5 Books? Much More? What is Torah?

Image: A group of Jews studying Torah together (Photo by Linda Burnett, all rights reserved)

What does the word “Torah” really mean?

Jews use the word in multiple ways, and it can be very confusing to those who haven’t spent a lot of time inside the community. Let’s unpack those multiple meanings:

FIVE BOOKS – The first five books of the Bible are Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. They are what is written in the Torah Scroll that you see in the synagogue. We have gone to great lengths to preserve the written words exactly as they have come down to us. The words are Hebrew. Some of them are hard to translate. More of them are hard to understand. Some of them are extremely upsetting. But we preserve them all.

ORAL TORAH – The “Oral Torah” is a body of literature that has come down to us from ancient times. The idea is that Moses didn’t write everything down; some laws and interpretations of the law were handed down from Moses, to Joshua, and on down to us:

Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, and Joshua to the Elders, and the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets transmitted it to the Men of the Great Assembly. They said three things: Be deliberate in judgment, raise up many disciples and make a fence for the Torah. – Pirkei Avot 1:1

Originally it was not written down – hence the name “Oral Torah” – but periodically our community faced a crisis in which the leaders feared the knowledge might be lost, and that wisdom was recorded. Oral Torah includes the Talmud and other writings.

A WAY OF LIFE – Beyond any written sources, many communities and families hand down understandings of how Torah is to be lived. While scholarly members of those communities usually can tie those understandings back to written sources, the majority of Jews simply live the traditions as they were taught them. We see this in the way a particular community understands the practice of keeping kosher: this many hours between meat and milk, this way of preparing the kitchen for Passover, these heckshers (rabbinical certifications) are acceptable and those are not. Another community will disagree: no, more hours between meat and milk, etc. A third community or household might say, no, the point of kashrut is to move us towards vegetarianism or veganism! In all cases, the speakers will regard what has been handed down to them, or what they have adopted after study as Torah.

So if someone explains something to you by saying, “It’s Torah!” it is perfectly OK for you to say to them, “Tell me more.” Maybe they will point you to a verse in the book of Exodus. Maybe they will cite a passage from Talmud. Maybe they will say, “That’s what my rabbi / my grandmother taught me.” All are legitimate.

However, “legitimate” does not mean that it is written in stone. Talking to other Jews about Torah is one way to learn. Studying with a rabbi (or many rabbis) is another way to learn. Reading the texts for yourself, or better yet, studying them with other Jews, is an excellent way to learn. Experimenting with your own practice is another way to learn.

Ultimately, living a life of Torah means engaging with it, both Written and Oral Torah, and including the handed-down traditions that have no text. Engaging with it may mean saying, “Yes, I will commit to that!” or it may mean, “Goodness, no, that conflicts with everything else I know about Torah!” It may even mean saying, “I will commit to that for now, and continue to learn.”

Torah is a path towards holiness, not just a list of laws. In the book of Exodus in the story about receiving Torah on Mt. Sinai, there is a wonderful verse:

 וַיִּקַּח סֵפֶר הַבְּרִית, וַיִּקְרָא בְּאָזְנֵי הָעָם; וַיֹּאמְרוּ, כֹּל אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר יְהוָה נַעֲשֶׂה וְנִשְׁמָע.

And he took the book of the covenant, and he read so that the people could hear, and they said, “All that the Eternal has said, we will do and we will hear.” – Exodus 24:7

“We will do and we will hear.” – This, after hearing a reading of Torah! This was the beginning of a process of Torah: hearing and doing and hearing and doing and so forth and so on, through all time.

Torah doesn’t stop. It isn’t a frozen thing. It is a way of life and a process of engagement with holiness. As Hillel said:

This is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary, go and learn it. – Shabbat 31a

 

 

The Jewish Bible ≠ The Old Testament

Image: My bookshelves at home. Photo by Rabbi Ruth Adar.

If you find this or any other article on this blog offensive, you have options! Check them out at Hack On, Hack Off.

Something I hear on a regular basis: “The Jewish Bible is just the Old Testament, right?”

No. And while I always chalk it up to ignorance, understand that it’s at best an ignorant statement. I’m sure you don’t want to sound ignorant or say anything offensive, which is why I’m writing this.

