What do Ashkenazi, Sephardic, and Mizrahi mean?

Image: Four women complete the Sargeant-First-Class Course for the IDF Infantry Corps in 2007. We can’t tell whether they are Ashkenazi, Sephardic, or Mizrahi Jews by looking at them, but all are Jewish. Photo by the IDF, some rights reserved.

If you are around the Jewish world long enough, you’ll hear a mention of the terms “Ashkenazi” and “Sephardic.” Hang around a bit longer and if you are lucky you’ll hear the term “Mizrahi.” These are three different groups of Jewish traditions, each with their own ancient roots.

Mizrahi Jews – These are the oldest of the Diaspora communities of Judaism: Jews from the Levant (Eastern Mediterranean) North Africa and Central Asia. It includes Moroccan Jews, Iranian (Persian) Jews, Iraqi (Baghdadi) Jews, Egyptian Jews, Libyan Jews, Bukharan Jews, Yemenite Jews, Ethiopian Jews, Syrian Jews, Jews from Lebanon and Tunisia.

Most Mizrahi Jews no longer live in the lands that were their homes for centuries. Most now live either in Israel or in North America but many have retained their cultural heritage. One great source of information about the Jews of the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa is JIMENA, (“Jews of the Middle East and North Africa.”)

Sephardic Jews – These Jews are descendants of the Jews of the Iberian peninsula, present-day Spain and Portugal. In 1492 (Spain) and 1497 (Portugal) the monarchs of those countries offered a cruel choice: convert to Christianity, leave immediately and forever, or die. Thus began the Sephardic Diaspora, the scattering of these people across the globe from Amsterdam to Brazil, from Greece to India.

Because Arab countries were generally more hospitable than Christian nations at the time of the Dispersion, many of the Sephardim settled in cities with existing Mizrahi communities. In some of those locations, Sephardic liturgical customs became dominant. That is the reason that you will sometimes hear the two terms “Sephardic” and “Mizrahi” conflated, although that is not really quite accurate. Sephardic Judaism is not a monolith; it encompasses many different Jewish cultures and heritages, all going back to the flowering of culture known as Golden Age Spain.

Nowadays the thing that unites Sephardic Jews worldwide is their minhag, their customs regarding worship and details of Jewish Law.

Ashkenazi Jews – Ashkenazi Jews are the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe. Unlike the other two groups, most of their history they lived in countries where Christianity was the dominant religion. They include the Jews of Poland and the Pale of Settlement as well as the Jews of Germany. The majority of Jews in Canada and the U.S. are of Ashkenazi descent; their ancestors arrived in the great immigration from Eastern Europe in the late 19th and very early 20th century. Many (but not all) of the founders of the State of Israel were from Ashkenazi families, which is why Ashkenazim have been dominant in Israeli politics.

In case you are wondering: converts to Judaism take on the traditions of the Jewish communities into which they convert. As with many other Jewish matters, these three are not so much a matter of DNA as of heritage and context.

Passover Prep for Beginners

Image: Feather duster and cleaners by stevepb.

Four years ago I wrote a piece about Passover preparation called “Begin in Egypt.” It was, I think, one of my best ever for this website, because it addressed the situation of beginners when preparing for Passover. I repost it today, because I still think it’s my best on the subject:

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Cleaning for Passover: Begin in Egypt

Rabbi Tarfon taught: It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but you are not free to desist from it either.  [Pirkei Avot 2:16]

It is very tempting to take an “all or nothing” approach to mitzvot.   Some of us are overachievers, and we want an “A” in everything we do.  Some of us are worried about the opinions of others.  Some worry that if a commandment is not fulfilled properly, there was no point in bothering.  But to any beginner in Jewish observance, my first word of advice about almost everything is: Start Small.

The journey of the Exodus began in Egypt.  The Hebrews could not keep the commandments; they had not yet received the commandments.  Anyway, they were slaves:  they were not free to keep the commandments.

