Building Your Jewish Library

Image: Bookshelves of Jewish books, art, and objects. (Ruth Adar, all rights reserved.)

What books should be part of a Jewish household? Beyond that, how does one build a Jewish library?

  1. Every Jewish home should have a Jewish Bible. Not an “Old Testament,” not a “Living Bible,” not the “King James Bible” or any of its descendants – a Jewish Bible. How can you tell if it is a Jewish Bible? There will be no New Testament in there. It may have the word “Tanakh” on the cover. It will be arranged into Torah, Prophets, and Writings. There are several good Jewish Bibles on the market. One excellent option is to get one that comes with a commentary, such as:
    1. The Torah, A Modern Commentary, ed. Plaut.
    2. Etz Hayim, Torah & Commentary, ed. Lieber.
    3. The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, eds Eskenazi, Weiss
  2. For quick answers to Jewish questions, you either need access to some of the excellent Jewish web sites on the Internet, or a good basic reference workJewish Literacy by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin is one excellent choice.  A Guide to Jewish Practice by David A. Teutsch is a three volume set of books that is even more detailed. The text I use for my Introduction to the Jewish Experience class is Settings of Silver, by Stephen Wylen. It is a single volume with a good index.
  3. A Jewish home should have a siddur (Jewish prayer book,) or a book of Jewish prayers for the home, or both. The siddur should be the one you normally use at synagogue (ask your rabbi.)  On the Doorposts of Your House has home rituals of many kinds, from hanging your mezuzah to celebrating the holidays. At a minimum, a card or bentcher with the basic blessings for Shabbat will come in handy.
  4. Every home should have at least one haggadah, the script for the Passover seder. There are a zillion haggadot on the market, ranging from free give-aways to very expensive art books. Which one(s) you choose will depend on your tastes.

Beyond the absolute basics, your interests will shape your Jewish library. For instance, if you are interested in Torah study, you may want to own one or more commentaries. If you are interested in Jewish film, there are a number of good books on those subjects.

For more suggestions of books and topics, see My Basic Jewish Book List.

 

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What’s a Good First Book about Judaism?

Image: A single book, open, with a pair of glasses atop it. (PhotoMIX Company/Pixabay)

I got the question again last night: “Rabbi, what’s the FIRST book I should read about Judaism?” My answer to that is always a set of questions. So here are some “first books” and why I might or might not recommend them to a particular person.

Settings of Silver, an Introduction to Judaism by Stephen M Wylen – This is the book I use for my Intro courses. I chose it because the information is solid, it includes a brief but good history, and it has an index.  It’s good for people who are comfortable reading and want a comprehensive book with up-to-date information.

Judaism’s 10 Best Ideas: A Brief Book for Seekers by Rabbi Arthur Green. This is a great book for someone who wants a short book that explains the Jewish approach to life in manageable bites. It’s also a good book for Jewish adults who had bad religious school experiences but who are looking to re-connect as Jews. I have also suggested it to Christians whose children converted to Judaism or married a Jew – it conveys the feeling of Judaism.

What’s In It For Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives by Stephen Lewis Fuchs – This little book (less than 100 pages) is a series of short essays in which Rabbi Fuchs offers insights for modern readers on the ancient stories in Torah. If the person tells me they are particularly interested in the Torah, this is where I point them for a Jewish take on the texts. Simply reading the Torah won’t teach you how Jews read Torah. It is also the book I recommend for people who are upset by the stories in the Bible.

Finding God: Selected Responses by Rifat Sonsino and Daniel B. Syme is a very succinct introduction to Jewish ideas about God. I suggest this book for the person who tells me they are very interested in Judaism, but the idea of God is very difficult for them. I also suggest it for people who are interested specifically in theological questions.

Judaisms: A Twenty-First Century Introduction to Jews and Jewish Identities by Aaron J. Hahn Tapper – This book explores the question of Jewish identity by looking at 21st century Jewish communities and the ways in which actual live Jews express their identities. It’s intended as a college “Intro to Judaism” text, so it’s a bit more challenging reading but will give you an interdisciplinary approach to the big subject of Jewish identity. This is NOT “how to keep Chanukah” but “Who are the Jews, and what are they like?”

Seasons of our Joy by Arthur Waskow.  This is my go-to book for those who specifically want a book about Jewish holidays.

Living a Jewish Life by Anita Diamant. If you want a glimpse of Jewish life and liberal observance, this is a really good book.

Judaism is such a large topic that no book is going to be the right first book for everyone. Was there a particular book that brought Judaism into focus for you? Please share those titles in the comments!

