Ask The Rabbi: Working at the Bar Mitzvah

I recently had a lovely email exchange with a young person who had been hired for his first job working as an artist for a bat mitzvah. He had a lot of questions, and I thought that the answers might be useful to others. Thank you, Benjamin, for asking good questions, and making me think of other things that might help!

What is a bar or bat mitzvah? A bar mitzvah (bat for girls) happens when a young person turns 13. It actually happens whether there is a celebration or not; a Jew over age 13 is bar or bat mitzvah regardless. The usual celebration in North America has two parts. First, a synagogue service at which the young person leads the service, or reads Torah, or both. This is serious business and requires years of study and preparation. Secondly, there may be a party, which can range from a very low-key affair at home or the synagogue to something quite fancy at a hotel or other venue.

How big a deal is it really? For the young person, the synagogue service requires a year or more of preparation. For a Jewish family, this is a life event on a par with a wedding. Relatives travel from far away to attend, and most families save for a long time to pay for the party.

What is proper dress for a bar or bat mitzvah? Dress professionally. Unless you have heard otherwise from the parents, a suit and tie for men, a professional dress outfit for women.

What terminology should I know? Bar mitzvah is for a boy. Bat mitzvah is for a girl. B’nei mitzvah is plural, unless there are only girls involved, in which case it is b’not mitvah.

Is there a customary greeting that I should know? As a non-Jew, you are not expected to know any Hebrew. “Hello” and “Congratulations” are fine. However, these are nice phrases to know:

  • Mazal tov!– (MAH-zel tov) – “Congratulations!” suitable either for the young person or for family members.
  • Shabbat Shalom! (Shah-BAHT shah-LOHM) – “Happy Sabbath!” – suitable from sundown Friday till sundown Saturday.

Who is actually in charge? In the synagogue, if the rabbi or cantor (clergy) tell you to do or not do something, you are wise to comply. During the service, ushers may remove someone who doesn’t follow the rules set by the congregation. (If they tell you no photos, or no flash, during the service, believe them.)  At the party afterwards, the hosts are in charge.

Good luck! And if you are reading this and have other questions, I hope you will ask them in the comments, so I can continue to improve this resource!

What Vestments Do Rabbis Wear?

I’ve been looking at the Google search strings again, the words that people use to get to this blog. Yesterday one set caught my eye: “Jewish Rabbi Vestments.”

I’m going to take that to mean, “What special clothing does a rabbi wear?”

The most accurate answer to that is that a rabbi does not wear any special clothing. Rabbis are ordinary people with specialized knowledge. Unlike a priest, we do not have special powers. A rabbi is a person who has studied Torah, Jewish law and tradition. Someone, either an institution or another rabbi, has declared that they can call themselves “rabbi.”  Rabbinical study involves multiple languages (Hebrew and Aramaic, at least) and it generally takes five or more years.

Rabbis wear what other people in their community wear. A rabbi from a Hasidic group will dress like other adult men in his group. I dress like a 60 year old woman from the Bay Area of California. If I lived in New York City, I’d dress up a bit more (because, New York!) but otherwise I would look very much like one of my congregants or students.

I imagine this person was thinking about worship. To lead a service at any time of day, most rabbis will wear a tallit, a prayer shawl, and they will wear a head covering, called either a kippa or a yarmulke. But any service leader will wear the same things; those are not reserved for rabbis. And in theory, any adult Jew should be able to lead a service. (In Orthodoxy, men only can lead the service, unless only women are present.)

U.S. Air Force Rabbi, Chaplain, Captain Sarah D. Schechter leads the evening le'il shabbat service on Friday, Sept. 4, 2009 at Lackland Air Force Base's Airman Memorial Chapel. The more than 25 basic military trainees and other attendees participated in a religious education class, then Ma'ariv prayer service for the setting of the sun, followed by a meal provided by volunteers supporting the service. Because of training schedules some ceremonies and events are earlier than traditionally held. By order of commanders, those who want to attend any or all religious services of their choosing are given full permission and opportunity to do so.  Chaplain, Captain Schechter is an Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran and considers her deployment there to be one of the highlights of her career. Schechter was the first active duty female Rabbi in the Department of Defense. (U.S. Air Force photo/Lance Cheung)
U.S. Air Force Rabbi, Chaplain, Captain Sarah D. Schechter leads the evening le’il shabbat service on Friday, Sept. 4, 2009 at Lackland Air Force Base’s Airman Memorial Chapel. The more than 25 basic military trainees and other attendees participated in a religious education class, then Ma’ariv prayer service for the setting of the sun, followed by a meal provided by volunteers supporting the service. Because of training schedules some ceremonies and events are earlier than traditionally held. By order of commanders, those who want to attend any or all religious services of their choosing are given full permission and opportunity to do so. Chaplain, Captain Schechter is an Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran and considers her deployment there to be one of the highlights of her career. Schechter was the first active duty female Rabbi in the Department of Defense. (U.S. Air Force photo/Lance Cheung) Note Rabbi Captain Schechter is wearing her tallit over her U.S. Air Force uniform.