So if this is your first time cleaning for Passover, do not think, “I must do all of this perfectly,” because you are in Egypt.  You are only beginning the journey! If this is your first time cleaning for Passover, think:  What can I reasonably do this year to observe Passover in my home?  Here are some ideas for beginning your journey to Passover, one step at a time.  Even if you do only the first step, or the first two this year you will have made a good beginning.

If, on the other hand, you are looking for official standards on how to prepare a proper kosher-for-Passover home, and you are already an old hand at this, you will be much better served by the Pesah Guide published by the Rabbinical Assembly (Conservative Movement.)  This post is for those who are new to the mitzvah of preparing for Passover.

1.  LEARN ABOUT CHOMETZ.  Chometz / Chametz / Hametz (all spellings are transliterations, all are the same thing)  is a product that is made from one of five types of grain (wheat, rye, spelt, oats, or barley) that have been combined with water and left to stand raw for longer than eighteen minutes.  Chometz is sometimes defined as “leavened products” which is confusing, since that makes modern people think of leavening agents like baking powder and yeast.  But no, chometz is basically wet grain,  or grain that may have been wet at one time.

In short, anything in your home that contains one of those grains (wheat, rye, spelt, oats, barley) and may have had any moisture get to it (on purpose or by accident, no matter) is chometz.  Ideally, a Jew will find and get rid of all the chometz in the places under his or her control before Passover begins.

You can learn more about chometz and Passover observance in an article at My Jewish Learning.  There you will also learn that Ashkenazic Jews also dispose of rice, millet, corn and legumes like beans and soy [kitniyot]because those things often behave like the forbidden grains. Sephardic Jews do not get rid of those things.

If this is all you can do this year, that’s OK.   

2.  CHECK YOUR CHOMETZ.  The Hebrew name of the process of looking for chometz is bedikat chometz, literally “checking for chometz.”  The first step is to figure out where the chometz is.  You can’t get rid of it if you don’t take stock of it, right?

Go into the kitchen, open the cabinets, and make note of all the chometz products you normally own and use.  There may be bread, and flour, and mixes, and cereals.  There may also be processed foods that contain grain products.  Notice what they are, how many they are, how basic to your cooking and consumption these products are.  Notice, also, all the beer and spirits and other grain-based fermented products you may have: those, too, are chometz.  Then close the cabinets, and move on.

Go into the rest of your home, and think about all the places that crumbs can hide:  sofa cushions, carpets, pockets, shoes.

Contemplate the ubiquity of chometz:   It’s really everywhere.

If this is all you can do this year, that’s OK. 

3.  GET RID OF BIG CHOMETZ.  I said “start small” but at this stage of the journey, we’ll just get rid of what I call “big chometz.”  Set aside all thechometz in your kitchen and say, “what can my household consume before Passover?”  All the rest of the chometz will need to go for you to complete this third step.  Eat it up, give it away, or throw it out:  those are the chometz choices between Purim and Passover.  Locate a donation dropoff for your local food bank, and use it.

If you have gotten to this stage, you will also need to think about “What will my household eat during Passover?”  This does not mean that you must buy many specialized products for Passover.  Maybe you will choose to buy matzah, and otherwise stick to unprocessed non-grain foods for the week of Passover:  salads, fruit, meat, fish, etc. If you live with other people, you need to include them in the menu-planning for Passover week.  The average child (or adult, for that matter) will not feel loved if you simply announce that we are out of Cheerios and will be out of Cheerios until next week, tough luck!  If you have animals, you will need to plan for them as well.  However, keep in mind that an animal that eats grain needs proper nourishment:  consult your rabbi if you have questions about how to meet the needs of pets during the holiday.

If this is all you can do this year, that’s OK.   

4.  DISHES AND UTENSILS  If you are even more serious about keeping a kosher for Passover home, you will want to seal up or pack up all your usual utensils and dishes, and use either “Passover dishes” that you keep boxed up the rest of the year or use disposables.  This is more or less expensive depending on how you go about it.  My everyday Passover dishes are not particularly nice (they were on sale at Target)  and I only have a few of them, since other than the seder, I don’t entertain during Pesach.  However, I only look at them for one week a year, so I wasn’t picky.

