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.

NFTY
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!

 

Jewish Social Skills: Death & Mourning

This afternoon and Wednesday I’m teaching my Intro classes about Jewish Death & Mourning. I am pretty sure that when they look at the syllabus, they are thinking about funerals, and they are mostly identified with (1) the dead person or (2) the mourners. That’s normal and human, to picture a topic with ourselves in the center.

My task as teacher is to teach them how to be members of a Jewish community that has mourners in it. True, sometimes they will be the mourners, and someday every one of us will be in that casket at center stage, but for most of our Jewish lives, we’re in the “mourner support” roles. And face it, that’s where the mitzvahs are.

Yes, it is a mitzvah to bury one’s dead. No doubt about that. But there are many other mitzvot that come under the general heading of “comforting the mourner,” most of which don’t sound like a modern idea of “comforting” at all. Here are ways we comfort the mourner:

  • Support our synagogue, so that there are clergy to assist mourners.
  • Support our local Jewish funeral home, so that Jewish mourners do not have the added stress of explaining everything.
  • Show up at funerals, even for people we barely know.
  • Show up at shiva, even if we are not “close” to the family.
  • Offer to babysit, run errands, wash dishes, answer the door during shiva.
  • Sit quietly with a mourner at shiva, just listening.
  • Refrain from telling mourners how they should feel “by now.”
  • Alert the rabbi if a mourner appears to be slipping into depression or otherwise in trouble.
  • Call or write weeks after the funeral, just to “check in.”
  • Say hello to mourners when we see them at synagogue.
  • Invite widows and widowers to events or to dinner in our homes.
  • Make sure that no mourner in our community feels abandoned.

The English word “comfort” in modern usage generally transmits an image of a pat on the back, accompanied by “there, there” or magical words of healing. Grief cannot be fixed by magical means. It can only happen in its own time. We can help by supporting, by being present to the mourner.

Those of us who have been mourners know how important this sort of support can be. Perhaps we received it; perhaps we didn’t. One route to self-healing is to take our sadly-won knowledge and turn it outward, making sure that the next mourner is not left to grieve alone.

What is the Talmud?

“Talmud” is one of those words that mystifies many non-Jews. Anyone with knowledge of Western Civilization has a frame of reference for “the Bible,” even though our Bible is slightly different from the Christian Bible, but “Talmud” – what is that?

Here’s the simplest answer I can give you: Talmud is a record of discussions that took place over roughly 500 years. The subject of those discussions was “How To Live a Life of Torah.” It includes not only majority opinions but minority opinions and lengthy digressions. 

These lengthy discussions were necessary because the Torah itself comes to us without operating instructions. For instance: the Torah says “Keep the Sabbath” and “Remember the Sabbath.” How do we keep the Sabbath? What does it mean to remember it? Something that seems straightforward (“An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”) turns out to be complex: “What about the case of the one-eyed offender who puts out one eye of a person who has two good eyes?” The rabbis argued about these things, and the discussions come down to us in the collections known as the Talmud.

Torah includes both Written Torah (the first five books of the Bible) and Oral Torah (the discussions that flesh out the sometimes enigmatic commandments in the Written Torah.)

To put it algebraically:

Torah = Written Torah + Oral Torah

The first batch of discussions took place between about 100 BCE and 200 CE. Initially these were oral discussions, and special memorizers learned every word of them and recited them on demand in the rabbinic academies in Israel. In 200 CE, Rabbi Judah the Prince produced a written, edited version of the discussions and called it the Mishnah, [“Repetition.”] Here is a photo of my copy of the Mishnah which includes the Mishnah itself, an English translation, and commentary:

Blackmun Mishnah (Photo by Rabbi Ruth Adar)
Mishnah, Blackmun ed. (Photo: Ruth Adar)

As you can see, it isn’t very long, just six volumes. Each volume is a large general topic: Seeds, Festivals, Women, Damages, Holy Things, and Purity. If that seems an odd way to divide things up, welcome to the study of Talmud. While sometimes the rabbis say things that seem amazingly modern, they lived in a very different time, under different circumstances, and their world was organized differently than ours.

However, after the Mishnah was redacted (written down and edited) the discussions continued, now with questions about the Mishnah. They continued at rabbinic academies in Israel and in Mesopotamia (Babylon.) The continued discussion, the “new” stuff, would later grow into the Gemara [from the Aramaic gamar, “study.”]  The Gemara discussions were not redacted until centuries later. The Gemara by the academies in Israel were redacted about 500 CE.  The Gemara of the academies in Babylon were redacted about 600 CE.

I’ve never seen a volume of just Gemara. It’s always published with the verses of Mishnah related to it. A page will give you a “lead in” of lines from the Mishnah, then the Gemara associated with those lines, the discussion on the discussion. An oversimplified version of it would look like this:

Mishnah: When is the earliest we say the evening Shema?

Gemara: Voice 1: Why does this rabbi start with this question? Why not the morning Shema? Voice 2: He starts with this because of the commandment, “You will say them [the words of the Shema] when you lie down and when you rise up.” The time begins when the priests enter to eat their terumah [their slice of the Temple offerings]… and so on. They talk about terumah, and the priests, and what time the priests ate, and the grammar, and word meanings, and many other things.  

Here’s another equation for you:

Talmud = Mishnah + Gemara

Some of the Gemara becomes a very central item of the tradition, and some of it doesn’t. There are recipes for beer, and cures for snakebite, and interesting (!) ideas about anatomy. Some parts of it are clearly out of date (the anatomy, for instance) and some very sophisticated (insights about grief.) All of it comes in a context, and without that context it is meaningless. Rabbis study Talmud with a volume of Talmud containing multiple commentaries, one or two good dictionaries, a book of abbreviations, a Bible, and other references as well. If someone gives you a quote and says “It’s from the Talmud” be skeptical!

What is the Talmud? It’s a record of discussions that took place between 100 BCE and 600 CE in the Land of Israel and in Babylon. While the general thrust of it is “How is one to live a life of Torah?” it include a wealth of other material.

How can I study Talmud? To answer that, I will give you a quote from Pirkei Avot, which is in Volume “Damages” of the Mishnah:

“Find yourself a teacher, acquire yourself a friend.” – Pirkei Avot 1:6

  1. First, learn some Torah. The better you know your way around a Jewish Bible, the easier time you will have of it.
  2. Find a teacher. If there are no local classes available, use an online resource like 10 Minutes of Talmud.
  3. Acquire a friend. While a teacher can help you find your way, there’s no substitute for studying with and talking with a fellow student.
  4. Finally, don’t think you are going to master all of it. There is a program called Daf Yomi, where people learn a page a day of Talmud. When they get to the end, they begin again. They do this because as with every other aspect of Torah, there is no limit to the learning there.

OK, so this wasn’t a very simple answer. Talmud isn’t simple. However, it’s part of our rich heritage of Torah, and it belongs to every Jew.