What Does “Shabbat Shalom” Mean?

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

From the search strings used to get to this site recently: “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.”

It 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!”

 

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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.

A Quick Primer on Jewish Mourning

Image: Two gray-haired women sit on a hammock together beside a pond, looking at the water. (silviarita/pixabay)

Sheloshim (which means “thirty” in Hebrew) is the thirty-day period of mourning after a funeral.

I am very grateful for all the kind words and comfort that were offered to me over the past weeks since my mother’s death. I am more convinced than ever of the wisdom of Jewish mourning traditions, as I move through the process of Jewish mourning.

And it is a process. First, there is the period of shock after a death, which we call aninoot. That is the time between death itself and the burial, and no matter what your tradition, it is a busy time with many duties to fulfill. Even for me, a  mourner at a long distance from the funeral, unable to help with funeral preparations, there was a profound feeling of shock. No matter how “expected” death is, it is a shock to the living. A mourner in aninoot is relieved of all responsibilities other than funeral preparations – no mitzvot to perform, no social obligations to fill.

With the funeral, a mourner passes into the period of shivah, the intense week of mourning after the burial of a loved one. They sit with family and receive the comfort of friends. They do not leave the house. The idea is to take the time to allow feelings and memories to emerge. Friends visit, and sit quietly with the mourner. They may bring food and remind the mourner to eat. They do not tell the mourner how to feel; they simply witness the emergence of feelings without judgment. Their presence reminds the mourner that while someone important has left this life, the mourner will not be abandoned by the living.

At the end of the week of shivah, the mourner leaves the house and if possible takes a walk, perhaps around the block. It is a return to the world.

The mourner is still in the period known as sheloshim, the thirty days following burial. In this lighter period of mourning, the mourner may go back to work, but they stay away from parties, concerts and similar joyous events. A mourner in sheloshim does not marry and does not attend weddings. Often there is an event marking the end of sheloshim, traditionally a study session in honor of the departed.

After that, formal mourning ceases, except in the case of the death of a parent. In that case the mourner observes the shneim asar chodesh, twelve months of mourning, saying kaddish and attending services.

The purpose of this process is to move mourners from the side of the grave back into the world of the living. Of course human grief is not simple and tidy. A scent or a melody can bring back a sharp memory of a loved one years after their death. Some losses never heal, and certainly no one wishes to forget loved ones. However, this gentle, wise process of Jewish mourning provides us with a framework for our grief and instructions for those who wish to comfort. As such, it is a blessing.

What is the Mourner’s Kaddish?

Image: A yahrzeit candle. 

People sometimes refer to the Kaddish as “the Jewish prayer for the dead.” That’s almost right. The Kaddish is a prayer said by mourners, and the people who benefit are the mourners. Saying Kaddish is an ancient and important ritual, a part of the mourning process for Jews.

It didn’t start out that way. The Kaddish began as a doxology, a prayer of praise. We know that it is quite old because it is said in Aramaic, the vernacular of the Jewish People from the sixth century BCE and the eighth century CE, over 1000 years. Hebrew became the lashon kodesh [holy language]- used only for specific religious purposes.

In an early siddur from about 900 CE, the Kaddish is a prayer of praise that separates parts of the service.

To this day, in an Orthodox service, if you get lost, each Kaddish is an opportunity to find your place again, because it means that the congregation is about to move on to another part of the service. A vestige of that practice remains in the Reform service, where we say a Kaddish at two points: just before the Shema and its Blessings, and then at the end of the service. (For more about the Reform Service, see What Goes On in a Jewish Service?)

In the Middle Ages, the practice took hold for the last Kaddish of the service to be called the Orphan’s Kaddish (that’s what Kaddish Yatom means literally.) Mourners in the congregation would say Kaddish daily. While it was sometimes framed as “praying for the dead,” the function of it was that mourners couldn’t isolate themselves. Instead, they had to join 10 other Jews (a minyan) with whom to say Kaddish, usually at the daily prayer services at their synagogue.

If you think about it, it’s brilliant from the psychological perspective. Most people who observe the mitzvah of saying Kaddish for 11 months for a deceased parent report that it is a transformative experience. They are supported as they move through the stages of grief. They have a daily reminder that they do not mourn alone, but “Among the mourners of Israel.”