Another possibility is to buy a package of paper plates. This is less wasteful if there is some way to compost them instead of putting them in the landfill after use. During Passover, I use more disposable products than at other times of the year, but I try to use them responsibly.

If this is all you do this year, it is more than OK. 
 

5.  FIND AND DESTROY HIDDEN CHOMETZ.  This brings us to something that looks suspiciously like “spring cleaning.”  Remember the chometz you thought about back at #1:  the crumbs in the carpet, your pockets, the car, the back of cabinets?  At this level of cleaning for Passover, you will get rid of as many of those as you can.  Take a moment to think a grateful thought for  all the clever inventors of the vacuum cleaner.  Most observant Jews will get their carpets cleaned in the week before Passover. Wipe surfaces down.  Dust everywhere.  Vacuum out the shoes in the closets.

If this is all you do this year, it is more than OK. 
6.  RECONSIDER “CHOMETZ  There are Jews who observe Passover by refraining from eating chometz, and who may or may not be meticulous about cleaning out their houses, but who take other understandings ofchometz very seriously.  To learn more, consider these articles on the web:
7.  REMEMBER, LIFE, LIKE EXODUS,  IS A JOURNEY.  In the beginning, start small.  Don’t tear your home up and then collapse in despair.  Pay attention to the mitzvah that you are doing, to whatever degree you can perform it.  Remember that at different stages of life, our abilities are different:  a beginner, starting out, will not approach Passover in the same way that a person who has grown up in a kosher observant household will approach it.  In a year with illness, or money troubles, or other challenges, our ability to observe the mitzvah will change.
Instead of judging ourselves for what we cannot do, and comparing to others who “do more,” we accomplish the most when we approach the task with kavanah [intention] and do what we can to the best of our ability.   Remember the words of Rabbi Tarfon that opened this post:  It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but you are not free to desist from it either.

What’s “Shavua Tov”?

On Saturday evening or Sunday morning, someone may greet you with the phrase “Shavua tov!” (shah-VOO-ah TOHV).

It means “Good Week!” and it’s the greeting for the new week that begins at sundown on Saturday night. Remember, all Jewish days begin and end at sundown.

You’re most likely to hear it Saturday evening or Sunday morning, but it’s still appropriate (if a little belated) until sundown on Wednesday. You’ll rarely hear “Shabbat shalom” until Friday.

So if someone says “Shavua tov!” to you, you can say right back to them, “Shavua tov!” Alternatively you can say, “Gam l’cha!”  if they are male and “Gam lech!” if they are female.  Either way, it means “Also to you!” or “Backatcha!”

Shavua tov!

 

Why a Prayer Shawl?

Image: Air Force Jewish Chaplain (Capt.) Sarah Schechter leads Jewish Services, wearing traditional Jewish prayer shawl at 332 AEW Jt. Base Balad, Iraq. Public Domain.

If you read the Torah all the way through, nowhere will you see mention of a tallit, or prayer shawl. And yet that is one of the most ubiquitous symbols of Judaism, so much so that it was the basis for the design of the Israeli flag! What’s the story?

Tzitzis_Shot
Tzitzit fringe. Public domain.

The first thing to know about the tallit is that it is primarily a holder for a mitzvah. The “business end” of a prayer shawl are the long fringes hanging from its corners. They are called tzitzit (tzeet-TZEET). There may be other, smaller fringes, but those don’t count; only the multi-knotted fringes affixed to the corners of the garment are important. Those fringes are commanded in two places in the Torah:

Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them that they make for themselves throughout their generations fringes for the corners of their garments, and that they put with the fringe of each corner a thread of blue.  And it will be to you a fringe, that you may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Eternal, and do them; and that you will not go about after your own heart and your own eyes, which may lead you astray. [Do this so] that you may remember and do all My commandments, and be holy unto your God.– Numbers 15:38-40

and

Make yourself twisted cords upon the four corners of your clothing, [the clothing] that you [use to] cover yourself.– Deuteronomy 22:12

There was a time, in the distant past, when all Jewish men wore tzitzit on any four-cornered item of clothing. Nowadays our clothing is more complex, so it is necessary to fashion clothing that has just four corners.

