A Radical Jewish Notion: Shabbat

Image: Two people sit on a bench and look at a landscape. Photo by 4clients via pixabay.com.

Shabbat is a radical, transformative idea.

In the ancient world, there were no weekends; most people worked 7 days a week. Even those who lived more leisurely lives, like Pharaoh or the Mesopotamian rulers, had rigid roles to carry out and from which there was no break.

Then along came the Jews, with our peculiar Creation story. Unlike any other Creation narrative, ours begins as follows:

When God began to create heaven and earth— the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water— God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, a first day. – Genesis 1:1-5

…and so on. The process of Creation is not a making from nothing, but an organization of a pre-existing chaos. From that chaos, the Creator separates light from darkness, and organizes time as well: “evening and morning, a first day.” This goes on for six “days,” with the organization becoming more and more complex and sophisticated. Then something remarkable happens:

The heaven and the earth were finished, and all their array. On the seventh day God finished the work that He had been doing, and He ceased on the seventh day from all the work that He had done. And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because on it God ceased from all the work of creation that He had done. – Genesis 2:1-3

The Creator steps back from Creation, and rests. Work stops.

Some people get all wound up over this story, fighting about whether the world was “created in six days” and how that squares with evolution. Those people are missing the point: the point is that in six steps, the Creator takes the world from utter chaos to exquisite organization and then STOPS to rest. And by “declaring it holy” the narrative suggests to us that this is an example to us. The rest of the Torah will flesh that out.

Later we would get the same thing in the form of a commandment, just in case we didn’t get it the first time, from the narrative.

Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the Eternal your God: you shall not do any work—you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements. For in six days the Eternal made heaven and earth and sea, and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day; therefore the Eternal blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it. – Exodus 20:8-11

So here we are, 21st century Jews: we have to figure out what to do with this idea of Shabbat. Oddly enough, we are now back in an age when more and more people are forced to work 7 days a week, with demands coming hourly through email and smartphones.

It is a radical act to say, “No, I am going to make time and space in my life that I will use to BE instead of DO. I will use that time to make a genuine connection with people I love. I will use that time to become more truly myself. And yes, I will rest.”

It isn’t easy or profitable. It means hustling a little more to take the time off. And perhaps we will need to begin by carving out a little time, then gradually expanding it as we are able. That’s OK. The more Shabbat, the richer life can be; we have a lifetime to get there.

Ahad Ha’am, a great Hebrew essayist and cultural Zionist wrote:

More than Israel has kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept Israel.

Shabbat is a taste of the world as it could be, a world in which there is no slavery, and in which every person is valued for who they are, not for what they can do. It is said that if enough Jews kept Shabbat, the world would be transformed.

I believe it.

What in the World is Shemini Atzeret?

Image: Stanford University Hillel students enjoying a meal in their sukkah, October 2009. (Stanford University Hillel, via JTA.org)

Shemini Atzeret means “Eighth Day of Assembly.”

It is mentioned in the Torah in Leviticus 23:39, “and on the eighth day [of Sukkot] there shall be a solemn rest.” This is a little complicated, because Sukkot has seven days. So what is the eighth day?

Think of Sukkot as a great party (because it is a great party, after all.) Ancient Jews called it “HaChag,” THE Holiday, because it was the most joyful holiday of the entire year. Now, think about the last great party you attended. Did you leave early, or find yourself staying long after the official ending?

Shemini Atzeret is one more day of rejoicing before the rains start and fall comes and things get cold and dark. In the Diaspora, for reasons I’ve discussed before, it goes on for two days, the second of which is Simchat Torah.

For a great take on the holiday read Rabbi David Evan Markus’ article on the JTA website, On Shemini Atzeret, Just Hang Out.

This year (5777, or 2016, if you insist) Shemini Atzeret starts on the evening of Sunday, Oct 23, continuing until sundown on Oct 24.

I hope you’ve had a great Sukkot! Enjoy one more day of fun!

Shabbat Shalom! & Sukkot Sameach!

Image: My sukkah. Photo by Rabbi Ruth Adar.

This is a special Shabbat – Shabbat Chol HaMoed, a Shabbat that falls in the middle days of Sukkot. (For more about Chol haMoed, read What is Chol HaMoed?)

It contains a famous do-over: Moses has broken the tablets in rage at the sight of the Israelites dancing before the Golden Calf. Now God directs Moses in making a new set of tablets.