Jews don’t think of the Tanach (ta-NAHKH) as the “old” anything. It’s the library of canonical books we refer to as “The Bible,” or “Scripture.” It’s our collection of holy books, including the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings (Psalms, etc.) We hold these books in deep reverence.

There is a Christian collection of books known as the “New Testament” that we don’t recognize as our holy scripture, any more than Christians recognize the Quran as their holy scripture.

Referring to our Bible as the “Old Testament” suggests that there is a new, better edition out. That is what Christians believe, and in a Christian context, that’s fine. At a Christian Bible study, it’s fine. It’s not fine to say it in a synagogue: it is like going to a Buddhist event and referring to the participants as “heathens.” It will definitely mark you as someone who doesn’t know any better.

Also, the Jewish Bible IS different from the Old Testament portion of the Christian Bible. The two are organized differently. They have been translated differently. For instance:

Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. – Isaiah 7:14, King James Version

Assuredly, my Lord will give you a sign of His own accord! Look, the young woman is with child and about to give birth to a son. Let her name him Immanuel. – Isaiah 7:14, Jewish Publication Society translation, 1985

That’s just one of the more famous examples of a difference in translation. There are many more of them.

So, when you’re talking about the Jewish Bible, call it that, or use the Hebrew term “Tanakh.” That’s one way to show that you have done your homework.

Jewish Funeral: Why not send flowers?

Image: A Jewish cemetery. Note the pebbles left on monuments. Photo by Darelle, via pixabay.com.

“Should I send flowers to a Jewish funeral?”

Many readers search that question, or something like it. The simple answer is: NO. Flowers are not part of Jewish funeral traditions.

Instead of flowers, Jews appreciate a memorial donation to a charity or social justice organization. Often the family will name a particular fund or charity for memorial donations. If there is no charity named, then donate to the organization of your choice. The amount of the donation is unimportant; give according to your means.

Most organizations will mail a card to the family letting them know of the memorial gift. Give them a name and address in addition to the name of the deceased.

Why no flowers? 

  • First, it is Jewish tradition, going back millennia.
  • Second, there is a strong feeling in our tradition that in death people should all be treated equally. Having flowers at the funeral or on the grave would mean that wealthier folk would have a bigger “show” and poorer people would be shamed.
  • Third, a donation to a fund that will relieve suffering or make the world better is a more lasting memorial than flowers.

What else can one do to honor the dead?

  • Attend the funeral.
  • Visit the family at shiva. (See 5 Tips for Shiva Visits)
  • Visit the grave and leave a pebble on it as a mark that a visitor was there.
  • Attend any events in honor of the dead.
  • Call or visit the mourners periodically during the first year of mourning.

For more about Jewish funerals, see Jewish Funeral Etiquette: 10 Tips.

For more about supporting mourners, see Jewish Social Skills: Death & Mourning

 

What is Tzom Tammuz?

Image: “The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans Under the Command of Titus, A.D. 70” by David Roberts. Public Domain, via Wikimedia.

If you have a Jewish calendar – or if you use the excellent online calendar at hebcal.com – you may have noticed something called “Tzom Tammuz.”  That translates to “Fast of Tammuz” which isn’t terribly enlightening, so I thought you might like to have a bit more info.

Next month we will observe the somber day known as Tisha B’Av, [“Ninth of Av”] when we remember the destruction of the Second Temple along with other disasters in Jewish history. Tzom Tammuz is part of the preparation for that day. It is a dawn-to-dusk fast to recall the day the Romans breached the city wall of Jerusalem before the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. It falls exactly three weeks before Tisha B’Av, and that three week period is a time of special mourning and attention. (Tammuz and Av are months in the Jewish year, both of which fall in the late summer.)

A “minor fast” like Tzom Tammuz is one that is kept only from sunrise to sunset. It applies only to eating and drinking, unlike the major fasts of Tisha B’Av and Yom Kippur, on which we refrain not only from eating and drinking, but also from washing and anointing our bodies, wearing leather, and having sex. Major fasts last 25 hours, from sunset one day until three stars appear in the sky on the next.

