Who or What is Chazal?

Image: A page from a medieval Jerusalem Talmud manuscript. Found in the Cairo genizah. Public Domain.

“Chazal say…” a more advanced rabbinical student said to me, in answer to a question. I heard, “Chagall says…” and was very confused. I’d asked a question about halakhah (Jewish law) – why is he quoting a Jewish artist?

Chazal (Kha-ZAHL) is a collective noun meaning “the sages,” the ancient rabbis, from the “Men of the Great Assembly,” up through the closing and final redaction of the Babylonian Talmud, roughly from 500 BCE until about 650 CE. Think of it as a fancier way of saying “the ancient rabbis.”

Rabbis talk about those rabbis in terms of eras of rabbis:

First there was the age of the Men of the Great Assembly, which ran from the time of Ezra the Scribe up until about the time of the Maccabees. One of the last of that era was Shimon the Righteous:

שִׁמְעוֹן הַצַּדִּיק הָיָה מִשְּׁיָרֵי כְנֶסֶת הַגְּדוֹלָה. הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, עַל שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים הָעוֹלָם עוֹמֵד, עַל הַתּוֹרָה וְעַל הָעֲבוֹדָה וְעַל גְּמִילוּת חֲסָדִים:

Shimon the Righteous was one of the last of the men of the great assembly. He used to say: the world stands upon three things: the Torah, the Temple service, and the practice of acts of piety.

Pirkei Avot 1:2

Then there was the age of the Zugot, or Pairs of teachers, the last and most famous of whom were Hillel and Shammai. They all lived in Palestine, the land of Israel. They saw Rome come to power in the land, and were alive during the time of a fellow called Jesus.

Next came the Tannaim, which means “repeaters.” They were the rabbis who formulated the Mishnah. They taught during the difficult period just before and after the destruction of the Temple, from about 20 BCE – 200 CE.

The rabbis after the redaction of the Mishnah are called the Amoraim, which means “those who speak.” They are the rabbis of the Talmud. Some of them lived and taught in Babylonia, and some lived and taught in Palestine. They lived from 200 until 500 CE.

The last era of rabbis who are Chazal is a rather shadowy group called the Savoraim, the “reasoners.” They lived in Babylonia, and were responsible for putting the Talmud into its final form from 500-600 CE.

So now you know that Chazal is not Chagall! Had there been no Chazal, likely Chagall would have painted differently; most of his subject matter was deeply embedded in the Jewish tradition shaped by Chazal.


How Does One Become a Rabbi?

Image: HUC Ordination, New York Campus (Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion)

I got a message recently asking, “I think I might like to be a rabbi. How does one become a rabbi?”

Here is what is involved in becoming a Reform rabbi. Other movements have similar processes, although I don’t know the details of those programs. (Perhaps some reader who is an Orthodox, Conservative or Reconstructionist rabbi will help us out, in the comments.)

  1. Language studies. As part of the application to Hebrew Union College, the Reform rabbinical school, I had to pass a written Hebrew exam demonstrating that I had the equivalent of a year of college Hebrew.
  2. Application to the school. It was a lot like a grad school application, except that there was also a psychological evaluation, and I needed to get a recommendation from my rabbi. (That included the unspoken assumption that I had a rabbi.) I traveled to the campus in Cincinnati for an interview with the admissions committee, who asked a lot of questions about my personal life and my plans for my life as a rabbi.
  3. Finances. If they said yes, then I was responsible for my expenses including tuition for a minimum of five years [according to the website, those are currently expected to be slightly over $50.000 a year, minus any financial aid]. Most of my class had a mix of financial aid and loans; many had quite a bit of student debt by ordination. There is no “part-time study” option; the assumption is that rabbinical study is a full time, 24/7 commitment.
  4. Year in Jerusalem. Upon acceptance, I was expected to make arrangements for a year of study in Jerusalem. I was single, but I was welcome to bring spouse (if I had one) and children with me. I left my cat with my best friend, kissed my college-age kids, sold my house and furniture, and got on a plane to Tel Aviv. I spent the year at HUC Jerusalem doing intensive study of Modern Hebrew, learning the fine points of Biblical Hebrew grammar, learning the services for weekdays and holidays, and getting a crash education in Israeli life, history, and culture.
  5. Four years minimum full time study at a stateside campus. I attended the Los Angeles campus; there are also HUC campuses in Cincinnati and New York. All rabbinical students take a regular course load of classes in Jewish texts and traditions, as well as professional courses in pastoral counseling, etc. They also work at internships, either serving small congregations or in other settings. I served a congregation in the Central Valley, worked for a year as a chaplain intern at a facility for Jewish elders, and served the congregation for the deaf in the San Fernando Valley. In my case, four years was not enough; for a variety of reasons, I chose to study in Los Angeles for five years instead of four.
  6. Ordination. At the end of the stateside study, if the faculty agrees, one is ordained to the rabbinate. Employment is not guaranteed: candidates enter the “placement” process and are interviewed by those congregations and institutions that are hiring. Most graduates find full time employment, but not all.