Often when we have had a big fight with someone, we think, “Well, that’s it. That relationship is over.” We give up on that person, and on our ability to make things right. Torah teaches us differently in this Torah portion. God and Moses reconcile, and through Moses, God and Israel reconcile:

The Eternal came down in a cloud; He stood with him there, and proclaimed the name yud-hey-vav-hey.* The Eternal passed before him and proclaimed: “The Eternal! the Eternal! a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet God does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations.”

Moses hastened to bow low to the ground in homage, and said, “If I have gained Your favor, O Lord, pray, let the Lord go in our midst, even though this is a stiffnecked people. Pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for Your own!”

He [God] said: I hereby make a covenant. Before all your people I will work such wonders as have not been wrought on all the earth or in any nation; and all the people who are with you shall see how awesome are the LORD’s deeds which I will perform for you.

This is both an example of how to apologize, and how to accept an apology. Moses and God meet on Mt. Sinai, and they have a conversation. Moses asks for pardon; God grants it, and re-affirms the covenant.

This is also what we can do during Sukkot: it’s a perfect time to get together with the people we apologized to during the High Holy Days and to make a real and lasting peace. If God and Moses can do it, why can’t we?

Locating sermons for this week has proved to be a real puzzle, so I’m going to suggest that we all attend synagogue. If that’s not an option for you, call up someone with whom you need to make peace and say, “Let’s get together!”

Hillel and Shammai received [the Torah] from them. Hillel says, “Be of the disciples of Aharon, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving living creatures and bringing them closer to Torah.” – Pirkei Avot 1:12

*The name spelled yud-hey-vav-hey is never pronounced by Jews. I usually translate it as “Eternal” or “the Eternal” because (1) you know to Whom I refer and (2) it reflects the likelihood that this name is based on the Hebrew verb “to be.” For more about The Name in Jewish tradition, see What Is God’s Name?




Basic Judaism Class Online!

Image: Lehrhaus Judaica logo “Jewish Learning Since 1974”

Have you wished that you could take a class to learn basic facts about Judaism, but haven’t been able to find or schedule one locally? I teach such a class through Lehrhaus Judaica in Berkeley, CA.

The class begins this Sunday, October 23, at 3:30pm Pacific Time. If you cannot attend in “real time,” recordings of each class will be available for registered members of the class.

Hardware requirements: You need a computer and high speed Internet access. Some have been able to use tablets, but I can’t vouch for your success with them – a laptop or desktop computer is a safer bet. We use Adobe Connect, a platform that can be accessed via a Mac or Windows computer.

This is not a “conversion class,” although some of the people who take it may be studying towards conversion. People take the class for many reasons: they are in an interfaith relationship and want to learn more about Judaism, they are born Jewish but want an adult Jewish education, or perhaps they have begun working for a Jewish institution and want to understand Jewish life. If you are curious about Judaism, that’s all you need.

IMPORTANT NOTE: If you are studying with a rabbi for conversion, ASK YOUR RABBI before signing up for any online “Intro” class. They may prefer or require a particular class.

The class has three 8-week parts, which may be taken in any order:

  • Fall: Jewish Lifecycle & Holidays
  • Winter: Israel & Texts
  • Spring: Traditions of Judaism

To sign up for the class or to read more about it, visit the class page in the Lehrhaus Catalog online. There you will find more info about the class, including the schedule and tuition.

A Mensch in Election Season

Image: “2016 Election,” flag background. Art by MIH83 on pixabay.com.

In a place where there are no menschen, strive to be a mensch. – Pirkei Avot 2:5

A mensch is a decent human being, someone with integrity and a heart. The Hebrew in this ancient saying translates as “man,” but I find that mensch is a better translation. The general idea is, when everyone else is misbehaving, be a decent person.

I’ve written little about the current U.S. election on this blog. My topic here is “Basic Judaism” and I mostly try to stick to it. I certainly have opinions about the election, which I look forward to expressing on the mail-in ballot resting on my table as I type this. However, there are things that I feel I must say:

Hateful language is wrong, no matter how correct we believe our opinion to be. Hateful language takes many forms. Any time we choose to see another human being as less human than ourselves, we stray into the territory of hate. If we vocalize that belief, it’s hate speech.

It’s fine to disagree; Jewish tradition has long supported the idea that it is in disagreement that we often can find our way toward the truth. The sages spoke of “an argument for the sake of heaven” – one like that of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, who argued in the academy but who respected one another in the street and in their homes. Remember, the ultimate goal is not to “crush” the other but to find a way towards a future that will serve all of us.

“They started it” is not a good excuse on a playground. It doesn’t wash for adults. “They are just as bad” isn’t an argument, it’s a cop out.

How can we be menschen?  Here are some ideas:

  1. We can listen more than we speak.
  2. When the discussion falls below our standards, we can raise it up by asking questions that focus on values: “Why is this so important to you?”
  3. We can seek common ground: what do we share?
  4. We can vote for candidates who have behaved like menschen, in our opinion.
  5. We can refrain from spiteful language and behavior.
  6. We can be very careful about the stories we pass along via speech and social media: what’s the source? Does this really need to be passed along?
  7. We can be supportive of others who are trying to be constructive, even if we don’t agree with them about everything.
  8. If we hear someone else indulging in hate speech, we can challenge it effectively.

This has been a strange, horrible election cycle. As individuals, it is tempting to despair.

At times like these I look to the wisdom of the rabbis, and this quote from Shammai comes to mind:

Shammai says, “Make your Torah fixed, say little and do much, and receive every person with a pleasant face.” – Pirkei Avot 1:15

  • Make your Torah fixed – Don’t lose your grip on Torah!
  • say little and do much – Listen more, speak less. Do good deeds. VOTE!
  • Receive every person with a pleasant face – Give everyone a chance to be a mensch, too.

May we survive this season, and move into better times as soon as possible!

What is Sacred Space?

Image: The ark with the Torah Scrolls at Congregation Emanu El in Houston, TX.

One of my favorite blogs is The Cricket Pages by Rachel Mankowitz. If you are a dog lover, it’s a must. She writes beautifully about many different topics, running all of it through the prism of her little dogs’ lives; there’s nothing else on the web quite like it. She posts about once a week, and I look forward to it as much as my Gabi and Jojo look forward to dog treats.

This week Rachel wrote about Sacred Space, and I loved her take on it. First she wrote about a class she’s attending at her synagogue, and then looked at the different ways her dogs make sacred space for themselves. Truly, read it, it’s a treat!

Sacred space has long been a topic that piqued my curiosity. As a child, I noticed that different churches affected me differently: in one, I always felt like I was surely doomed, but in another I thought I could feel the love of God. Some other worship spaces didn’t feel holy at all. The most holy place I knew growing up was inside a mountain laurel grove on a hill on the farm. I loved to sit in there on a mossy log and look at the sky and listen for God.

My early graduate studies were all about sacred space; my first master’s thesis was an analysis of a baptistery in Ravenna, Italy.  I was curious about the fact that people seemed to find certain places holy and other places not. I never really puzzled it all out, but I learned a lot of interesting things in the process.

As an adult, I find that I am harder to awe with architecture. There are certainly many beautiful synagogues and other places of worship, but real awe, Yirat Hashem, the Awe of God, is both easier and harder to find. I have found it at the bedside in an intensive care unit. I’ve felt it looking at the night sky.  Buildings rarely do it for me, but viewing the Isaiah Scroll of the Dead Sea Scrolls left me in tears. Reading from a Torah Scroll, hearing the shofar blast, praying the words of the service, I am transported out of myself.

Places become holy for me from the things that happen there: the Abramov Library at HUC Jerusalem will always be sacred space, because I studied there with Rabbi André Zaoui z”l, (about whom I really should write sometime.) Another sacred space: the chapel at the Los Angeles Jewish Home where a little minyan of Holocaust survivors lovingly taught me how to lead services the way they liked from an Orthodox prayer book. My teacher and friend Rabbi Dr. Rachel Adler’s kitchen table is sacred space to me: she taught me Torah there and comforted me when I was distraught.

I strive to make my home a sacred space; that’s an ongoing project.

Are there places that are truly sacred space to you? I hope that some of you will share in the comments where those places are, and if you have an idea why, that you’ll share that, too.


My Sukkah is Soggy :-(

Image: A rain-soaked pergola. Photo by Rabbi Ruth Adar.

My sukkah (soo-KAH or SOOK-uh) is soggy. Actually, the sukkah-stuff is still in the garage; what you see in the photo above is the very wet pergola that becomes my sukkah every year with a bit of presto-change-o.  A big storm is blowing through the Bay Area, with heavy rain and strong winds, and bits of it are going to blow through for a couple of days more.

On the one hand, frustrating: NOW is the time to set the sukkah up, and frankly, unless I want the walls and the rugs and so on to blow down the hill and over into the neighbors’ yards, it’s better to wait. On the other hand, my back is still out from Yom Kippur (too much sitting in synagogue) so maybe this is a gift in disguise. Anyway, I am a Californian, and it’s against the law here to complain about water that falls from the sky for free!