The destruction of the Temple was one of the watershed moments in Jewish history, the end of one age and the beginning of another. Biblical Judaism effectively ended then, because the sacrificial cult and everything that went with it was no longer possible. Rabbinic Judaism – the dominant form of Judaism in the world today – had not yet been born. That would happen in the following months, as Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai moved his students to the academy at Yavneh.

While there are some who look forward to rebuilding the Temple someday, Reform Jews believe that the time for it is past. God moved us into a new period of history, one in which our sacrifices would be made of prayers and song, rather than of animal gore.

I personally do not fast on Tzom Tammuz, but I keep it as a quiet day of reflection and study. The Three Weeks from the fast until Tisha B’Av are a time to reflect on Sinat Chinam, baseless hatred, a topic that is sadly pertinent today.

In 2016 Tzom Tammuz begins at dawn on Sunday, July 24.

 

 

A Succinct Lesson on Jewish Thought

Image: A flowering cholla cactus. Photo by Kenneth Redmond on pixabay.com.

An old Ashkenazi gentleman once said to me, “I don’t know what happens when we die. Some say we go to heaven with the pearly gates. Some say it’s a big yeshivah up there. But me, I think it’s just this life and then, you know, the worms. So we better do our best in this life, since it’s all we’ve got.”

In truth, there’s no single Jewish idea about the afterlife. I have always like this man’s description of the puzzle, though, because it seems to hit all the main points of a typical Jewish worldview:

  1. Life is full of mystery.
  2. Some say this, others say that.
  3. But yes, I have an opinion, which is not a rosy one.
  4. The important thing is to live a good life.

 

 

 

A Shavuot Compilation

Image: Cheesecake is a popular Shavuot treat. Photo by Pexels on pixabay.com.

Shavuot Sameach! Happy Feast of Weeks!

Here are some articles from this blog on the Feast of Shavuot:

Shavuot for Beginners

Why I Love Shavuot

Passing the Torah  a poem

What is Shavuot?

Happy Anniversary, Jewish People!

What’s Tikkun Leil Shavuot?

What is Yizkor?

And elsewhere on the Internet:

Shavuot from Judaism 101

Shavuot from My Jewish Learning

Shavuot from ReformJudaism.org

Shavuot from the Jewish Virtual Library

 

What is the Haftarah?

Image: Ezekiel’s Vision of a Chariot, in St. John the Baptist Church in Kratovo, Macedonia, 1836. Artist unknown, public domain.

“Haftorah?” asked a puzzled student, “So where is the other half?”

Haftarah (pronounced haf-tuh-RAH, or haf-TOH-rah) is a word that puzzles many people who hear it. It is not “half-Torah” as the Ashkenazi pronunciation seems to hint. Haftarah is a reading from the books of the prophets, the Nevi’im.

Nevi’im (neh-vee-EEM), the second part of the Jewish Bible, includes:

Former Prophets (sometimes called “Histories”):

  • Joshua
  • Judges
  • Samuel I & II
  • Kings I & II

Major Prophets (“major” for length, not for pre-eminence)

  • Isaiah
  • Jeremiah
  • Ezekiel

The 12 Minor Prophets (“minor” for length, not importance)

  • Hosea
  • Joel
  • Amos
  • Obadiah
  • Jonah
  • Micah
  • Nahum
  • Habakkuk
  • Zephaniah
  • Haggai
  • Zebediah
  • Malachi

Unlike the Torah readings, which include, over the course of the year, every word from the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, the Haftarah readings are only from selected portions of the prophetic books. The readings always have some link to the Torah reading, although sometimes it takes study to perceive the link.

We do not know for sure when or why the Haftarah readings became part of the Shabbat Torah service. For some interesting speculation on that subject, read What is the Haftarah and Why Do We Read It? by Rabbi Peretz Rodman.

Haftarah is usually read or chanted in Hebrew from a book or printed page, not from a scroll.

The Haftarah reading have its own set of blessings, before and after, like the Torah reading. It is chanted to a distinctive trope [melody] used only for Haftarah. For an example of Haftarah trope, watch this video of (now Rabbi) Michael Harvey chanting the Haftarah to Parashat Noach: