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 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. 



Learning Hebrew, In the Beginning

Image: “Shabbat” in Hebrew. Read right to left, shin, bet, taf.

Fall is always exciting, with new classes beginning. Both the Oakland and the online Intro to the Jewish Experience classes have begun. Today I started something entirely new: I began study with a gentleman who wants to prepare for an adult bar mitzvah.

I thought that some of you might like to find out what happens in a first Hebrew class.

He’s already taken the whole Intro series, so the main issue is going to be learning some Hebrew. We’re going to start with the book, Aleph isn’t Tough by Linda Mozkin. It’s a fairly new book, and a big improvement on the collection of paper handouts from which I learned my aleph-bet.

You read that correctly: ALEPH – BET, not alphabet. This is Hebrew, and the first two letters are aleph and bet.

We don’t learn the letters in order. For one thing, aleph is a tricky and mysterious letter. It makes no sound. Some say that it makes the sound of a person just about to speak. It’s also one of the harder ones to write.

No, we’ll begin with a word: Shabbat. The letters are ShinBetTaf. Three important sounds that we use a lot, and one of the most important words in the entire Hebrew language. If you want to see the letters, they spell “Shabbat” in the image at the top of this post.

Every Hebrew letter is part of a door. Every Hebrew word is a door that opens into a house full of rooms. We will learn Shin – Bet – Taf today, and Shabbat. That door opens into a house with rooms:

  • Shabbat – Sabbath
  • Shabbaton – A complete day of Sabbath rest
  • Shvitah – A strike, as with a union. “Down tools!”  (Modern Hebrew)
  • Shabbat. – He rested.
  • and many more, all somehow connected to the concept of “rest.”

Semitic languages like Arabic, Hebrew, and Aramaic build words this way, with “root”  [shoresh] forms of three or four consonants from which a family of words can be built.

Today was a beginning. Another Jew began to claim his heritage, the lashon kodesh, the holy language.



High Holy Days for Beginners, 5778 / 2017

Image: Rabbi Michal Loving of Temple Beth Orr in Coral Springs, FL blows the shofar to announce the new year. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Loving.

The High Holy Days are coming!

Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, begins at sundown on September 20, 2017. It will begin the Jewish Year 5778. Here are some basic facts to know about the holiday season:

Happy Jewish New Year!

Rosh HaShanah is the Jewish New Year. Observant Jews will go to synagogue that day, and will do no work. Many other Jews may take the day off for reflection and celebration. The mitzvah [commandment] for the day of Rosh HaShanah is to hear the sound of the shofar [ram’s horn.] The basic greeting for the New Year is “Shanah Tovah” [literally, “Good Year!”] For other greetings, see A Guide to High Holy Day Greetings.

First, Prepare!

Preparation for the High Holy Day Season began at sundown on August 22-23 with Rosh Chodesh Elul. Jews worldwide take the month of Elul to examine their lives in the light of Torah, looking for things about ourselves that need to change. For more about preparation, look at Books to Prepare for the High Holy Days and Teshuvah 101.

Days of Awe

Rosh HaShanah begins a very serious time in the Jewish year called the Days of Awe. Unlike the secular New Year, which is mostly a time for celebration, the Days of Awe are an annual period for reflection and for mending relationships and behavior. Synagogue services use solemn music and urge Jews, individually and collectively, to mend what is broken in their lives, and to apologize for misdeeds.

Teshuvah: Sin & Repentance

The Jewish understanding of sin is that all human beings fall short of their best selves from time to time. When we do wrong, even inadvertently, we are required to acknowledge what we have done, take responsibility for it, and take steps to assure it will not happen again. This process is called teshuvah [literally, “turning.”] Teshuvah 101 explains this concept in more detail – it isn’t about beating ourselves up, it’s about change for the better.

Yom Kippur

The Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, is the culmination of the process of teshuvah. Observant Jews fast for 24 hours and spend the day in synagogue, praying and reflecting on their lives. Other Jews may take the day off for reflection as well. Yom Kippur is a day for atonement for sins against God and/or Jewish law; it only atones for sins against God. We atone for sins against other human beings through the process of teshuvah (taking responsibility, apologizing, and taking steps to prevent a recurrence.) If you have a health problem that requires regulation of food and/or liquids, do not fast – there are other ways to observe.

Tickets for Prayer?