 

Traditions of Judaism: Online Class Starts Sunday, 4/8

Image: Ethiopian Israeli Jews celebrate the holiday of Sigd in 2008. (Israeli Association for Ethiopian Jews, some rights reserved.)

The Spring term of  Intro to the Jewish Experience class starts Sunday at 3:30pm Pacific Time.

This segment of the class is “Traditions of Judaism.” We will learn about many of the communities and traditions within Judaism today, and how they came to be distinct. We’ll look at Ashkenazi, Sephardic, and Mizrahi traditions, the Movements (Conservative, Reform, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Renewal, etc), American Judaism, Jews of Color, the Prayer Book [Siddur] and the service, and finish up with Jewish food customs.

Here is a list of topics, by week:

  1. Welcome & Shabbat
  2. Synagogue & Siddur
  3. What’s Going On in the Service?
  4. Sephardic Judaism: History & Culture
  5. Ashkenazi Judaism: History & Culture
  6. Mizrahi and Other Jewish Communities
  7. North American Judaism
  8. Judaism & Food Traditions / What’s Next for You?

The class is also available by via recordings if you are busy on Sunday afternoons. Lectures are only a part of the class; we use a Facebook group for discussions and all students are welcome to schedule online one-on-one sessions with Rabbi Adar.

To sign up for the online class, go to its page in the Lehrhaus Judaica catalog. If you are interested in the offline Wednesday night class in Oakland, CA, it has a different page in the Lehrhaus catalog. Those links will also give you more specific info on tuition, scheduling, and locations.

This class (either on- or off-line) is the Spring portion of a three part series that can be taken in any order. Every class also works as a stand-alone entity, for those who already have some knowledge of Judaism but want to enrich their learning on a particular area. (Fall: Lifecycle & Holidays, Winter: Israel & Texts, Spring: Traditions of Judaism.) The course is not a conversion class; it is open to anyone who is interested in learning more about the varieties of Jews in the world and their traditions.

I love teaching “Intro” – it’s my passion. If diversity of Jewish experience interests you, I hope you’ll join us!

Tu B’Shevat is Coming!

Image: A fruit tree in midwinter, with a few dried leaves clinging. (Pixabay)

Tu B’Shevat (TOO beh-SHVAT) is coming, starting at sundown on January 30, 2018.  Look around you: if you live in the Northern Hemisphere the trees have prepared for the New Year of the Trees by dropping their old leaves and playing dead.

If you look even more closely you may see that there are the tiniest beginnings of buds on the tips of those bare branches. Ha! It isn’t dead – it is preparing to leaf out.

To learn more about the holiday, Tu B’Shevat, read Tu B’Shevat for Beginners and Four New Years Every Year?

What if anything are you doing for Tu B’Shevat? A seder? A tree-planting? Gardening routines and rituals?  Whatever you do, I hope that you are healthy and that any new beginnings in your life bear lovely fruit!

Israel and Texts: An Online Class!

Image: Lehrhaus Judaica Logo

Have you ever wished you had a stronger Jewish education? Wondered what people are talking about when they cite “the Talmud” or “Jewish Law”? Have you ever wished you knew more about your heritage and could discuss it with others?

I teach a class called “Israel and Texts” which traces the development of Jewish texts, from the Biblical sources of ancient times, through the emergence of Rabbinic Judaism after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, and on through the development of the Talmud and the great law codes of the 16th century.  We will learn about how “Jewish Law” works, and how it is a living process, still unfolding in the 21st century.

We will discover the ways that Jews engage with texts and do text study ourselves. We will look at the many ways in which Jewish texts are rooted in the land of Israel.

Class will begin on Sunday, January 21, 2018 at 3:30pm Pacific Time and meet for 90 minutes.  Our text will be Settings of Silver: An Introduction to Judaism by Stephen M. Wylen, with supplementary texts provided. Tuition for the class is $90; you can register using the Lehrhaus Judaica online catalog. No Hebrew is required. All you need is Internet access and a computer or tablet. We will use the Zoom platform for teaching, with supplementary material distributed via Dropbox and Facebook. A private Facebook group provides a forum for discussion and questions.

The class is 8 sessions, and is offered both as a stand-alone class and as a term of our Introduction to the Jewish Experience classes.

I hope you’ll join me to learn about Israel and Texts!

The Long List of Mitzvot

Image: A piece of paper with blanks and boxes for check marks, a check list. (TeroVesalainen/pixabay)

Every year, when I teach my students about the concept of mitzvot [commandments] some member of the class will ask for a list of the 613. I remember being the student who wanted the list, and I remember why I wanted it: I wanted to be sure that I had a good checklist, because I was determined to be a very good Jew.

