What is the Point of the Seder?

Image: A family seder in Israel, 2013. (Photo by Ofir.1970)

A seder is like an apple. For Jews, it is not exotic. It is officially required, implying that it’s “good for you.” Like a Red Delicious apple, many seders are routine and flavorless, generic. At its saddest, someone reads Hebrew aloud, everyone sits around and endures the flow of words until “Shulchan Orech” is announced: “Time to eat!”

In some families they just give up and skip the haggadah entirely.

In other seders, there are family activities that are both beloved (“we’ve been doing this for years!”) and frankly, ossified: the same stories and activities done so many years in a row that the juice is gone.

The seder is the primary educational event in a Jewish lifetime, repeated at annual intervals because as we go through our lives we change and grow. The world changes around us.

At a really great seder, we remember the Exodus, or some aspects of the story, and we look for insight on our current situation, whatever that might be.

As my colleague Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin writes in his Martini Judaism column this week, it’s all about questions. Mind you, it is not about the answers: if the questions are good enough, the answers will not be simple or obvious. Sometimes there will be no answers, but by covering the terrain together, we can understand our moment in history (personal or public) a little better.

Rabbi Salkin offers a great set of questions: click the link above and check them out. I’ll offer some others:

  • In what part of your life do you feel enslaved? What does Exodus from that look like?
  • Everyone name a present-day plague. See if you can get to consensus on one plague you all hate the most.
  • The Haggadah doesn’t mention Moses. The Book of Exodus is practically ALL Moses. How important is leadership and what does leadership look like?
  • Is there someone who was a regular at our seder who has died since last Pesach? What are your best memories of them?
  • For each person: Tell a story about the time you personally escaped from an Egypt. Extra points if it is a story you haven’t told this group before. Let people ask questions about the stories.
  • Regarding the afikomen: Many of us, if not most of us, have “broken pieces” in our lives that we usually keep hidden. Anyone want to bring their “afikomen” to light and tell the story?
  • Who do you identify with in the Exodus story? Is there anyone you feel sorry for? Angry at?

If you ask many questions, your seder will be better.

If you use the haggadah as a set of suggestions for an improvised bit of performance art, your seder will be better.

If you share stories around the table your seder will be better.

If you make sure that everyone gets a chance to talk, and everyone listens to them talk, your seder will be better.

And remember, when someone spills a glass of wine, it’s an opportunity to re-enact the crossing of the Red Sea. Or the plague of blood, your choice.

Then your seder will be a Honeycrisp apple, a Macintosh, a Gala, a Braeburn – let us know how it went in the comments!


In Mourning

I mourn Notre Dame.
I mourn the black churches of Louisiana.
I mourn the Great Mosque of Al-Nuri.
I mourn Aleppo.
I mourn the ruins of Mesopotamia
The wrecked rain forests of the Amazon.
I mourn the oil slicked beaches and their wildlife
I mourn the dead of New York and Washington.

I mourn the Temples, 1st and 2nd.
I mourn the mangled lives of enslaved persons in every age.
I mourn the lives we failed to value.
I mourn children who cannot find mama.
I mourn all of them.
Most of all I mourn that even mourning cannot seem to unite us
even for a minute.

Stop the Whitewash!

Image: A white stucco wall with the words Stop the Whitewash! spray painted across it. (Image by R. Ruth Adar)

The man I refuse to name is accused of setting three black churches on fire in Louisiana. There is strong evidence to suggest that he was the arsonist. He is young, he is white, and his father is a local law enforcement official.

Promptly after his name became public, Louisiana Fire Marshal Butch Browning confirmed that M had a “relationship” with the black metal community, which had an “association” with church burnings. CNN reported that “authorities said that M’s interest in black metal music may have influenced his behavior.”

Let’s get something straight: the bombing or burning of churches and other civilian targets are acts of terror. 9/11 was terrorism. The Sbarro restaurant suicide bombing of 2001 was terrorism. The Paris Terror attacks of 2015 were terrorism. The bombing of the King David Hotel in 1946 was terrorism. The 1963 bombing of a black church in Birmingham, AL was terrorism. The 1974 pub bombings in Birmingham, UK were terrorism. The ramming of a crowd with a car in Charlottesville in 2017 was terrorism.

In the United States, when a dark skinned person with a foreign-sounding name sets buildings on fire or sets off bombs, it’s “terrorism.” Strangely, when a white male does the same thing in 2019, targeting African American churches or church groups, he is characterized as being under the influence of something: mental illness, the internet or now, music. (Back in 1963, we made no such excuses. What’s happened to us?)

I propose a name for this squeamishness, this excuse-making that seems to apply only for white males in the United States. I call it “whitewashing.” Instead of calling murder, murder, or terror, terror, we make excuses: he spent too much time on the internet, he is misunderstood, he is frustrated, he is listening to the wrong music. Enough!

The burning of black churches in Louisiana in 2019 is an act of terrorism. The evidence points to a white man – he is a white supremacist terrorist.

It’s not some mystical musical thing.

It’s not mental illness.

It’s plain old hate.

Quit whitewashing it.

Hebrew Name Choices

Image: The Hebrew Alef-Bet, in a blue frame.

Many Jews have what we call our Hebrew name, a name by which we are called at major lifecycle events and when we are called to chant blessings for the Torah. They fall into several formats, depending on gender and preference:

Alexander Cohen might have as his Hebrew name:

  • Adam ben Ya’akov v’Sarah
  • Adam son of Jacob and Sarah
  • Normally, Adam would have received that name at his bris, eight days after his birth.
  • In some communities, he might be called Adam ben Ya’akov.

Susie Cohen might have as her Hebrew name:

  • Shoshana bat Ya’akov v’ Sarah
  • Shoshana daughter of Jacob and Sarah
  • Susie would have recieved her name sometime shortly after her birth, at a naming ceremony or brit bat.
  • In some communities, she might be called Shoshana bat Ya’akov.