Man_wearing_tallit_katan
Man wearing tallit-katan (see fringes.) Photo by Gilabrand at English Wikipedia.

Most Jews fulfill this commandment by wearing a special four-cornered garment, the tallit, for morning prayers. Some Jews choose additionally to observe the mitzvah at all times by wearing a four-cornered undergarment, a tallit-katan, with fringes that they may choose to leave hanging out or may choose to tuck in privately. A tallit-katan is usually made of knitted or woven cotton fabric, much like a tee shirt. It looks like a little poncho, with the fringes falling from the four corners. (See photo to the right; alternatively, search for “tallit-katan” and you can see photos of the garment alone for sale.)

Historically both the tallit and the tallit-katan have been garments worn by men. In the latter half of the 20th century, more and more women have adopted the tallit, since they, too, understand themselves to be obligated to remember all the commandments. Very few women (so far) have adopted the practice of wearing tallit-katan.

The tallit itself may be made of any fabric, provided it is not shatnez (a mixture of wool and linen.) The tzitzit may be made of wool, or of the same material as the tallit.  Most people use specially-spun woolen yarn for the tzitzit.

To sum up:

  1. A tallit [prayer shawl] is a holder for its ritual fringes [tzitzit.]
  2. We are commanded to wear tzitzit to remind us of all 613 commandments.
  3. The commandment to wear tzitzit appears twice in the Torah.
  4. Historically the tallit was seen as a male garment.
  5. Today many Jewish women express their understanding of commandedness by wearing a tallit with tzitzit.
  6. A tallit may be made of any permitted fabric, and the tzitzit must be wool, or the same fiber as the tallit.

Do you wear a tallit? A tallit-katan? What are your reasons for wearing or not wearing it? Do you identify as male, female, or other?

Do you have any other practice that reminds you of the commandments?

What’s the BIGGEST Jewish Holiday?

Image: A woman covers her eyes as she recites the blessing for lighting Shabbat candles. Photo thanks to Dawn Kepler, who retains all rights.

Some will tell you it’s Passover. In America, that’s the most observed Jewish holiday.

Some will tell you it’s Yom Kippur because that’s what they have heard.

Some will tell you Chanukah, because that’s the only Jewish holiday they know.

Some will tell you it’s the High Holy Days, because — well, “High Holy,” right?

All wrong.

The BIGGEST Jewish holiday is…. Shabbat!

What? you might say. “It comes once a week! How can it be the biggest Jewish holiday?”

But it says so, right in the Kiddush* for Shabbat Evening:

Praise to You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe,
Creator of the fruit of the vine.

Praise to You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe
who finding favor with us, sanctified us with mitzvot.
In love and favor, You made the holy Shabbat our heritage
as a reminder of the work of Creation.
As first among our sacred days, it recalls the Exodus from Egypt.
You chose us and set us apart from the peoples.
In love and favor You have given us Your holy Shabbat as an inheritance.

– from “Shabbat Blessings” at http://www.Reform Judaism.com

“As first among our sacred days” — and so it is.

Shabbat is so important that it is never cancelled by another holiday. Other days, like Yom Kippur, may happen on Shabbat, but they never happen instead of Shabbat.

The Kiddush also tells us why Shabbat is so important. It is a memorial of the Creation and a memorial of the Exodus from Egypt.

The heaven and earth were finished, and all their array. On the seventh day God finished the work which God had been doing, and God rested on the seventh day from all the work which God had done. And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because on it God rested from all the work of creation which God had done.

–Genesis 2: 1-3.

At the end of the work of Creation, God rested. Then, at Sinai, God gave our people a commandment:

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 Adonai 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, Adonai made heaven and earth and sea, all that is in them, and God rested on the seventh day; therefore Adonai has blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.

– Exodus 20:8-11

and the commandment is repeated, with different wording and a different rationale, in Deuteronomy:

Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy, as Adonai your God has commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of Adonai your God: you shall not do any work – you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your ox of your ass, or any of your cattle, or the stranger in your settlements, so that your male and female slave may rest as you do. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and Adonai your God freed you from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore Adonai your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.

– Deuteronomy 5: 12-15

So there, in the two accounts of the 10 Commandments, we have the rationale of Creation and that of the Exodus, both of which are mentioned in the Kiddush blessing. That’s another reason I can say with confidence that Shabbat is the BIGGEST Jewish holiday: it’s the only one mentioned in the 10 Commandments!

Jews disagree about the best way to keep Shabbat. Some Jews head to synagogue, some to the seashore. Some make sure to touch base with loved ones. Others make sure not to touch a cell phone. How you choose to observe this holiday (holy day) is up to you.

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

Ahad Ha’Am (Asher Ginsberg)

*”Kiddush” is a special blessing for a holiday – think of it as a toast. We hold up our glasses of wine or juice and we say or sing the kiddush. There is a kiddush for every major holiday, and this is the kiddush for Shabbat.

 

What’s a Bentcher?

Oy, oy, oy! First there is the question of spelling. Is it a bencher, a bentcher, or a bentscher? Answer: I’ve seen all three.

And no, it isn’t a piece of furniture, although that’s what it sounds like.

NFTY
My favorite bentcher

A bentcher is a little book or folder with the text of the blessings said after a meal, the birkat hamazon. It comes from the Yiddish word bentch, which means “to bless.” (Thanks to both Anne and Jeff, readers who corrected me on this.)

Bentch – to say or sing the birkat hamazon (blessing after meals.) Some may say, “It’s time to bentch,” meaning, the meal is over already, let’s bless and be done!

Bentch gomel – to say a blessing of thanks for delivery from danger. Always said during the Torah service.

Bentch lulav – to say the blessings that go with waving the lulav.

Bentcher is the book with the birkat hamazon in it. In a household where they bentch after every meal, it will likely be one of a half-dozen stuck in a napkin holder on the table. Some bentchers also have zmirot (zmee-ROTE) which are Shabbat songs for the table.

Some Jews carry a mini-bentcher that folds up to credit card size, to use when eating away from home.

Oh, and in case you are wondering, Hebrew for “blessing” is brakhah.

 

Why Do Jews Circumcise?

“Intro” students ask terrific questions. They have what the Buddhists call “beginner’s mind” – that is, their minds are open to more possibilities than those of us who have been steeping in a subject for a long time.

Last week, when we were talking about Jewish death and mourning practices, I explained that we have great reverence for the body and try hard to maintain its integrity even after death (no embalming or unnecessary autopsies, etc.) One student asked me, “So then how do you account for circumcision?”

Brilliant question!

Brit milah, ritual circumcision, has been a key Jewish practice for millennia. The Biblical command appears in Genesis 17: 11-12:

Every male among you shall be circumcised…it shall be a sign of a the covenant between Me and you. Whoever is eight days old shall be circumcised, every male throughout your generations.

In Biblical terms, we perform brit milah because it is commanded, as a “sign of the covenant.” And indeed, it is called brit milah, “covenant of circumcision.” Like Passover, this is an observance that even minimally-observant Jews worldwide keep. Even Jews who do not believe in God frequently insist on brit milah for their sons out of a feeling that this is simply what Jews do.

On a religious level, this is a consecration of the male body to the covenant and to the behavior connected with the covenant. The penis is the locus of male sexuality and a symbol of male power; removing the foreskin in the context of the brit milah ritual is a way of saying that this child or man is dedicated to the behaviors associated with Torah. He is dedicated to a life that looks beyond self-gratification to a manly holiness of purpose.

The Jewish reverence for the body underlines the seriousness of this act. We don’t modify the body lightly or thoughtlessly. This outward sign of the covenant is not easy, but it is an expression by Jewish parents of seriousness about Jewish identity for themselves and their son.