The thing is, most Jews do not worry about 613 mitzvot. We just do our best to do all the mitzvot that we can.

The number originates in a sermon by Rabbi Simlai, a 3rd century rabbi who lived in the land of Israel:

Rabbi Simlai taught: There were 613 mitzvot stated to Moses in the Torah, consisting of 365 prohibitions corresponding to the number of days in the solar year, and 248 positive mitzvot corresponding tothe number of a person’s limbs. Rav Hamnuna said: What is the verse that alludes to this? It is written: “Moses commanded to us the Torah, an inheritance of the congregation of Jacob” (Deuteronomy 34:4). The word Torah, in terms of its numerical value [gimatriyya], is 611, the number of mitzvot that were received and taught by Moses our teacher. In addition, there are two mitzvot: “I am the Lord your God” and:“You shall have no other gods” (Exodus 20:2, 3), the first two of the Ten Commandments, that we heard from the mouth of the Almighty, for a total of 613. – Makkot 23b-24a

This text is the origin of the number 613.  It is a poetic way of saying, “The commandments of the Torah cover all aspects of life, all the days of the year and all the bones in our bodies.” Still, it provided many rabbis, Maimonides included, with a great puzzle: how to fit the mitzvot in the Torah to the number!

One of those lists is available online at Judaism 101. I remember as a student pouring over a similar list, trying to figure out how to do all those mitzvot as quickly as possible. Gradually I realized that part of doing mitzvot is learning about them – and learning about them is a lifetime process. Sometimes it’s learning about a minor holiday or practice. Sometimes it’s about building my skills for visiting the sick, supporting mourners, etc, Sometimes the learning is about how this ancient mitzvah will fit into my modern life – but learning is always a part of it.

I find it useful to scan these lists when I’m feeling a little too smug about my life. There will usually be a clue there about a mitzvah I have managed to ignore. Then I can embark on a cycle:

  1. Learn all I can about that mitzvah
  2. Imagine how it might fit into my life
  3. If appropriate, talk with other members of my household about that mitzvah
  4. Talk with a colleague I trust to get a rabbi’s point of view on that mitzvah
  5. Make a plan for improving my observance of that mitzvah
  6. Check in with myself about it from time to time.

This is not rocket science. Often it happens when I am saying the traditional prayers. For instance, there is a short listing of the mitzvot that reward us both in this world and in the next in the morning prayers:

These are the obligations without a limit. A person eats their fruit in this world, and sets up a reward in the world to come as well:

To honor father and mother;
To perform acts of love and kindness;
To attend the house of study morning and evening;
To receive guests;
To visit the sick;
To rejoice with the bride and groom;
To accompany the dead;
To pray with intention;
To bring peace between a person and his fellow.
And the study of Torah is equal to them all, because it leads to them all!

Something on that list will bother me, reminding me that I haven’t kept that mitzvah very well. Have I visited someone sick any time recently? Been to a funeral? Have I studied Torah regularly, beyond what my work requires? Then, when I spot the problem, I act to mend my ways.

Some mitzvot aren’t appropriate for me; Some are only for Cohanim (priests.) Some are only for farmers in the Land of Israel. Some have to do with the Temple cult, which can’t resume without the Temple. But there are still plenty of them to give me work to do!

So that’s the story of the 613 mitzvot.  Somewhere in those wonderful inconsistent lists, a mitzvah is waiting for each of us.  And when that one is running smoothly, there will be another.

Mitzvah goreret mitzvah.

One mitzvah leads to another. – Pirkei Avot 4:2

 

The Secret to Learning Hebrew

Image: Exodus 31: 16-17 in Hebrew. (from www.ReformJudaism.org) If you look carefully, you can see the word “Shabbat.”

Yesterday’s post about a first Hebrew lesson got such a warm response that I thought I’d follow up with the secret for learning Hebrew as an adult. People often say to me, “I don’t know, Rabbi, I am not good with languages.”

Here’s the secret I learned the hard way: persistence counts. When I was learning Hebrew, there are two and only two things that may be happening:  I was improving, or or I was falling back. There is no standing still with Hebrew.

I needed to practice every single day because either my Hebrew was getting better or it was getting worse. 5 minutes moved me forward. On days I skipped, I lost ground.

I began my Hebrew studies in my 40’s. I still read some Hebrew every day (easy for me now, since it is also my work.) I get out the book, I look at the words, and I read them. It is still true, twenty years later, that I am either moving forward or backward in my skills.

The good news is that persistence will work, even if you believe you are no good at languages. Persistence is everything.