This is a process that requires a lot: sacrifices in time, finances, and much more. I had been to graduate school once already, and thought that rabbinical school would be similar. It was as demanding and much more: rabbinical school challenged me academically, intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, and physically. (Granted, I was 48 when I entered, and most of my classmates were in their 20’s.)

As I said before, the Conservative and Reconstructionist schools are similar. There are also nondenominational schools with programs that are more flexible. There are schools that require less of students, for instance, by not requiring time in Israel or allowing for part-time study. However, there is no reputable school that confers ordination without demanding some serious effort and long term commitment from students. For a look at some other schools and programs, this 2014 article from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency may be helpful.

After Poway: Feelings and Coping

Image: A single candle flame. (Image by Pezibear from Pixabay)

Here we are again, dealing with feelings from an attack on a synagogue. This time the synagogue was in Poway, a sunny place outside of San Diego, CA.

  • Some of us may be thinking, “I have always known about anti-Semitism. But this is hitting me very hard.”
  • Some of us may feel afraid to go in a synagogue.
  • Some of us have Gentile relatives who mean well but who do not understand why this shooting is so personal for each of us.
  1. This shooting came exactly six months after the shooting in Pittsburgh, the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in American Jewish history. We were still digesting that event; now it has happened again. Stress accumulates.
  2. This attack was not an isolated incident. Not only does it bring back the memories of the shooting at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, the Anti-Defamation League reports that there were 3023 separate anti-Semitic incidents in the United States in 2017-2018. The ADL reports that online anti-Semitic threats and hate speech have increased dramatically since 2016.
  3. Some born-Jews may be experiencing anxiety from intergenerational trauma. A number of studies suggest that some extreme trauma actually affects the DNA, passing effects to future generations.
  4. Education about anti-Semitism often centers on the Holocaust. It is not surprising that an attack on a synagogue sets off fears of a new Holocaust. The idolization of Nazis and Hitler by many of the alt-right adds to that fear, and some anti-Semites deliberately push those buttons with symbols like swastikas.
  5. The fact that some of our non-Jewish neighbors do not understand our feeling of personal connection to these events may heighten the feelings of fear and perhaps even abandonment.

What can we Jews do about our anxiety levels? And how can our non-Jewish friends and neighbors help us?

Here are the things that help me cope:

The ADL studies reveal some very good news: the vast majority of our neighbors do not hate us. A 2017 poll revealed that the majority of Americans are concerned about violence against Jews and Muslims:

The surveys reveal that while anti-Semitic attitudes in the United States have increased slightly to 14 percent, the vast majority of Americans hold respectful opinions of their Jewish neighbors. However, for the first time ADL found a majority of Americans (52 percent) saying that they are concerned about violence in the U.S. directed at Jews, and an even a higher percentage (76 percent) concerned about violence directed at Muslims. More than eight in 10 Americans (84 percent) believe it is important for the government to play a role in combating anti-Semitism, up from 70 percent in 2014. –ADL report, 4/6/17

This is very good news. Yes, there are slightly more people reporting anti-Semitic opinions (16%.) In contrast to that, 84% of those surveyed believe it is important for the government to play a role in combating anti-Semitism, up from 70 percent in 2014.

