Why Study Hebrew?

My first Hebrew Text

My first Hebrew text had the encouraging name Prayer Book Hebrew: The Easy Way.  My teacher had taught us the Aleph-Bet (Hebrew alphabet) using handouts and flash cards, and I was excited to get at the book.  After all, it said, “The Easy Way!” I had struggled to learn the letters, but now I was to the easy part, right?

It is a very good book, and I recommend it, but let me break it to you gently: there is no easy way to learn to read Hebrew, unless you are young enough for your brain to soak it up naturally. (If you are reading this and you are under 25 or so, you are Very Fortunate and should go find a Hebrew class pronto, before things begin to harden.)

So the question in the title is a serious one: why bother studying Hebrew, if it’s so hard?

1. Returns are high on even the smallest investment.  Every tiny bit of Hebrew you learn will enrich every aspect of your Jewish life. Let’s say you only learn the aleph bet. When you stand by an open Torah, you will recognize the letters you see. When you visit Israel, the language of your people will not be squiggles, it will be written in letters that you recognize.  Wherever you go in the Jewish world, you will be in on the secret: those are LETTERS. They mean something. If you keep on paying attention, you will begin to recognize words.

2. Hebrew connects us to every other Jew on the planet. If you can learn to say “B’vakashah” (Please) and “Todah rabbah!” (Thank you very much!) you will be able to be polite to Jews everywhere. The more Hebrew you learn, the more you can communicate with Jews who speak Spanish, Russian, French, Farsi, or Hungarian. It doesn’t matter where you come from, if you and I both speak a little Hebrew, we can have a good argument.

3. Hebrew connects us to other Jews across space and time. When I say “Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad” (Hear O Israel, the Eternal is our God, the Eternal is one) and I understand what I am saying, it enriches my prayer. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched at Selma, said that prayer in those words. Hannah Senesh, who wrote poetry and died fighting the Nazis, said that prayer in those words.  Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, also known as Maimonides, said that prayer in those words. Rabbi Hillel, who lived when the Temple was still standing, said them too, exactly that way. When I pray in Hebrew, my voice blends with theirs.

4. Hebrew is one key to feeling like an insider in this tribe. One does not need perfect fluency to feel a part of things in a Jewish community, but if you don’t know a resh from a dalet (clue: the dalet has a tushie) it is easy to feel left out.  That last sentence was an example: the people who know that resh is  ר and dalet is ד  are smiling at the tushie thing.  Now see?  You are smiling too.

5. You will make friends studying Hebrew. Research shows that people bond when they go through a challenge together. Want to make friends at synagogue? Take Beginning Hebrew. By the time you make it through the aleph-bet, you will have some friends.

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What’s With the Little Hat, Rabbi?

Image: Rabbi wearing a red knitted kippah. Photo by Linda Burnett.

I wear a little hat when I’m praying or studying. It’s called a kippah, in Hebrew, or a yarmulke, if you prefer Yiddish.

I wear the little hat to cultivate a Jewish virtue, tzniut (tznee-OOT).  Tzniut means modesty. The hat is a reminder that I am not a big shot (what big shot would wear a ridiculous hat that looks like a coaster, and that sometimes slides over her left ear?) When I pray and when I study, I am standing before the Holy One. I am not a celebrity.  I’m just a fallible little rabbi, wearing a silly little hat.

There is nothing magic about the little hat.  It isn’t a mitzvah, a commandment, to wear it, just a custom.  Some Jewish men wear them all day, every day. Some Jewish women cover their heads with kippot, some with other kinds of head coverings. But all the head-covering is basically about tzniut, about modesty, and about the custom of the community.

There was a famous Hasidic rabbi, Simcha Bunim of Peshischa (1765-1827) who used to teach:

Every person should have two pockets.  Each pocket should have a note in it for a time of need.  When he feels miserable that person should reach into one pocket to find the words: “The world was created for my sake!” But on a day when he feels high and mighty, he should reach into the other pocket to find the message: “Remember, I am nothing but dust.”

True modesty is balanced somewhere between those two notes.

Jewish English Lexicon – an internet treasure!

I want to let my readers know about a wonderful new online resource, the Jewish English Lexicon.

One of the trickier things about the worldwide Jewish community (or even the Israeli and American Jewish communities) is that we use words from many different sources: Hebrew, Yiddish, Aramaic, Ladino, and Judeo-Arabic, to name just the most common ones. A person born Jewish tends to learn the vocabulary used in his or her community of origin, which might be anything from “Brooklyn-Askhenazi-Lubavich” to “Louisville-Classical-Reform” to “Pico-Robertson-LA-Persian.”  All are as authentically Jewish as Moses himself, just different.

If there’s a word you hear that you don’t understand, type it into the Jewish English Lexicon and get a translation into American Standard English.  You can also browse the lexicon for new Jewish-isms to expand your vocabulary.

