows:

Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu, Melech ha-olam, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav, vitzivanu al netilat yadayim.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of All-that-Is, who sanctifies us with commandments, and has commanded us concerning the washing of hands.

The procedure is to remove rings, then pour the water over each hand with the cup. A natlah, or two-handled cup may be used for this purpose. Then the person dries their hands and they may refill the cup for the next person coming. Some individuals simply use the tap for washing.

Jews practice ritual handwashing at the following times:

  1. Before breaking and blessing bread made with the five grains (wheat, barley, spelt, oats and rye) (with the blessing netilat yadayim above)
  2. Upon rising from sleep (with the blessing netilat yadayim above)
  3. When leaving a cemetery
  4. When leaving the bathroom
  5. After touching the private parts
  6. Before prayer
  7. Before the the Kohanim (priests) bless the people in synagogue

Why the ritual handwashing? The Torah verse usually cited as the source is in Leviticus:

Anyone whom the one with the discharge touches without having rinsed his hands in water shall wash his clothes and bathe himself in water and be unclean until the evening. – Leviticus 15:11

It is part of a passage about the treatment of persons who have discharges from their bodies, and the verse is taken as an asmachta, a hint, that rinsing one’s hands is a mitzvah. Centuries later, with the advent of germ theory, we learned that regular handwashing is indeed a very good idea.

Taking time to wash my hands thoroughly and mindfully was required when I was a chaplain, so that I would not spread disease from one patient to another. I soon learned that it gave me an opportunity to pause and clear my mind between encounters with people.

It is another Jewish practice that can enrich my life by slowing me down a bit. Now I wash with soap and water and scrubbing (more effective than a ritual pour) but it is a spiritual discipline with measurable effects in the real world, a mitzvah because it prevents the spread of dirt and disease.

This video, from the Jewish Living Series of the Perelman Jewish Day School, demonstrates the traditional ritual of handwashing before the blessing over bread.

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Question for My Readers: Conversion

I am working on a project about the experience of conversion to Judaism, and there’s a question I’d like to ask of my readers who converted to Judaism. If you choose to participate, please answer via the Comments on this post.

Please only answer this if you became a Jew after your birth, and you have completed that process – you are officially Jewish.

At what point in the process of conversion or after did you feel unequivocably Jewish?  Was it at some point in the year of living Jewishly, or during your study, or after brit milah, or after the beit din, or after the mikveh, or at some event later? Be as specific as you can – I’m looking for a particular moment at which you were clear that you were definitely Jewish and not anything else.

There are no wrong answers to this question, and I ask readers not to comment on the answers anyone leaves here. I promise to delete any comments upon comments for this one.

I also certainly understand if you prefer not to answer.

Thank you to all who participate!

Shabbat Shalom – Parashat Noach

Image: Watercolor of the Noah’s Ark story, by Prawny, via Pixabay.

This week’s Torah portion is Noach. It contains two famous stories: Noah’s Ark and the Tower of Babel. It might be tempting to think, “Oh, I know those!” and skip right over, but it would be a bad mistake.

The great thing about Torah stories is that even though the words do not change, every year when we come back around to them, we are in a different place in our lives. When I was little, I was fascinated by the thought of all those animals: it seemed wonderful! When I was a young mother, I thought about Mrs. Noah: poor woman, all those animals and children to care for! This year, I think about the Flood itself: after a summer of weird weather, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, and wildfires, it seems eerily close.

Then this past Monday, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a report that describes a world of food shortages and wildfires, and a mass die-off of coral reefs as soon as 2040 — a period well within the lifetime of much of the global population. They predict the end of our world as we know it, within the lifetimes of most of the people alive today.