While there have been in the past periods of anti-Semitic incidents and feelings in United States history, all of those times were followed by an improvement in relations. The General Order #11 incident in 1862 was followed by an increased understanding between General Ulysses Grant and the American Jewish community, who ultimately backed him for the presidency. The lynching of Leo Frank in 1915 led to the founding of the ADL, which from the beginning had as its mission “to put an end to the defamation of the Jewish people, and to secure justice and fair treatment for all.” Jewish participation in fighting WWII, and especially the sacrifice of the Four Chaplains gradually changed attitudes, leading to many years of cordiality between the Jewish and Christian communities in the U.S.

Every congregational rabbi and every synagogue board in the United States is concentrating hard on security at Jewish institutions. We already had a level of security that would surprise our Christian neighbors, but every synagogue and Jewish institution is now reviewing their security and looking for the best way to make their people safe. It is not possible to make any place in a free society perfectly safe, but I can assure you that this is a top concern for our leadership today. If you want to help with this, it’s a good time for a donation to your local synagogue – cameras and personnel do not come cheap.

Intergenerational trauma is real. PTSD from other traumas in our lives is real. If you are suffering from anxiety or other symptoms, I encourage you to seek a sympathetic therapist. There are new treatments for these sorts of anxieties all the time and not all of them are drug therapies. However, as the saying goes, “Doesn’t ask, doesn’t get.” or as Hillel put it, “A person prone to being ashamed cannot learn.” (Avot 2:5) To get help with anxiety, you have to seek it out.

One of the most effective ways to deal with the feelings after an anti-Semitic attack is to come together with other Jews. Many Jewish institutions will be offering opportunities to come together – take advantage of those. Your presence at those events helps comfort others, too! You do not have to believe in God. You don’t have to belong to the synagogue. You can just show up for services, although as a colleague of mine pointed out, these days it might be good to call ahead and get instructions. Many synagogues will have extra security procedures in place.

Look for ways to increase your Jewish engagement. This may seem counterintuitive, but most of us find that doing things that affirm our Judaism gives us more solace than hiding could ever give. Join that synagogue, or join a Jewish book club. Find a Torah study group, or begin having Shabbat dinners with friends. Take a class and learn more about the Jewish people. These are classic Jewish approaches to healing and strengthening ourselves. Especially if your Jewish education focussed on the Holocaust and not much else, this is the time to learn more about Judaism – to learn about our rich civilization and our strengths.

If Gentile relatives or friends do not understand your upset, you can offer them resources to educate themselves. They do not have a frame of reference for this, other than perhaps Holocaust movies. Send them a link to my article, A Message to My Non-Jewish Readers after Pittsburgh. Also, a more general article like Where Did Anti-Semitism Come From? may give them a better context than pop culture offers.

Fight anti-Semitism and other hatreds. Join ADL, or the Southern Poverty Law Center. For more ideas, read 9 Ways to Fight Anti-SemitismTen Things We Can Do to Fight Hate and Ten Ways to Fight Hate: A Community Resource Guide by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Fighting back in constructive ways will make the world safer for all minorities. We are not alone in this fight, but we need to build our alliances by supporting the struggles of other minority groups in respectful ways.

Our tradition is strong and it has survived troubled times before. Judaism is thousands of years old: we have outlived the Babylonians, the Romans, the Spanish Inquisition, and the Third Reich. We will survive this, too.

The Best Jewish Calendar?

Image: Hebcal.com logo superimposed on an old fashioned wall calendar.

Every Jew needs access to a good Jewish calendar. There is a prodigy somewhere who can keep track of all the ins and outs of the nineteen-year cycle of the Jewish year, but the rest of us need a little help.

My favorite Jewish calendar is an online calendar: www.hebcal.com. (The builders of the calendar say it’s pronounced HEEB-kal dot com.) It is free and fabulous: their description:

We offer a powerful custom Jewish calendar tool that lets you generate a list of Jewish holidays for any year (past, present or future). Also available are a Hebrew date converter,  Shabbat candle lighting times and Torah readings(both full kriyah and triennial system), and a page to look up yahrzeits, birthdays and anniversaries.

— “About Hebcal”

If you find that you use the calendar often (or all the time, like me) remember to support it with a donation, so that Michael Radwin and Danny Sadinoff can continue to provide this labor of love.

If I could have access to only one site on the entire Internet, this one would be it!

Hebrew Name Choices

Image: The Hebrew Alef-Bet, in a blue frame.