Lee Cohen, a transgender or nonbinary individual, might have as their Hebrew name:

  • Leor m’beit Ya’akov v’Sarah
  • Leor from the house of Jacob and Sarah
  • Leor may have had that name from birth OR have received it in a naming ceremony as an adult.
  • For more info about nongendered Hebrew names, see this article in Kveller.

Chris Ryan, a convert to Judaism, chose a Hebrew name before his conversion. Since his birth parents were not Jewish, his Jewish credentials are from Abraham and Sarah. (More about this in What’s in a Hebrew Name?) So he might have chosen for his Hebrew name:

  • Caleb ben Avraham v’Sarah
  • Caleb son of Abraham and Sarah
  • He would have had a naming ceremony immediately following his immersion in a mikveh. If he prefers, he might be known as Firstname m’beit Avraham v’Sarah.

Now, as sometimes happens, imagine there is an Jew named Debra Levi. Her family was not religious and she never received a Hebrew name! It’s not too late for her to have one, though. She might choose the name closest to her secular name (Devorah for Debra). She might choose a name to honor a deceased relative (her grandmother, Channah.) She might choose the name of a Jewish woman who inspires her (Ruth, for the biblical figure and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg.) Maybe it is hard to choose, so she picks two! Then she visits her rabbi and asks to arrange a naming ceremony.

  • Channah Rut bat David v’Sarah
  • Channah Ruth daughter of David and Sarah

Once the Jew has their Hebrew name, it will be used to call them to the Torah, to address them at their wedding, and to pray for them at their funeral. When they are sick, some will pray for them by their Hebrew name with the matronymic (mother’s name.) Finally, it will appear on their matzevah, their grave marker.

What’s your Hebrew name? How did you get it? If you chose it, why did you choose that name?

Why is the Mezuzah Slanted?

Image: Mezuzah on the Zion Gate in Jerusalem (by Paul Arps, some rights reserved)

Recently I posted Why a Mezuzah? that looked at the various reasons Jews affix a mezuzah to our doorways. That gave rise to a good questions from a student in my online Intro class: Why is the mezuzah usually slanted?

It all goes back to a family debate and technical discussion. Rashi and his grandson Rabbeinu Tam disagreed about the proper way to hang a mezuzah. Rashi believed that the mezuzah should be upright, just as the Torah scroll is upright when it is properly stored in the Ark at the synagogue. Rabbenu Tam said, no! – the mezuzah should be horizontal, just as it is when it is laid on the table to read it.

We get this story from Rabbi Jacob ben Asher, the great Jewish legal writer. He writes in the Tur, his code of Jewish Law, that “careful people” will do their best to fulfill BOTH directions by placing the mezuzah on a slant. However, while that is the custom in the Ashkenazi world, Sephardim prefer to follow the ruling of Rashi and hang their mezuzot vertically.

Some Rabbis Have Nicknames

Image: The AriZaL Synagogue in Sefat, Israel (via Wikimedia, some rights reserved)

Some rabbis are particularly beloved or respected in Jewish history. Those rabbis often get a nickname by which they are known in the yeshiva (Torah school.)

You may have heard of Rashi, Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac, (1040-1105) who wrote commentaries on both the Bible and the Talmud. His nickname is an acronym of name, with a few vowels added:

Rabbi Shlomo ben Isaac <is known as> RaSHI

Maimonides has lots of names. Maimonides is his Greek name. However he also has a Jewish name and a corresponding nickname:

Rabbi Moses ben Maimon <is known as> RaMBaM

You may have heard of the legends about Rabbi Judah Loew ben Betzalel of Prague, who supposedly fashioned the Golem to protect the Jews of Prague. He, too, has a nickname, but there more in it than his name:

Moreinu Hagadol (Our great teacher) R. Loew <is known as> MaHaRaL

Rabbi’s nicknames are not always acronyms; sometimes rabbis are known by the titles of their most famous book, or by an honorific. For instance, you may have heard of the Ba’al Shem Tov (Master of the Good Name.) His name was Israel ben Eliezer and he lived from 1698-1760. He was an early and profound teacher of Hasidism. He is also known as the Besht:

Ba’al Shem Tov < may be abbreviated > BeSHT

Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572) was known as HaAri, meaning “The Lion.” He was a great teacher of Kabbalah, who is also known as:

HaAri Zichrono Livraha (of blessed memory) <became> HaArizaL

Some examples of rabbis known by the names of their books:

Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter (1847-1905) is known as the Sfat Emet, (“The Language of Truth”) the title of his commentaries on the Talmud.

Rabbi Jacob ben Asher is known as the Ba’al HaTurim after his towering code (law book) of halakhah (Jewish law.) Ba’al HaTurim means “Master of the Rows,” a reference to the fact that he arranged the topics of the law into four areas, corresponding to the four rows of stones on the breastplate of the High Priest.

So in your reading, if ever you think, “Gee, these people have a lot of names!” you are quite right! Sometimes, Google is quite useful.

Why a Mezuzah?

I saw a discussion on Twitter today about mezuzot. The participants were arguing about the purpose of the mezuzah: what’s it for?

They were arguing because they thought there could be only one right answer. In my opinion, there are many possible right answers but we each should know why we have chosen to perform this mitzvah!

Some possible right answers:

  • Because it is commanded in Deuteronomy 4:9
  • Because it marks a building as Jewish space
  • Because it marks my home as sacred space
  • Because it reminds us of the commandments
  • Because it reminds us of the Shema
  • Because my ancestors had one at their door
  • Because it is a Jewish tradition

Why do you fasten a mezuzah to your doorpost? Is it one of the reasons above, or something else?