So take a look at these famous stories: read the parashah for yourself! Here are some writers with different points of view on the stories in Parashat Noah:

We have to stop taking the world for granted – Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

It is Almost Too Late to Save Our Planet – Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin

Noah, the raven, and the dove – Rabbi Kari Hofmeister Tuling, PhD

The Open Invitation – Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Righteous In His Time – Rabbi Jordan Parr

End Violence and Stop Maelstrom Flooding – Rabbi Nina Mizrachi

The Scary Side of Noah’s Ark – Rabbi Ruth Adar

Basic Jewish Book List – 5779 Update!

Image: A wall of books surrounding a blue doorway. (pixabay/ninocare)

Every year I take a hard look at the list of books I recommend to the Intro to the Jewish Experience students. This year’s list omits some oldies and adds a few new books. No one needs to own ALL of these – I offer this list as a browsing list for your next step in growing your interest in specific Jewish topics.

*Books with an asterisk are those I strongly recommend to my Intro students. If I weren’t so concerned about their budgets, I’d require them.

General Introductory Texts on Judaism

*Settings of Silver by Stephen Wylen. (The only text I require for Intro to the Jewish Experience)

What is a Jew? by Morris N. Kertzner. Another good basic text.

Living a Jewish Life by Anita Diamant. 

Jewish Literacy by Joseph Telushkin.

Judaisms: A 21st Century Introduction to Jews and Jewish Identities by Aaron J. Hahn Tapper (A college text, a little more challenging but a truly wonderful book.)

Jewish Bibles

*Every Jewish home should have a Tanakh, a Jewish Bible. Most Reform and Conservative synagogues use a JPS Tanakh. (JPS is the Jewish Publication Society.) 

If you are curious as to how the Jewish Bible is different from the Christian Bible, read Beginners’ Guide to the Jewish Bible. For a discussion of the various translations of the Tanakh available, read Which Bible is Best, Rabbi?

If you would like to own a commentary on the Torah, a book with footnotes that explain things in the text, some of the most popular are:

The Torah: A Modern Commentary, ed. Gunther Plaut (in many Reform synagogues)

Etz Chaim: Torah and Commentary, ed. JPS (in many Conservative synagogues)

The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, ed. Tamara Eskenazi and Rabbi Andrea Weiss

A Torah Commentary for our Times, ed. Harvey J. Fields

About the Bible

What’s In It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Jewish Narratives by Stephen Fuchs  This little book is helpful for those who wonder what a collection of old stories and rules has to say to modern Jews today.

Who Wrote the Bible?, by Richard Elliot Friedman is a basic, readable explanation of the “documentary hypothesis,” the idea that the Torah is a blend of several different voices.

*Haggadah

Every Jewish home should have at least one copy of the haggadah, the script by which we lead the seder every year at Passover.  There are many to choose from, from some rather uninspiring free haggadot to very expensive art books. Some of the best fall in between those two extremes. The best way to find one is to go to a bookstore during the month before Passover and browse them until you find the one that speaks to you. Some households write their own haggadot; that’s a project that’s best done after you’ve been to a few seders.

Jewish Holidays

Seasons of our Joy by Arthur Waskow. 

Guide to the Jewish Seasons editor Peter Knobel. 

*The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel (Specifically has to do with Shabbat.)

Keeping Passover by Ira Steingroot 

The Days of Awe by S.Y. Agnon (High Holy Days)

This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation by Alan Lew (High Holy Days) 

Jewish Home

The Jewish Home: A Guide for Jewish Living (New Edition) by Daniel B. Syme

*On the Doorposts of Your House, CCAR Press (also in .pdf format)

How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household by Blu Greenberg (orthodox practices) 

 

Jewish Lifecycle

Gates of Mitzvah: A Guide to the Jewish Life Cycle by Simeon Maslin

The New Jewish Wedding by Anita Diamant

A Time to Mourn, A Time to Comfort: A Guide to Jewish Bereavement by Dr. Ron Wolfson and David J. Wolpe

Mourning and Mitzvah by Anne Brener (A guide for mourners)

