Where Does One Begin Learning about Judaism?

Image: A class at Temple Sinai, in Oakland, CA. Photo by Linda Burnett.

For the beginner, the bookstore and the Internet offer an unlimited array of information about Judaism. I remember when I began my own Jewish journey, I was tempted by every interesting-looking book I saw. The Internet was only in its infancy, but I’d have read every website I could find.

There are several problems with this approach:

  1. There’s a lot of misinformation out there. Not every book is well written, and the Internet is the Wild West. Just because someone calls themself “Rabbi” doesn’t mean they have a degree from a reputable rabbinical school, or ordination from a recognized group of Jews.
  2. There are many valid approaches to Jewish tradition. Even good books and websites will appear to contradict each other, because there are many different ways to be Jewish.
  3. “Judaism” is an enormous topic. Even the greatest scholars cannot master it all. For the beginner, it’s a little like trying to drink the ocean.
  4. Some topics aren’t beginner topics. If you haven’t learned some basic Torah (which is different from Christian Bible,) meaningful study of Talmud or Kabbalah is only going to be frustrating.
  5. The upsurge of interest in Judaism has spawned a vast army of people interested in making a profit from beginners. Be sure of someone’s credentials before you part with any money.
  6. Even good books or websites can mislead or be misunderstood. A teacher or a community of learners can help process information and avoid misunderstandings.

So where is the right place to begin?

Here are some choices for beginners, in the order I recommend them for people who think they might be interested in conversion:

  1. Take a class. You can find classes by calling a synagogue. If you can’t find a synagogue, see if a local college has a class. Some beginner classes are called Taste of Judaism, some are called Introduction to Judaism, some are called Basic Judaism. My own class is called Introduction to the Jewish Experience. Almost every synagogue will have a Torah Study group, and if you attend regularly and listen, you can learn a lot not only about Torah but about Jews. You are not committing to anything by taking a class.
  2. Find a synagogue, and make an appointment to talk to the rabbi. Be honest about why you are interested (you want to learn about Judaism out of curiosity, or you are thinking of conversion, etc.) Random rabbis on the internet are NOT the same thing – a rabbi who serves a congregation has been vetted by someone. For tips in finding a rabbi, read 7 Tips for Finding Your Rabbi. Again, there is no commitment implied in simply making an appointment to talk.
  3. Read, but pick your books and websites carefully. A number of sources offer good lists of books. There’s an excellent list at Judaism 101.  You can see my own list at Good Books for Basic Judaism.I also recommend websites at Learn About Judaism Online. The Reform Judaism website offers its own list of books. Rabbi Josh Yuter, a Modern Orthodox rabbi offers a great list for those interested in Orthodox Judaism. I went to the local Jewish book store (back before Amazon took over the world) and the owner of the bookstore recommended reading to me. If you have a local Jewish bookstore, you are fortunate indeed.

Ultimately, every Jew needs a rabbi or teacher, and that is true for people curious about Judaism, too. Books can’t help you refine your questions, or point you to a resource that is particularly good for the individual you are. Of the choices above, (1) and (2) are by far the best – (3) is a poor substitute for a real live teacher.

Some of our ancient sources are quite firm about the value of a teacher:

Joshua the son of Perachia would say: “Get yourself a rabbi, acquire for yourself a friend, and give every person the benefit of the doubt.” – Pirkei Avot 6:1

Whatever route you choose, I wish you a joyful Jewish journey!



The Mitzvah We Don’t Do Often Enough

Image: President Obama visits a shooting victim in 2012. Photo by Pete Souza via Wikimedia.

Visiting the sick [bikur cholim] is the mitzvah that everyone knows about and too few of us actually observe. We learn about this commandment by example: when Abraham was recovering from his DIY bris, God went to visit him (Genesis 18.) Later in the Torah, we are commanded:

And you shall walk in [God’s] ways – Deuteronomy 28:6.

Maimonides, a physician, saw the mitzvah of visiting the sick in the commandment:

You shall love your fellow as yourself. – Leviticus 19:18.