Many Jews have what we call our Hebrew name, a name by which we are called at major lifecycle events and when we are called to chant blessings for the Torah. They fall into several formats, depending on gender and preference:

Alexander Cohen might have as his Hebrew name:

  • Adam ben Ya’akov v’Sarah
  • Adam son of Jacob and Sarah
  • Normally, Adam would have received that name at his bris, eight days after his birth.
  • In some communities, he might be called Adam ben Ya’akov.

Susie Cohen might have as her Hebrew name:

  • Shoshana bat Ya’akov v’ Sarah
  • Shoshana daughter of Jacob and Sarah
  • Susie would have recieved her name sometime shortly after her birth, at a naming ceremony or brit bat.
  • In some communities, she might be called Shoshana bat Ya’akov.

Lee Cohen, a transgender or nonbinary individual, might have as their Hebrew name:

  • Leor m’beit Ya’akov v’Sarah
  • Leor from the house of Jacob and Sarah
  • Leor may have had that name from birth OR have received it in a naming ceremony as an adult.
  • For more info about nongendered Hebrew names, see this article in Kveller.

Chris Ryan, a convert to Judaism, chose a Hebrew name before his conversion. Since his birth parents were not Jewish, his Jewish credentials are from Abraham and Sarah. (More about this in What’s in a Hebrew Name?) So he might have chosen for his Hebrew name:

  • Caleb ben Avraham v’Sarah
  • Caleb son of Abraham and Sarah
  • He would have had a naming ceremony immediately following his immersion in a mikveh. If he prefers, he might be known as Firstname m’beit Avraham v’Sarah.

Now, as sometimes happens, imagine there is an Jew named Debra Levi. Her family was not religious and she never received a Hebrew name! It’s not too late for her to have one, though. She might choose the name closest to her secular name (Devorah for Debra). She might choose a name to honor a deceased relative (her grandmother, Channah.) She might choose the name of a Jewish woman who inspires her (Ruth, for the biblical figure and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg.) Maybe it is hard to choose, so she picks two! Then she visits her rabbi and asks to arrange a naming ceremony.

  • Channah Rut bat David v’Sarah
  • Channah Ruth daughter of David and Sarah

Once the Jew has their Hebrew name, it will be used to call them to the Torah, to address them at their wedding, and to pray for them at their funeral. When they are sick, some will pray for them by their Hebrew name with the matronymic (mother’s name.) Finally, it will appear on their matzevah, their grave marker.

What’s your Hebrew name? How did you get it? If you chose it, why did you choose that name?

Some Rabbis Have Nicknames

Image: The AriZaL Synagogue in Sefat, Israel (via Wikimedia, some rights reserved)

Some rabbis are particularly beloved or respected in Jewish history. Those rabbis often get a nickname by which they are known in the yeshiva (Torah school.)

You may have heard of Rashi, Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac, (1040-1105) who wrote commentaries on both the Bible and the Talmud. His nickname is an acronym of name, with a few vowels added:

Rabbi Shlomo ben Isaac <is known as> RaSHI

Maimonides has lots of names. Maimonides is his Greek name. However he also has a Jewish name and a corresponding nickname:

Rabbi Moses ben Maimon <is known as> RaMBaM

You may have heard of the legends about Rabbi Judah Loew ben Betzalel of Prague, who supposedly fashioned the Golem to protect the Jews of Prague. He, too, has a nickname, but there more in it than his name:

Moreinu Hagadol (Our great teacher) R. Loew <is known as> MaHaRaL

Rabbi’s nicknames are not always acronyms; sometimes rabbis are known by the titles of their most famous book, or by an honorific. For instance, you may have heard of the Ba’al Shem Tov (Master of the Good Name.) His name was Israel ben Eliezer and he lived from 1698-1760. He was an early and profound teacher of Hasidism. He is also known as the Besht:

Ba’al Shem Tov < may be abbreviated > BeSHT

Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572) was known as HaAri, meaning “The Lion.” He was a great teacher of Kabbalah, who is also known as:

HaAri Zichrono Livraha (of blessed memory) <became> HaArizaL

Some examples of rabbis known by the names of their books:

Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter (1847-1905) is known as the Sfat Emet, (“The Language of Truth”) the title of his commentaries on the Talmud.