Jewish Parenting

Jewish Spiritual Parenting: Wisdom, Activities, Rituals and Prayers for Raising Children with Spiritual Balance and Emotional Wholeness by Rabbi Paul Kipnes and Michelle November, MSSW

How to Raise a Jewish Child by Anita Diamant

The New Jewish Baby Book by Anita Diamant

Putting God on the Guest List: How to Reclaim the Spiritual Meaning of Your Child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah by Salkin, Lebeau, and Eisenberg

Conversion to Judaism

Choosing a Jewish Life by Anita Diamant (conversion)

Choosing Judaism by Lydia Kukoff (conversion)

Jewish Thought

*Judaism’s 10 Best Ideas: A Brief Book for Seekers by Rabbi Arthur Green

*Finding God: Selected Responses by Rifat Sonsino and Daniel Syme. Clear and simple approach to the question, What do Jews think about God?

The Book of Jewish Values by Joseph Telushkin

Jewish History

Your choice of history book will depend on how you feel about history. Choose the one that works for you. *Do read at least one of these!

The Story of the Jews by Stan Mack (graphic novel format but quite good, an excellent choice if you are ambivalent about fat volumes.)

Wanderings: Chaim Potok’s History of the Jews by Chaim Potok Potok is a story teller. 

My People: Abba Eban’s History of the Jews by Abba Eban Eban was Israel’s first representative to the United Nations, and he was a major player in the foundation of the State of Israel.

A History of the Jews by Paul Johnson An outsider history of the Jews, very well done. Strikes a balance between scholarship and storytelling.

A Short History of the Jewish People by Raymond Scheindlin A shorter history, good if you want “just the facts, ma’am” history.

Israel

Israel: A History by Martin Gilbert A detailed history of Israel from 1862-1997. Predominantly Zionist in its point of view.

Israel is Real by Rich Cohen Very readable. There are a few minor errors, but it is remarkably clear-eyed about the complexity of Israel and its emotional connection for American Jews.

A History of Israel: From the Rise of Zionism to Our Time by Howard M. Sachar A scholarly approach, staunchly Zionist.

The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements 1967-1977 by Gershom Gorenberg. Gorenberg is an Israeli journalist. If you are curious about the roots of the current situation and the occupation of the West Bank, this is a good choice.

The Israel-Arab Reader: A Documentary History of the Middle East Conflict, 7th Edition by Walter Laqueur A reader of primary documents. Better if you already know a little bit of the history of Modern Israel.

My Promised Land: The Triumph and the Tragedy of Israel by Ari Shavit. The writer is controversial, but the book is excellent and centrist in stance.

Storm-Tossed? 10 Spiritual Stabilizers

Image: Two ships, one of them sinking, on a stormy sea. (comfreak/pixabay)

I have spoken to many people who are suffering from extreme emotions right now. Some ideas, as we move through Shabbat:

  1. If you have a spiritual practice, stick with it. Go to services, or meditate, or take a walk in a peaceful place. Connect to the Holy One in whatever way works for you. Don’t say, “I’ll do it when I feel calmer.” Do it in order to feel calmer.
  2. If you have children or vulnerable people in your care, compartmentalize. As helpless as you may feel about the world, remember that the people who depend on you will find it doubly frightening if you radiate panic. Comforting others can be a tonic for a troubled heart: concentrate on making those around you feel calm and safe and you will feel calmer yourself.
  3. Do mitzvot. That is, do the good things that our tradition teaches us to do. Greet people cheerfully, honor parents, teach children, count your blessings and express gratitude for them. For more ideas about this see Living on the Mitzvah Plan.
  4. Get Enough Sleep. If falling asleep is a problem, try out a time-tested Jewish tradition, the bedtime Shema. To learn about it, check out What is the Bedtime Shema?
  5. Be Moderate with Food, Drink, and Chemicals. Chocolate, ice cream, liquor, or drugs may seem very tempting as a quick feel-better fix. Be careful about them, and if any of them have been trouble in the past, don’t invite trouble now – you already have plenty, right? Of course, if there are meds you take for health, then be sure to take them as directed and on schedule.
  6. Help someone else. Helping others can be a great way to get out of our own heads and get a little perspective on life. However, take care to fuel it with love or duty rather than anger. Focus on the person you are helping.
  7. Take time to recognize the humanity of every person you encounter. Do you know the name of the person who runs the cash register at that store you visit once a week? Take time to introduce yourself and ask their name. Then use their name. Focus on them as a person, not as an opinion. This spiritual discipline (and yes, it is a spiritual discipline) can transform your day.
  8. Bless. Take a moment to be grateful for anything that is good. You don’t need to know the Hebrew, just say, “Blessed are You, God, this weather is beautiful!” “Blessed are the hands that picked this produce and brought it to market.” “Blessed are You, God, who created friendly little dogs.” See how many things you can find to bless and for which you can express gratitude. For examples, see Blessings for Vegetables and Fruit.
  9. Pray. This may be a time to try prayer, if it is not something you’ve done before. Prayers take all sorts of forms: those blessings of thanksgiving are prayers, for instance. Another kind of prayer is petitionary prayer, and you don’t have to believe in God to do it: “Please let our country be just and safe for all.” Lift that wish up; express your hope or your fear or your anger. Let the heart of the universe, whatever you want to call it, hear what is in your heart.
  10. Breathe. In Genesis, when God creates human beings, God breathes life into them. The Hebrew word for soul is the same as the word for breath: neshamah. When I cannot be grateful for anything else, I can be grateful that the air is still moving in and out of my lungs. When I am upset, I can calm myself by breathing slowly and deeply. When I don’t know how I feel, I can often find out by noticing my breath: fast? slow? sighing? or holding? Breath is a tangible aspect of the soul.

May the Source of all Tranquility bless us with peace and wholeness, and bring peace to all the world. Amen.

What’s Shabbat Like At Your House?

Image: Potluck Shabbat dishes ready to travel to a friend’s home. (Photo: Ruth Adar)

From time to time I sit on a beit din, a court of three rabbis that meets with a candidate to decide if they are ready for the final steps of conversion to Judaism. At the risk of giving away too much, this is one of my usual questions: “What’s Shabbat like at your house?”

This isn’t a pass/fail question. Rather, I want to encourage the about-to-be Jew to be deliberate about their Shabbat practice. Shabbat is one of the keys to a happy and full Jewish life, and I want that for every Jew!

If your answer to the question is “Gee, I dunno” let me offer you some questions that may help you think through what you want from Shabbat:

  1. If “work” is activity that drains your soul, what parts of your life feel most like work? Is there any way that you can structure your life so that you can put down that activity or thing for at least part of Shabbat?
  2. If “rest” is activity that feeds your soul, what parts of your life are truly restful? How can you bring more of that into your life during Shabbat?
  3. Do you want a richer Jewish life? Shabbat offers lots of opportunities for growing Jewishly and spiritually, from synagogue services to freeing up time to read.
  4. Does connection with other people feed your soul? Shabbat can nudge us to make time for our families and friends. It can also help us to make friends, at synagogue services and other Jewish activities. It can be a day to invite someone over or to visit (or phone) someone sick.

I am not suggesting that you do everything at once. Let’s say, you decide to get to know more people at synagogue by going to Torah study. That’s a definite addition to your Saturday morning. You will learn a little Torah, and by listening to others, you’ll get a sense of who they are. They’ll get used to you, too, without either of you having to do a song-and-dance. Give that new activity a solid chance – say, four weeks in a row – and then sit down to think about how you feel when you are doing the Shabbat routine. Better? Worse? Making new friends? Mad at the world? Then, if it isn’t working for you, try something else.