As with any challenging mitzvah, the tradition gives us many guidelines about it. Some advice from the tradition:

  • The patient who gets few visitors should be our first priority. Someone who gets lots of visitors is not in as great a need.
  • Check ahead of time to see if a visit is welcome at this time. Not every sick person wants or needs visitors.
  • Do not bring bad news to a sick person. We should leave our own sorrows or misgivings at the door.
  • We should listen more that we talk, because we may get clues to other needs.
  • Unless we have a medical degree (I don’t – do you?) we should not second guess the physicians or make medical suggestions. Undermining a patient’s faith in their physician can be extremely harmful.
  • Be aware of the needs and wishes of the sick person. Better to leave a little too soon than to overstay your welcome.
  • When a visit in person isn’t possible a phone call or similar contact may still be possible.

Some may ask, what DO I talk about on a visit to a sick person? Here are some ideas:

  • Ask, “How’s it going?” and then sit quietly and let them talk.
  • Ask, “Is there anything you wish you had here?” and listen to the answer.
  • Ask, “Are there messages you’d like me to give anyone?” and listen.
  • Ask, “Can I do anything for you / get something for you right this minute?”
  • Bring good wishes from another person who is unable to visit.

The goal is to lighten the isolation that often comes with sickness. Especially in a hospital setting, the sick person often is subjected to tests and poking on the hospital’s schedule. Letting them boss you around (“fluff my pillow?” “get me a glass of water?”) can be a tremendous gift.

One other thing: In all sickroom settings but especially in the hospital, germs lurk that can be terribly harmful to the sick person and to others. WASH YOUR HANDS – before a visit, after a visit, after touching elevator buttons, after the bathroom, after touching anything in the sickroom. Hand sanitizer is better than nothing, but there’s no substitute for a 20 second scrub with soap and water!

While there is no blessing to say when visiting the sick, there is a blessing for the washing of hands:

Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha-olam, asher kideshanu b’mitzvotav, vitzivanu al netilat yadaim.

Blessed are You, Eternal, Ruler of Time-and-Space, who sanctifies us with mitzvot and commands us to wash our hands.

While this blessing originally was for the ritual washing of hands connected with sacrifices and meals, I like to use it to sanctify the act of preserving life via handwashing. Some other authorities may differ with me on this, but I believe it is so important to wash my hands carefully in a sickroom setting that it merits the blessing. (For more about the mitzvah of hand washing, read the article about it in My Jewish Learning.)



Why I Don’t Do “Race.”

Michael Twitty is an observant Jew, a teacher of Torah, and an eminent food historian.

I am reposting an article from Michael Twitty’s blog Afroculinaria because it is a beautiful teaching about racism, a subject that surrounds us but which most of us don’t understand.

I encourage you to read it and pass links to it among your circle of friends. I also encourage you to click the “Donate” link on the right side of Mr. Twitty’s blog. Supporting a teacher of Torah is an important mitzvah, because it preserves Torah for the next generation.

– Rabbi Ruth Adar



The minute I say that I’m African American people cast that word “race,” on me faster than the net that they used to catch Kunta Kinte in Roots.

Race is a dangerous concept and it’s source, the evolution of the Western response to human differences and diversity, from treating non-Europeans as titillating alien curiosities to enslaved chattel, colonial subjects and global pawns in a game of winner take all; is the end result of 2000 years of wrangling over what human means, what the divine means, what our destiny means when it doesn’t look like us.

African American is not a race. African American is a cultural designation. It’s as socio-political as Black, Negro, Colored, before it. Its an old term, first appearing in print in America in the late 18th century. Jesse Jackson didn’t invent it and please don’t bore me with “you’re not African,” because it’s…

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Do Torah Scrolls Die?

Image: 13th century manuscript from the Cairo Genizah, a letter by Abraham, son of Maimonides. Photo via wikimedia, public domain.

A regular reader asked, “Rabbi Adar, what becomes of the aged Torah scrolls?”

Torah scrolls, or Sifrei Torah, are the great treasures of the Jewish People.

It’s true: some Torah scrolls are very, very old but it is unusual to see one that is more than 100 years old because they are fragile, very much like human bodies.

Over the lifetime of a Torah scroll, a responsible custodian of the scroll (usually a congregation) will seek out a skilled sofer [scribe] from time to time who will repair damaged letters, re-sew weak seams, and even attach the old scroll to new etzim [rollers] if need be. Just as human beings may need repairs as we age, Torah scrolls need periodic repair.

