What is a Minyan?

Image: A woman in a minyan, praying. (Yochi Rappaport/Wikimedia

A minyan (MEN-yahn or meen-YAHN) is a quorum for prayer, consisting of ten adult Jews. Liberal Jews count all genders for a minyan; Orthodoxy counts only males for a minyan.

A minyan is required for certain important Jewish prayers and activities:

According to the Jerusalem Talmud, Megillah 4:4, the sources in Torah for the tradition of the minyan are:

“Speak to all the congregation of the children of Israel, and say to them: You shall be holy.” – Leviticus 19:2

and

“How long shall I bear with this evil congregation who murmur against me?” – Numbers 14:27

Both verses refer to the congregation (adah.) In the first, the congregation is the Hebrew people whom God commands. The second verse refers to the ten spies who brought back a timid report after exploring the Land of Israel. From the combination of the two verses, the rabbis drew the conclusion that a minimum of ten adults was required to represent the People of Israel.

Because a group of ten is required to say the full prayer service, it has become common to refer to any group that meets regularly for Jewish prayer as a minyan:

  • “I’d be glad to have coffee with you after minyan.”
  • “Our minyan meets at 6:45 am on weekdays.”

 

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What is a Yahrzeit?

Image: A lit yahrzeit candle. (Public Domain

A Yahrzeit (YAR-zite) is the anniversary of a death in Jewish tradition.

When we are alive, we celebrate our birthday every year. In much the same way, we observe a yahrzeit for loved ones who have died. It is a way of marking the great passages of life: first, the passage into life (birthday) and then the passage out of this life (yahrzeit.)

The custom of observing yahrzeit is an acknowledgement that we do not “get over” the loss of a parent or a dear one. It is also a way of expressing kibud av’v’em, honor to our parents.

Most Jews observe the yahrzeit of their deceased parents. Some authorities extend that observance to the other categories of close losses: siblings, children, and spouse. Some Jews may also observe the yahrzeits of prominent individuals, for example, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Yahrzeit is usually observed on the Hebrew calendar date of death, although some prefer to keep it on the Gregorian calendar date.

Yahrzeit observance can take various forms. The most common:

  1. A Yahrzeit candle is a special, long burning candle that is lit at sundown and is allowed to burn for 24 hours. (See photo above.) They are available from Judaica shops and some grocery stores.
  2. Saying the Mourners’ Kaddish with a minyan at synagogue.
  3. Some mourners mark the day by giving tzedakah in memory of the deceased.

Yahrzeit is a Yiddish word, the Ashkenazi Jewish language. The same observance is kept by Sephardim, who call it nahalah.

 

 

 

What is a Ketubah?

Image: Ketubah by Miriam Karp. Two trees join to form a chuppah under which the text of the ketubah is written. Photo by Ruth Adar, all rights reserved.

A ketubah is a Jewish marriage contract. Signing it and witnessing it is an essential part of a Jewish wedding. In its traditional formulation, it is a one-way contract listing the responsibilities of a Jewish husband to his wife. The husband commits to providing food, clothing, and conjugal relations to his wife, and should he at some future time divorce her, he commits to paying her a specified amount of cash. There have to be at least two qualified witnesses.

Originally, the ketubah was an effort to protect both groom and bride. There is no ketubah mentioned in the Torah. In Biblical Judaism, the groom had to pay a mohar, a dowry, for the wife; this money was to be held for her security in case of death or divorce. The rabbis saw that young men delayed marrying, because it took time to raise the mohar funds, so they devised the ketubah, which committed the groom to future payments in the event of divorce but no payment at the time of marriage. That way,  a young man could marry before he got old.

It was even more a protection for the bride. A Jewish divorce must be initiated by the husband, and to carry it out, he has to give his wife a get, a bill of divorce. That activates her claim for support in the ketubah, so he know that if he divorces her, he would owe her support. In ancient times, a woman who had been married and cast aside had no rights to her children and very few options other than starving. With the ketubah, the woman had enforceable rights.

(Problems have arisen in modern times about husbands getting a civil divorce and then refusing to grant a get to the wife, but that’s a separate subject for another time. See agunot.)

For the text of the traditional Aramaic ketubah, and an explanation of its details, see The Ketubah Text at MyJewishLearning.com.

The traditional text does not meet the needs of some modern Jews. Rabbi Rachel Adler, in her book Engendering Judaism, proposed a new text for the ketubah. Instead of the traditional text, which outlines the obligations of the husband only, her new document was modeled on a business partnership between equals. She calls this document a brit ahuvim, a lovers’ covenant. A copy of that text is available on ritualwell.org.

Many couples choose alternate texts, and for some couples, the process of writing their own ketubah, their own marriage agreement, is a helpful prelude to the very serious step of marriage.

Ketubot (the plural form) are often embellished with artwork, and have become a major vehicle for Jewish artistic expression. The ketubah in the picture is that belonging to me and my wife.

Ketubah
Detail from the ketubah pictured above. Artwork and calligraphy by Miriam Karp. The text is based on the brit ahuvim with some changes by the couple.

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.

 

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!

What is the Bedtime Shema?

Image: A sleeping calico kitten (analogicus/pixabay)

The words of the Shema tell us to “say these words when you lie down and when you rise up.” That is one of the reasons we have evening services [Ma’ariv] and morning services [Shacharit.]

However, there is a tradition that I have revived in my own practice and which I would like to share with you: that’s the tradition for saying the Shema at bedtime, just before sleep. So many of us are starved for sleep, and having trouble falling asleep: why not give this ancient practice a try?

You can find the text of the Bedtime Shema in most siddurim [prayer books,] and it is available online in English at MyJewishLearning.com. If you want the text in Hebrew, it is available at Sefaria.org. Alternatively, I offer a simplified version of it here:

Blessed are you, Eternal our God, Ruler of time and space, who brings sleep to my eyes and slumber to my eyelids. Banish bad dreams and worries. I hereby release unworthy thoughts and grudges from my heart. Help me to lie down in peace, and rise up in the morning, renewed, ready to do Your work in the world.

Shema Yisrael! Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad.

Hear O Israel! Adonai is our God, Adonai is One.

Then I repeat the last line again and again in my mind, aligning it with my breath, as I drift off to sleep. Sweet dreams!