Rabbi Jacob ben Asher is known as the Ba’al HaTurim after his towering code (law book) of halakhah (Jewish law.) Ba’al HaTurim means “Master of the Rows,” a reference to the fact that he arranged the topics of the law into four areas, corresponding to the four rows of stones on the breastplate of the High Priest.

So in your reading, if ever you think, “Gee, these people have a lot of names!” you are quite right! Sometimes, Google is quite useful.

Are There Jewish Angels?

Image: Stone statue of an angel. (bernswaelz/pixabay)

The word usually translated “angel” in the Bible is the Hebrew malach (mah-LAKH) which means messenger. An angel-messenger appeared to Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22:10-12:

And Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to kill his son, and the angel of the Eternal called out to him out of heaven, and said, “Abraham! Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” And he said, “Do not lay your hand upon the young man, nor do anything to him, for now I know you are a God-fearing man, seeing that you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.”

Notice that while the angel is sent with a message, it speaks with the words of God – it is purely a messenger with no personality of its own.

Jacob sees angels in a dream in Genesis 28:12:

And he dreamed, and look! a ladder was set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and look! angels of God ascending and descending on it! And, look! The Eternal stood beside him, and said: ‘I am the Eternal, the God of Abraham your father, and the God of Isaac. I will give you the land where you lie, to you will I give it, and to your descendants.

In this case, the angels are the visible accompaniment to a message delivered by God, if we accept the plain meaning of the text. The message of the angels is more ambiguous than the words of God; there is no plain meaning, yet there they are before the words, creating a scene in which Jacob hears the words.

In Numbers 22, we read the story of Balaam’s encounter with an angel. The King of Moab wants Balaam to curse Israel for him. God comes to Balaam at night and forbids him to curse Israel. Finally the King sends armed men to bring Balaam. God comes in a dream and says, “OK, you can respond to the king’s command, but don’t say anything unless I approve it.” God is angry when Balaam goes with the men, and sends a stern message by way of an angel in Numbers 22: 22-35:

God’s anger was kindled because he was going, and the angel of the Eternal took his stand in the road as his adversary. Now he was riding on the donkey, and his two servants were with him.  The donkey saw the angel of the Eternal standing in the road, with a drawn sword in his hand; so the donkey turned off the road, and went into the field; and Balaam struck the donkey, to turn it back onto the road. Then the angel of the Eternal stood in a narrow path between the vineyards, with a wall on either side.  When the donkey saw the angel of the Eternal, it scraped against the wall, and scraped Balaam’s foot against the wall; so he struck it again.  Then the angel of the Eternal went ahead, and stood in a narrow place, where there was no way to turn either to the right or to the left.  When the donkey saw the angel of the Eternal, it lay down under Balaam; and Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he struck the donkey with his staff.  Then the Eternal opened the mouth of the donkey, and it said to Balaam, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?”  Balaam said to the donkey, “Because you have made a fool of me! I wish I had a sword in my hand! I would kill you right now!”  But the donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your donkey, which you have ridden all your life to this day? Have I been in the habit of treating you this way?” And he said, “No.”

Then the Eternal opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the Eternal standing in the road, with his drawn sword in his hand; and he bowed down, falling on his face. The angel of the Eternal said to him, “Why have you struck your donkey these three times? I have come out as an adversary, because your way is perverse before me.  The donkey saw me, and turned away from me these three times. If it had not turned away from me, surely just now I would have killed you and let it live.” Then Balaam said to the angel of the Eternal, “I have sinned, for I did not know that you were standing in the road to oppose me. Now therefore, if it is displeasing to you, I will return home.” The angel of the Eternal said to Balaam, “Go with the men; but speak only what I tell you to speak.” So Balaam went on with the officials of Balak.

As in the case of Jacob, God speaks for Godself, but angels serve to emphasize the message. While God gives the order “it’s OK to go,” the angels express God’s emotion: anger. It’s all part of the message.

Biblical angels are messengers. In Tanakh, the Jewish Bible, only two are named (Gabriel and Michael) but many of them are in the stories. The prophet Ezekiel has descriptions of divine creatures that sound very much like angels. In the period after the return from Babylon, the literature about angels multiplied into books we now know as Apocrypha: Tobit, Enoch, and Esdras.

Later, the other Abrahamic religions would take up the concept of angels. Both Islam and Christianity have rich traditions about the same angels that are mentioned in Jewish and apocryphal texts.