If it is working, consider adding a new wrinkle. Say, you’ve lit Shabbat candles for the past month, and you enjoyed it. Consider inviting someone over for Shabbat dinner, and give that the 4-week trial. It doesn’t have to be fancy. See how it goes.

Shabbat is the treasure of the Jewish people. It is a day for enjoyment, for learning, for sharing, for reflection, for prayer, for getting enough sleep, and for love. Shabbat is a little different in every Jewish home.

What’s Shabbat like at your house? What would you like it to be?

Guest Post: A New Diagnosis in the Mix?

Image: Imani Barbarin. (Photo by Imani Barbarin)

Today’s guest post is by Imani Barbarin, an African American disability rights activist with cerebral palsy. She is a blogger, a scholar and a vocal presence on Twitter. Ms. Barbarin holds a degree in Creative Writing from Eastern Univerity and a minor in French from the Sorbonne.

If there is one thing that is a constant for us all, it is that nothing is constant. Especially not health. In an instant a life could irrevocably change and the people around that person will be lost as how to interact with the person before them. The prevailing wisdom when encountering a new diagnosis in a friend or loved one is to treat that person as though nothing has really changed. That’s simply inaccurate. They have changed. You can feel it in the hollow laughs and heavy silences. It’s alright to admit. So, how do you move forward together and keep your loved one in your life?

To start, you must come to the heart of the essence of your relationship and recognize that while the expression of your affection may change, the heart of it doesn’t always have to. Try to create a space to allow them to open up to you. Be mindful that they won’t always want to talk about it, but if you’re consistent in your ability to make them feel comfortable and cared for around you, that conversation will come. Don’t be forceful, just be there.

Be prepared for the frustration. Dealing with a new diagnosis means immediate changes in lifestyle that can be difficult for anyone to adjust to. Harder still is to determine how those changes might affect the things we love to do and the people around us. It’s easy to become agitated when we’re confronted with what we formerly loved and enjoyed is no longer able to fit into our lives. Wherever possible, try to examine the limits of what they’re still able to do. If their new diagnosis means sensitivity to flashes of light, forego trips to the movie in favor of trips to museums or parks. Should they now have dietary restrictions, allow them to choose the restaurant (or venue) so they can plan their food choices ahead of time. If they have ambulatory issues, consider low-impact crafts and artwork.

Make sure to plan ahead and keep those invites coming. One of the prevailing narratives is that we’re a burden to our friends and family and at no time do we feel that more than when we notice that the people who love us have stopped inviting us out. We know that accessibility is difficult to find in many public spaces, but do your best to plan ahead when asking us to hang out—make a concerted effort to see to it that we can participate if we wish to. Also, know that even if we can’t make it or cancel often, doesn’t mean that we don’t appreciate being invited. Make sure to check in with us if you see this as an emerging trend, it could be a repeated accessibility issue.

Disability and chronic illness is not like it is in the movies. We’re just people. While media will lead you to believe that there are lessons to be had by being in the presence of someone dealing with a diagnosis, and that we’re all automatically inspirational, it sends the message that we need to be exceptional to be loved or taken seriously. Take us seriously regardless and stand up for our autonomy when others fail to do so. Our health will likely be a lifelong part of who we are with the expected ups and downs. Let life flow. The desire to make our story into something that fits an inspirational narrative is daunting for us and can lead to feelings of failure or further loss—which makes little sense given a diagnosis isn’t a competition.

When it comes to chronic conditions, you can manage symptoms, work hard to reach a place of inner peace, use the anger to change perceptions, but once you start trying to outrun or overcome a disability or illness, you begin to rip yourself apart from the inside out in that pursuit.

Remember that your relationship is unique to the two of you with markers and commonalities that only make sense in that context. It is important to communicate without violating the boundaries your friend has set into place regarding their health. Things may have changed, the expressions of love and friendship may have to be altered, but dig into your relationship down roots and fortify what is there. Accessibility is all about adaptation. Make your friendship accessible.