The Lexicon is the brainchild of Dr. Sarah Bunin Benor, Associate Professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles.

8 Easy Steps to A Simple Shabbat Dinner

How can your household begin to keep Shabbat? One way to do it is with a simple Shabbat dinner.

Note:  If you are new to Shabbat, make only a few changes, or even one change, at a time.  Try things and notice what happens and how you feel.  Adjust as necessary. This is a lifetime project. Blessings may be said either in Hebrew or in English. Do what is comfortable for your household.

  1. MAKE IT SPECIAL:  “Special” will mean something slightly different for every household. Perhaps you will use a tablecloth, or invite a friend. Whatever you do, make sure it is food that you like and that will not add stress. If cooking is hard for you, have good takeout. Many Jews eat challah, a sweet egg bread, on Shabbat.
  2. YOU WILL NEED:  Two candles, wine or juice, bread, yummy food.
  3. SET THE TABLE Put the candles in candlesticks and bread on the table. Cover the bread with a napkin.
  4. LIGHT CANDLES:  A. Light the two candles B. Say the blessing: Blessed are you, Eternal our God, Ruler of the Universe, who commands us to light the candles of Shabbat. (I’m assuming here that English is more comfortable for you. If you want Hebrew, or to sing it, you can find a recording here.)
  5. BLESS THE WINE: Lift up the cup of wine or juice and say: Blessed are you, Eternal our God, Ruler of the Universe, who creates the fruit of the vine. Take a sip. (If you want Hebrew, or to sing it, you can find a recording here.)
  6. BLESS THE BREAD: Uncover the bread, touch it, and say: Blessed are you, Eternal our God, Ruler of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the earth. (If you want Hebrew, or to sing it, you can find a recording here.) Then tear or cut a piece of the bread, and eat it.
  7. EAT DINNER:  You already know how to do that!
  8. SAY GRACE AFTER MEALS: Stay at the table until everyone is finished. Then give thanks for having eaten: Blessed are you, Eternal our God, Who nourishes us all. There is a longer, beautiful blessing which you can learn by googling “Birkat Hamazon” and about which I’ll write in some future post. For now, for a simple Shabbat for beginners, this is enough.

The most important thing is to keep things low-key and pleasant: don’t use this meal as a time to remind anyone of work that needs to be done, or for unpleasant arguments. And keep in mind that since Shabbat comes once a week, it doesn’t have to be “perfect.” If there is something you’d like to be different, try that next week!

Simchat Torah for Beginners

Simhat Torah Flag

A few basic facts about the holiday:

WHAT IS SIMCHAT TORAH? Simchat Torah – “Joy of the Torah” – is the festival marking the day that we finish reading the Torah scroll and begin reading again from the beginning.

WHEN DO WE CELEBRATE SIMCHAT TORAH? This holiday falls immediately after Sukkot in the fall.

HOW DO WE CELEBRATE? Celebrations begin during the evening service.  We take out the Torah scrolls and parade them around the synagogue in seven hakafot [Torah processions.] We sing about the Torah, and may dance with the Torah scrolls. Children carry special “Simchat Torah flags” (see the example above) and may also receive candy. After the dancing, Torah readers read from the end of the scroll, and then from the beginning of the scroll.

WHERE DO WE CELEBRATE? Simchat Torah is celebrated mostly at the synagogue.

WHAT’S THE POINT? The Torah is the most precious possession of the Jewish People. We’ve had it for thousands of years. Many Jews spend their lives studying it, reading it, arguing about it, and struggling with it. When we come to the end of the scroll, we celebrate the fact that once again, we have read the whole scroll, and even more, once again we are beginning again. Our love affair with the Book never ends.

A Beginner’s Guide to Sukkot

A Pretty Sukkah

Sukkot is perhaps the most joyful Jewish holiday. Here are a few basic things to know about it:

WHAT DOES SUKKOT MEAN? Sukkot [soo-COAT] is the plural of Sukkah [soo-KAH], which is the Hebrew name of the little booth we build for the holiday. You may also encounter the Yiddish pronunciations, [SOOK-us] and [SOOK-uh].

WHO CELEBRATES SUKKOT? Jews worldwide celebrate Sukkot, although the holiday is most festive in the land of Israel.

WHEN IS SUKKOT? Sukkot is a fall harvest holiday. It begins on 15 Tishrei, the fifth day after Yom Kippur. It lasts for eight days (seven days in Israel). It will begin on Oct. 1, 2012. On the first two days and the last day of Sukkot observant Jews do no work.

WHAT’S THE POINT? Sukkot started as a harvest holiday. Nowadays it is a chance to foster our relationships with friends and family. Remember, we just spent the last six weeks mending our relationships — now it’s time to enjoy those improved relationships! The little sukkahs also remind us of our temporary dwellings in the wilderness, and of the impermanence of most possessions. The observance of Sukkot is commanded in Leviticus 23:40-43.