המקום ינחם אתכם בתוך שאר אבלי ציון וירושלים
“May God comfort you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” – Traditional to say to a person in mourning

For the text of the Kaddish in Aramaic, a recording of the prayer, and a transliteration, see the My Jewish Learning page.

 

What Do Jews Believe About Jesus?

Image: Apse mosaic in basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy. Built 547. A.D. Photo by Petar Milošević via Wikimedia.

“Don’t you believe in Jesus?” the young woman asked me, her eyes wide.

Whenever someone asks me that question, I have a flashback to my Introduction to Theology class at the University of Chicago Divinity School back in the fall of 1980. Langdon Gilkey, the Shailer Mathews professor of theology was beginning his lecture on Christology, the study of Jesus. He began, “All we know for sure about the historical Jesus is that he did once live and he didn’t die in bed.” Every student in that class was shocked (which I suspect was Mr. Gilkey’s intent.)

As an observant Jew, I’m willing to go a bit farther than that eminent theologian. Here is what I believe about Jesus:

  1. Jesus was a man who lived in the Roman Province of Judea in the first century of the common era (what Christians refer to as “A.D.”)
  2. Jesus was born a Jew, and died a Jew, according to the accounts of people who knew him or lived near his time (documents Christians refer to as the “New Testament.”)
  3. Sometime shortly after Jesus was executed by the Roman authorities, his followers had a series of experiences that set them on a path that would eventually diverge from Judaism.
  4. Over time, Jesus’ followers came to believe that he was sent by God to save humanity from their sins. They called him “messiah.”
  5. Over time, Jesus’ followers came to believe that he was divine, that is, that he was God.

When someone asks me “Don’t you believe in Jesus?” usually what they mean is “Don’t you believe Jesus is God?” or “Don’t you believe Jesus died for your sins?” The answer to both those questions is no. I believe he was a real person and a Jew like myself. I also believe that he died a very long time ago. He did not die for my sins, and he did not rise from the dead on Easter.

For those Christian readers who are thinking, “But what about the prophets?” I suggest you read another article I’ve written about the difference between Jewish and Christian concepts of the prophets, What is a Prophet?

While there is much that Jews and Christians have in common there are also important differences, and first among those is our disagreement about Jesus. For a Christian, Jesus is the messiah and most important person in history. For a Jew, he is a Jew who died in about the year 30 CE and whose followers started a new religion, Christianity.

Resources for Torah Study

Image: A study with books and computer. (Pexels/Pixabay)

I strongly recommend to my students that they find a Torah Study group and attend, at least for a while. It’s a great way to get to know a synagogue or other Jewish institution. It’s also one of the quintessential Jewish activities: there is no better way to learn how to think as Jews think. Torah is not just about the Bible; Torah is a worldview.

Here are some resources I highly recommend for beginners:

Sefaria.org – This online library of Jewish texts is a miracle of technology. “Sefaria” is a play on sefer, Hebrew for “book.” Seforim (suh-FOR-eem) are Jewish holy books. Sefaria.org offers a growing selection of Jewish holy texts for study along with other resources. It has a full Tanakh, with English translation, as well as all the major works of rabbinic literature and more. Some books are only partly translated, but don’t despair – scholars are working on them all the time! Click on the horizontal lines in the upper left hand corner of the screen to reach the Table of Contents. Give yourself time to click and explore. If you prefer to learn in more directed ways, scroll to the bottom of the screen and under “About,” click “Help,” which will take you to a series of videos illustrating ways to use the site.

Mechon-Mamre.org is an older, less complicated website offering resources for Torah study and other Jewish texts. I particularly like the Hebrew font they use; it’s very simple and clear.

Maps of Biblical Israel – One unique thing about Torah study is that our sacred text is rooted in the geography of Israel. This website was assembled by Christians (as you can see from all the mentions of “Old Testament” but the maps are very handy.

hebcal.com – For “Parashat haShavua” (weekly Torah readings) this website is a wonderful tool. This is the Swiss Army knife of Jewish calendars: you can click on the weekly portion and get the readings, with links to commentary and sermons online. It will also do date conversion (want to know what day in the Jewish calendar was your birthday?) It’s wonderful.

And finally, a wonderful book:

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. While they are written primarily for beginners, they bring depth as well as simplicity to the project of learning Torah as an adult.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book and look forward to requiring it for my Intro students during the Winter “Israel & Texts” sessions of the course. Rabbi Fuchs makes a case for a living, vibrant Torah that helps us to understand our lives today.