Very important: Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are the days of the year when the greatest number of Jews attend synagogue. Because of the high attendance, many synagogues do not have seats for visitors for their main services. If they have a few extra seats, they sell tickets for those seats to offset the extra expense of the holiday (members pay their share via membership dues.) Note that synagogues often make arrangements for reduced rates for membership for those who wish to participate in synagogue life but who cannot afford full dues. Consider joining a synagogue – they offer much more than High Holy Day services.

There are several options for attending High Holy Day services for low or no cost. You can always call the synagogue and ask; they may be able to direct you to a synagogue which offers free High Holy Day services.  Some synagogues offer free High Holy Day tickets for college students or members of the military. If you are in a city in the USA, call the Jewish Federation or other local Jewish agency for information about locations for free or low-cost services.

Get the Most out of Your High Holy Days

To get the most out of the High Holy Days, observe the month of preparation that leads up to them. Attend services at a local synagogue (guests are welcome at regular services). Ask yourself “What about my life and behavior needs to change?” and make those changes. Mend relationships that can be mended, and do your part even in those relationships that cannot be mended at this time. Consider reading a book about the High Holy Days, or keeping a journal. Like everything else in life, the more you invest in this experience, the more you will get out of it.

There is much more to know about the High Holy Days; this is just a beginning. If you are curious about Judaism, this is a great time of year to contact a synagogue about adult education classes, since many classes in synagogues start immediately after the holidays. If you are interested in an online basic introduction to judaism, check out Learn About Judaism Online.

Lehrhaus Judaica offers an online class, Introduction to the Jewish Experience, which meets on Sundays but is also available via recordings. (Full disclosure: I am the instructor.)

L’Shanah Tovah: I wish you a fruitful beginning to the New Year of 5778!

What Does “Shabbat Shalom” Mean?

Image: A family celebrating Shabbat. (GoldenPixelsLLC/Shutterstock)

Someone recently found this site by searching the string: “Meaning of ‘Shabbat Shalom.'”

“Shabbat shalom” is a Hebrew greeting for the Jewish Sabbath. Its literal meaning is “Sabbath of Peace.” 

Shabbat [the Sabbath] officially begins at sundown Friday and continues to sundown Saturday. You will usually hear the greeting or read it online from Friday morning onwards through sundown Saturday.

Informally, the phrase means, “I wish you a nice Sabbath.” For more about the deeper meanings of “shalom,” see What is Shalom? on this blog.

“Shabbat Shalom” is pronounced shah-BAHT shah-LOAM.

You may also hear “Gut Shabbes,” which is the same wish in Yiddish. It is pronounced GOOT SHAH-bes.

The proper reply is to repeat the phrase in Hebrew or Yiddish. If you are not comfortable with that, a good second choice is “Thanks, you too!”


Dates for Intro to the Jewish Experience, 5778/2017-8

Image: Intro class at Temple Sinai, Oakland, CA.

The dates for my “Intro to the Jewish Experience” class have been set for the upcoming year!  Here are the dates for online classes:

Fall Term: Jewish Lifecycle & Holidays – Sundays, October 22 – December 10, 2017

A very basic introduction to Jewish lifecycle events and the yearly cycle of holidays.

Winter Term: Israel & Texts – Sundays, January 21 – March 11, 2018

An introduction to Jewish sacred texts and to the land of Israel through those texts. We will briefly study Torah, Bible, Midrash, Mishnah, Gemara (Talmud), and the process of Responsa.

Spring Term: Traditions of Judaism – Sundays, April 8 – June 3, 2018

This class examines the vast diversity of the Jewish world: Sephardic, Ashkenazic, Mizrahi, Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal, American Judaism, as well as Jewish food customs and culture.

The terms may be taken in any order. Tuition is $225 for the full series, or $90 per term.  Classes meet from 3:30pm – 5pm Pacific Time online.

Terms are structured as follows:

Register through the Lehrhaus Judaica website.

This class parallels a class offered on Wednesday evenings at Temple Sinai in Oakland, CA. For more info about that traditional class and to register for it, check the Lehrhaus online catalog.

Reform or Reformed?

Image: Rabbi Stacy Blank blows the shofar. She is an Israeli Reform rabbi.

I am a Reform rabbi.

I am not a “Reformed” rabbi.

The branch of Judaism that took shape in Germany in the 19th century is called “Reform Judaism.” Anyone who calls it “reformed” weakens whatever point (maybe an excellent one!) that they are trying to make.

One hopes they will reform their ways and refer to us as “Reform Jews.”

P.S. Spell checkers can have troubles with this, too. It’s worth keeping an eye out for it.