In a morning service, adults may wear a tallit (in a Reform service, some will wear one, in a Conservative service, most adult men and women will wear them, and in an Orthodox service, you will see the tallit on adult males only.) Alternatively, some men wear the fringes you see on the prayer shawl on a sort of undershirt, so you don’t see the tallit but the essential part, the fringes, are there. In addition, in the morning service, in Conservative and Orthodox synagogues you will see people wearing tefillin, also known as phylacteries. Those are the black boxes attached to head and arm with leather straps.

Here is a photo, showing a boy and two men dressed for morning prayers. Notice that they are not all dressed alike. We cannot assume from the dress that any of them are rabbis.

Photo by  Peter van der Sluijs, This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license.
Photo by Peter van der Sluijs, This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license.

In an afternoon or evening service, you will not see the tallit except on the leader (it shows who is leading) and you will not see tefillin at all. Head coverings will still be in place. For an example, look at the first photo on this page, of U.S. Air Force Rabbi Chaplain Captain Sarah Schechter leading an evening service. Notice that except for the tallit, she is wearing her uniform.

Now, there are some Reform congregations that have a custom for the rabbi to wear a pulpit robe (like a judge’s robe) with or without a tallit. They are increasingly rare, though. Also, I anticipate (and welcome) comments about the customs at local synagogues, or in various communities: there is a great variety of Jewish practice, and my statements here about what Jews wear for worship are meant only to be general.

Rabbis and cantors are primarily teachers: the rabbi teaches Torah, and the cantor or chazzan,  is a specialist in the language of the service and in liturgical music. Both also officiate at lifccycle services, like baby namings, funerals, and weddings, and if they went to accredited schools, they have training in things like premarital counseling, grief support, and in navigating the gray areas and complexities of Jewish custom.

But we really don’t have special outfits. My “vestments” for prayer are exactly the same as you would see on any other observant Jew in my community. Gender can make a difference, depending on the tradition of Judaism in question.

We all stand before the Holy One as members of our community. We each bring different gifts and different skills, but our clothing is basically the same.

Being Jewish, Doing Jewish

A great question came up in class last night, and I’ve been thinking on it ever since. A student asked:

You say that Judaism is about actions, not about belief. But how does that connect to whether a person is Jewish or not?

Being Jewish is a state of relationship between an individual and the Jewish People. A person cannot become Jewish by him- or herself: a person is Jewish because of a particular relationship, either a birth into a Jewish family or an adoption-like process later in life. A person either is or isn’t Jewish; there are no intermediate states. (Note: “Who’s a Jew?” is a major source of disagreement in the Jewish world. If you have questions about your status, talk with your rabbi.)

Being Jewish is a mixed bag. On the one hand, it is an identity which makes me part of something larger than myself and gives me full membership in the Jewish People. On the other hand, it makes me a potential target for antisemitism which can materialize anywhere, anytime. And yes, as a Jew I am responsible for many sacred duties. Even if I do not observe them at a particular time in my life, I know they are there.

Jewish actions include those sacred duties (mitzvot) but they also carry the real rewards of Judaism. “Doing Jewish” includes:

  • the weekly miracle of Shabbat
  • saying the Shema “when I lie down and when I rise up:” daily prayer
  • a cycle of holidays and observances
  • life cycle traditions that enrich my passage through life
  • teaching Judaism to my children and/or to newer members of my community
  • mobilizing to assist other Jews both nearby and far away
  • participation in a Jewish community where I can develop relationships with people and grow from those relationships
  • a template for grief and mourning that will embrace me just as my life seems to spin out of control
  • access to the great treasury of Jewish thought, thousands of years of road-tested advice about how to handle life’s most challenging moments
  • and many, many more things

Many of those benefits are available not only to Jews but to others as well. Non-Jewish friends of the Jewish people are welcome at our Shabbat, seder and study tables. More and more synagogues are developing policies that make synagogue life available to non-Jewish spouses and relatives while preserving the boundaries that maintain authentic Jewish life.

Becoming Jewish, crossing that line between not-Jewish and Jewish, is a complex experience. Some things don’t change: I had been going to services and doing many other Jewish things for years. Some things were new after the mikveh: once I became a Jew, I was doing mitzvot not only because I wanted to, but because they had become part of my sacred duties as a Jew. And yes, there were things I could now do that I could not do before. My rabbi would perform a wedding for me. I could wear a tallit and be called to the Torah.

Being Jewish and doing Jewish are really two separate but related things. This is sometimes confusing to people from other traditions.

Ask the Rabbi: Should I Keep Kosher?

A reader asked: “I’m in the process of converting to Judaism. Should I keep kosher? How do I get started?”

First of all, thank you for asking. It’s always good to ask. I have some questions for you before I answer directly, though.

You say that you are in the process of conversion to Judaism. Are you studying with a rabbi? If you are, this is really a question for your rabbi, not for some random rabbi on the internet. Sit down with your rabbi and talk it through. If you don’t feel that you can ask your rabbi, then perhaps you haven’t found the right rabbi yet. Go meet some more rabbis! You need to work with someone with whom you can talk.

If you do not yet have a rabbi, you need to get one. Saying “I’m in the process of conversion” isn’t really accurate; the first step is to find your rabbi, one with whom you feel comfortable and who is willing to work with you. It doesn’t matter how much you’ve read, how much you know, how many holidays you’ve celebrated: until you get yourself a rabbi, you have not yet gotten serious about conversion. A lot of the conversion process takes place within the relationship of rabbi and candidate. If you are not sure how to find your rabbi, I’ve written about it in Choosing a Rabbi.

I know that this answer may be annoying or a disappointment. But it is really the truth: you need to talk this over with your rabbi. Here’s why:

When you become a part of the Jewish people, you do so as part of a specific community of Jews. Different communities have differing customs. If you check out the kashrut (kosher) customs in several different Jewish communities, there will be differences. The sage Hillel teaches us “Do not separate yourself from the community.” You need to learn the customs of your community. So talk to your rabbi, and follow his or her guidance.

You will get different answers from different rabbis. Depending on the congregation and the movement – and depending on the rabbi! – he or she might do any of the following:

  • suggest some reading about kashrut, and discuss it with you before you disrupt your kitchen and your household.
  • caution you about taking on too much too quickly, and direct you to explore other mitzvot first.
  • match you up immediately with someone in the congregation who is knowledgable and who keeps a kosher kitchen, so that you can learn from them.
  • direct you to a class on kashrut and encourage you to get on with it.
  • talk with you about your reasons for interest in kashrut and explore with you what observance might be right for you and fit in with your community.

So there’s my answer for you: talk to your rabbi. If you don’t have one, get one. Conversion is a long complex process, involving growth and change in many areas, and you need more than an anonymous rabbi on the computer. You need someone with whom you are willing to be honest, and who can read body language as well as email.

Make the most of your exploration of Judaism, and of the sacred partnership with your sponsoring rabbi. Good luck!

Statistics and the News

When I began this blog, I hoped to make some of the “insider” things about Judaism more accessible. I think I’ve had some success. Certain posts are “hit” regularly from the search engines, posts like “Jewish Greetings 101” and “Bar and Bat Mitzvah Etiquette for Beginners.” I get a lot of satisfaction from knowing that somewhere out there, someone is a bit less stressed and a bit more prepared to enjoy a happy occasion.

One thing I did not expect was that the list of “search engine terms” would give me a consistent readout on the news. One item in particular always spikes when there is sad news: “Baruch Dayan Emet‘ – Why Do We Bless God when Someone Dies?”  It means “Blessed is the True Judge,” the first response of a devout Jew to hearing about a death. Last summer, during the Gaza war, that post got so many hits that it was the most frequently used post on the blog. This week it has been a busy post again.

If you ever have questions about practices or terms, dear Reader, I hope you’ll ask me via the Ask the Rabbi page. While I try to keep my mind tuned to things that may puzzle newcomers, you are the real experts on what beginners want to know.

May we all go from strength to strength, as learners and teachers!

Why “G-d” instead of “God?”

A reader recently asked: “Why do some Jews type ‘G-d’ when they are writing about God? And why don’t you type it that way, Rabbi Adar?”

Jews traditionally hold the name of God, yud-hey-vav-hey in great reverence. We do not ever pronounce it (in fact, it’s been so long we don’t even remember how to pronounce it correctly) and if we write it, we treat the material it was written on with reverence. Here’s what it looks like in Hebrew letters:

יהוה

Part of our story is that God revealed this Name, God’s personal Name, to Moses at Sinai.

When I met the President of the United States, I did not say, “Hey, Barack!” I addressed him with his title: “Hello, Mr. President.” Had I met Mr. Bush or Mr. Clinton when they were President, I would have addressed them the same way, with the same respect.

So it is our tradition as Jews to address God by way of titles, rather than to be too familiar. When we see the name above in Scripture, we say, “Adonai” (My Lord) or “Hashem” (the Name), or “the Eternal.” We are aware that other people might say “Jehovah” or “Yahweh” (two attempts at pronouncing the name) but we don’t go there. God is too holy for us to presume to be on a first name basis. I do not ever use those words that attempt to pronounce the name except when I’m teaching about it.

In Hebrew, we often use an abbreviation to stand in for the Name:

יי

That’s two yuds: “yud, yud.”  Hebrew readers know that that stands in for the four letter Name, and so we substitute whatever title is appropriate instead of saying the Name.

Some English speakers and writers have extended the abbreviation to the word “God,” which then looks like “G-d.” It’s a form of reverence, and perhaps a way of remembering the holy four-letter Name without mentioning it.

I don’t choose that particular form for three reasons:

  • “God” is a title, not the Name. Only the Name is the Name.
  • “G-d” looks too much like the way people abbreviate profanity, and I don’t want to associate the Holy One (there’s another title) with profanity.
  • My grandmother, of blessed memory, did not like profanity, but when she had to quote someone else who had said, “God damn” she would abbreviate it “G-D.” So, again, profanity. Yikes.

Piety is individual. I am pretty fussy about saying and writing the Name. If it is meaningful to someone else to abbreviate the word “God,” it isn’t my business. It doesn’t work for me, so I don’t do it.

Is there a name or title of God that you particularly like? One you really don’t like to use, ever? Why?

“Will God Be Mad at Me if I Don’t Have Kids?”

Sometimes the search terms on Google that bring people to this blog break my heart.  “Will God be mad at me if I don’t have kids?” – that question came from an anguished heart. It deserves a reply.

The very first commandment in Genesis has to do with offspring. God says to Adam and Eve:

And God blessed them; and God said to them: ‘Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that creeps upon the earth.’ (Genesis 1:28)

In traditional Jewish law this has been interpreted to mean that every Jewish male has a duty to father children, if he is able.

First: note that the obligation is on the male, not the female. I could speculate about the reasons for that, but I’ll just leave it there. Old-time Judaism was very patriarchal.

As a rabbi in the Reform tradition, I am inclined to look at the qualifier: “if he is able.” Ability, in a modern context, includes the ability to provide financially and emotionally for a child’s healthy development. If a person has serious doubts about their ability to do either of those things, then it seems legitimate for that person to question if parenthood is for them.

At the same time, I feel compelled to note that Jews are a tiny minority in the world. We comprise only 2% of the US population. Out of the world’s population, we are only 0.02% – a tiny, tiny fraction. Every Jewish child is an investment in the Jewish future, a continuation of thousands of years of tradition.

However, your original question, “Will God be mad?” is a little different. God knows what is in your heart, what your true situation is. If you are not able to have children, or to raise them properly, God knows that.

I believe there are many ways to meet the obligation to “be fruitful and multiply.” One is to be part of that famous village that it takes to raise a child:

  • Support the synagogues where those children will be educated.
  • Volunteer to teach, or to raise funds to support religious school.
  • Befriend families. Many are far from grandparents and other family support.
  • Nurture other “children” in the community: be welcoming to converts to Judaism.
  • Smile and welcome families in services. The noise a child might bring is the sound of the Jewish future.

I believe that this is a mitzvah that can best be addressed as a community. Supporting young parents and growing children is something all of us can do, no matter what our situation.