But the time comes when a Torah scroll is past repair and past respectful use. At that time we consign the scroll to a genizah, a safe resting space for sacred books, or we bury it in consecrated ground. The most famous genizah is the Cairo Genizah, from the ancient synagogue in a suburb of Cairo. There, sacred writings were collected in a wall of the synagogue for over 1,000 years and include handwritten pages from Maimonides himself. In 1896-7 the members of that synagogue permitted the Jewish scholar Solomon Schechter to remove the materials for study after he reassured them that the writings would be handled with reverence and preserved.

I have officiated at the burial of sacred writings; it is a solemn event. Some congregations designate a grave at a Jewish cemetery for that purpose. Others include sacred books in the casket when learned members of the congregation die and are buried.

Great question!


Menorah or Chanukiah?

Image: My chanukiah, 2nd night of Chanukah. Photo by Rabbi Ruth Adar.

The nine-branched lamp we use at Chanukah is most correctly called a chanukiah, (pronounced khah-noo-KEE-ah.) It is a calendar of a sort, measuring out the eight days of the holiday, with an extra candle to light the others.

However, you will often hear people refer to one as a menorah (muh-NOH-rah or meh-noh-RAH). That is also correct: in Modern Hebrew, menorah means lamp. The thing on your nightstand is also a menorah, but it is unlikely to work as a calendar.

How to light the chanukiah/menorah:


May your holiday be bright and warm!

Mystery of the Inner Sanctum


Image: A glimpse through the door of an airplane cockpit. Photo by Rabbi Ruth Adar.

I snapped this photo during an airport delay and sent it to my nephew, the airline pilot. (He just made Captain; pardon me while I kvell.) I knew he’d understand my delight in grabbing the picture. The difference between us is that while I was getting a thrill from seeing the mysterious instruments, he knew exactly what he saw in the photo.

“Here is some fun information about your airplane while you wait… https://m.planespotters.net/airframe/Boeing/717/55151/N490HA-Hawaiian-Airlines … It looks like it was built Dec 2000.”

I love talking to an expert! I saw lights and switches; he saw readouts and clues. He told me things I never expected he’d be able to tell from one quick snapshot, and sent me to a website with everything I could possibly want to know about that particular aircraft. Who knew?

When something about Jewish practice interests you, but you don’t know quite what to make of it, ask your rabbi. We won’t think you or your question are stupid. Like my nephew, we will simply be delighted that someone is interested.

Always ask!

Absence or Presence?

Image: Corncob with kernels and empty spaces. Photo by MarcPascual/Pixabay.

Is Judaism an absence or a presence in your life?

For some people who grow up Jewish, Judaism is mostly about what Jews don’t do:

  • Don’t turn on the TV on Shabbes
  • Don’t date non-Jewish boys
  • Don’t eat pork or shellfish
  • Don’t have a Christmas tree
  • Don’t sing Christmas carols
  • Don’t celebrate Easter
  • Don’t go in a church, ever, even to a friend’s wedding
  • Don’t, don’t, don’t

It all adds up to “we are different, and not in a happy way.”

Many of us feel a need for connection to a tradition, something larger and older than ourselves. The obvious choice is the tradition of our youth, but when that was all “don’t’s,” or when it was used to make us feel bad about ourselves, it can take a lot of courage to explore it anew.

Judaism is more than “don’t’s.” It is an ancient tradition offering meaning and joy as well as connection to other Jews. It connects us to Jews in the present, but also to those of the past and those yet to come. Jews today “tend the flame” for Jews in the future.

Judaism offers us:

  • The joy of Shabbat, every week.
  • A year rich with holidays that speak to every human emotion
  • A winter festival of light
  • A spring festival of new life and hope
  • A summer festival of wisdom and plenty
  • A fall renewal of the spirit
  • Freedom to ask questions
  • Ethics without dogma
  • A framework for making sense of the world.

If you grew up feeling that Judaism was about deprivation and “don’t’s,” I hope that you will find the courage to ask questions and look deeper. There are many ways to be Jewish, and if the one you learned as a child was unsatisfying, know that it isn’t the only way.