WHERE DO WE KEEP SUKKOT?  Sukkot is unique in that we actually build the place where we celebrate it fresh every year. A sukkah (soo-KAH) is a little shed built to very precise directions, open on one side with a very flimsy roof of branches or reeds. We build it outside and eat meals in it. Some people actually sleep in their sukkah. Many Jews entertain guests in the sukkah, and in Israel, many restaurants also have them for customers to enjoy. It’s customary to decorate the sukkah with hangings, artwork, and home-made decorations.

WHAT ELSE HAPPENS DURING SUKKOT? Observant Jews also “wave the lulav.” It’s a bouquet of palm, willow, and myrtle, held together with an etrog (citron) and waved to all the compass points, with a blessing. If you want to learn about waving a lulav and etrog, you can find more information here.  There are also special festival readings and prayers of praise in the synagogue.

ARE THERE ANY MOVIES ABOUT SUKKOT?  Yes!  There’s a very funny Israeli film Ushpizin which is set in a very traditional community in Jerusalem during Sukkot. Ushpizin [oosh-pee-ZEEN] or [ush-PEE-zin] are visitors to the sukkah.

WHAT IF I DON’T HAVE A SUKKAH? Most synagogues build a sukkah. Calling them to ask about activities in the sukkah is a great way to learn about your local synagogues. Even if it is not practical to have a sukkah at home, however, you can do some similar activities:

  • Go on a picnic with family or friends.
  • Get out in nature! Go for a hike!
  • Invite friends over that you haven’t seen for a while.
  • Reach out to someone you think might become a friend.
  • Reach out to someone who seems lonely.
  • Get to know your neighbors.
  • Reconnect with someone you’ve been meaning to call.

Sukkot is a great time to practice the mitzvah (commandment) of Hachnasat Orchim, Hospitality.  Whether you spend this Sukkot as a guest or as a host or (best of all!) a little of both, I hope that you are able to spend some time with friendly people, enjoying the fall weather!

Tips for Fasting on Yom Kippur

A dinner table with wooden chairs in a living ...
On Yom Kippur, no dishes to wash. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This coming Tuesday night begins Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. One of the ways Jews observe the day is by fasting. Here are some quick facts and tips for the day.

What exactly does “fast” mean? In common parlance, “fast” can mean just about anything. For observant Jews on Yom Kippur, it means refraining from these five activities for 24 hours:

  1. Eating & Drinking (yes, including water)
  2. Sex
  3. Anointing (using lotions or cosmetics)
  4. Washing
  5. Wearing leather shoes

Do all Jews refrain from all of these things? No. For the majority of American Jews, it means refraining from eating, drinking, and sexual activity. The last three items are less common, but are officially commanded for the day. If you are unsure about what goes on in your congregation, check with your rabbi.

What about sick people and children? Sick people are commanded NOT to fast. If you need food to take prescribed medication, or food for any other medical reason, it is a mitzvah (commandment) to eat as advised by your doctor. Children under 13 do not fast, but might observe the day by eating less or having a day without treats of any kind. Pregnant women do not fast. If you need to eat or drink on Yom Kippur, it is kinder to do it discreetly out of sight of those fasting.

Isn’t it unhealthy to go without food or water for 24 hours? A healthy person should be able to complete the fast. Those who are sick, pregnant, or underage should not fast. It is uncomfortable to fast, but not fatal unless you have a medical condition that precludes fasting.

Some tips for minimizing discomfort on Yom Kippur:

  • Eat a good meal before the fast, including protein and fat.
  • Do not eat very salty things for 24 hours before the fast.
  • Drink plenty of water before the fast, more than usual. If you are wondering how much water you should drink daily check out the Mayo Clinic recommendations.
  • If you get caffeine headaches, taper off your caffeine use for the month before Yom Kippur. If it’s too late for that, have a little caffeine at the meal before Yom Kippur if it will not interfere with your sleep.
  • Stay away from places with food during the fast. One advantage to spending the day at synagogue is that everyone there is in the same boat.
  • If you get a dry mouth, use this old cantor’s trick: gently bite the inside of your cheek. That will make saliva flow.
  • When the fast ends, hydrate first. Then get something light to eat. “Break-the-fast” should not be “break-the-belt.”
  • Decide ahead of time why you are fasting, and when you feel uncomfortable, remind yourself about it. Because it is commanded? In solidarity with other Jews? As a way of expressing sorrow for misdeeds? Because there are people for whom every day is a hungry day? All are good reasons to participate.

Two things you can wish a Jew who is fasting:

“Tzom KaSHER”  “A kosher fast” – wishing them a fast with no mistakes

“Tzom Kal” – “An easy fast” – wishing them an easy time of it. (Occasionally someone may tell you that it shouldn’t be an easy fast. However, the commandment is to fast, not to suffer. If they feel they get benefit out of the suffering, that’s fine for them. You did not say anything wrong. Next year wish that person a tzom kasher.)