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?

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


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 (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.

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.


Meet An Expert on Islam

rabbi-reuven-firestone-phdRecently the Jewish Journal carried an article by one of my teachers, Rabbi Dr. Reuven Firestone, Regenstein Professor in Medieval Judaism and Islam at Hebrew Union College (HUC). It reminded me that he has written books and articles that are quite accessible and might interest some of you.


I first met Dr. Firestone in the context of a class in which he taught me how to read Mikraot Gedolot – the traditional commentaries on Torah, all neatly bound together in a few volumes. I enjoyed learning with him, and when I finally reached the point that I had the option of elective courses, I took every class on Islam that he offered.

I had many good teachers at HUC, and a few great ones. Dr. Firestone is among the greats. I admired the courage of his scholarship, because he did not just sit in Los Angeles reading about Islam. He spent a sabbatical in Cairo (this was before the revolution) He took his whole family with him. Even then, it was not a friendly place for Jews, and he has a realistic view of Jewish-Islamic relations.

Much of the information about Islam that we get from the news media and politicians is sadly ignorant. Talking heads quote the Quran and hadith literature without any understanding or context, much the way antisemites quote snippets of Talmud. These pundits don’t read Arabic, haven’t studied the literature, and don’t understand what they are quoting.

So if I have tantalized you, if you would like to learn more about Islam from a reliable source, let me suggest these articles and books by Dr. Firestone:

Heads of the Hydra” (Jewish Journal article)

No, Pamela Geller, the Quran is not Anti-Semitic” (The Forward)

An Introduction to Islam for Jews

JIhad: The Origin of Holy War in Islam

Lehrhaus 360 Lecture “War and Peace, Jewish Perspectives” (VIDEO)


How To Chanukah

Chanukah begins this year (2015) at sundown on December 6.

I was all set to write a series of how-to posts about Chanukah, but when I looked to see what else was available, I realized there was no way I could best the offerings on MyJewishLearning.com.  So here are some links to great Chanukah how-tos:

How to Light the Chanukah Candles (VIDEO)

Chanukah 101 (The Basics!)

Traditional Chanukah Foods

Chanukah in the Synagogue

I hope these meet your needs for basic Chanukah materials! Now some goodies from past years:

Chanukah Videos! (Music, silliness, fun, laughter. It’s good for you.)

A More Meaningful Chanukah

The Evolution of Chanukah – How did it get to be such a big deal?

Why the Insistence that Chanukah is a Minor Holiday?

And yes, it’s early, but since I’m already getting questions, I thought it was time to start posting resources. Enjoy November, enjoy Thanksgiving, and when the time comes, enjoy Chanukah!