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!

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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.)

Seven Tips for Finding Your Rabbi

Rabbis are individuals, no two quite alike.

יהושע בן פרחיה אומר עשה לך רב וקנה לך חבר והוי דן את כל האדם לכף זכות

Joshua ben Perachiya used to say: Get yourself a rabbi, and acquire for yourself a friend, and give everyone the benefit of the doubt. – Avot 1.6.

The Sayings of the Fathers, from which this saying is taken, are a collection of friendly advice from the rabbis of old.  This one, “get yourself a rabbi, a friend, and give folks the benefit of the doubt” is great advice, especially for a person who is or wants to be connected to Jewish community.

If you want to become a Jew, if you want to get married by a rabbi, if you want a rabbi for a funeral, if you want reliable advice on Jewish custom, law, or tradition, you really need a rabbi. Advice from Jewish friends, relatives, and people in the grocery store line is not reliable! (I say this from hard experience of my own: I made my first inquiries about becoming a Jew when I was in my teens.  My Jewish friends were absolutely certain that one had to be born Jewish. I didn’t inquire further, and wasted years when I might have been happily Jewish, as I was destined to be.  Oy!)

So you want to find your rabbi.  Here are seven bits of advice:

1.  ASK YOUR FRIENDS. If you have Jewish friends, ask them for referrals. If they don’t have a specific rabbi to recommend, ask them for referrals to synagogues (where you will often find rabbis.) If they can’t help you, ask them if they know someone who can make a referral.

2. CHECK THE LOCAL SYNAGOGUES & JEWISH INSTITUTIONS.  You want a rabbi nearby, not one you can only contact through email. Check out your local rabbis via synagogue websites and by sitting through services they are leading. Other local Jewish institutions may have rabbis on staff – check their websites, too. Also — this is important! — if you find a synagogue that feels like home to you, their rabbi is a good bet to be your rabbi, too.

3. CALL A RABBI AND MAKE AN APPOINTMENT.  You are not “wasting the time” of the rabbi when you make an appointment to meet with them.  Most rabbis like meeting new people (they would not stay in this line of work if they didn’t.)  You don’t have to be “sure” about this rabbi.  This is a “getting to know you meeting.” There should be no charge for a meeting of this sort.

When you meet the rabbi, be sure to both talk and listen.  Talk to her about your project (learning more, converting, marriage, whatever). Answer his questions as honestly as you can.  Ask her the questions on your mind.

4. LISTEN TO YOUR KISHKES.  Kishkes is Yiddish for “gut.” Are you comfortable talking to this person? Some people want a scholarly rabbi, some want a warm rabbi, some want a fun rabbi, some prefer a rabbi who doesn’t feel too chummy to them.  Often we don’t even know what our idea of a rabbi is on the front end; it’s only when we’re sitting in the room with that person that we say, “Oh, that’s a RABBI!”  So meet the rabbi and see what your kishkes say to you.

5. RABBIS VARY. Rabbis are individuals. Each has a personality, opinions, and ways of doing things. No two rabbis are alike, not two Reform rabbis, not two women rabbis, not two Orthodox rabbis. So if the first rabbi you meet doesn’t feel like “your rabbi” that is OK.  If he or she has opinions or rules or a manner that you find upsetting, just keep looking.

6. WHAT’S A GOOD TIME? August through mid-October is a frantically busy time for rabbis with congregations, and many other rabbis as well. Call after the middle of October, or before August begins. Call the office phone during office hours, or email if you have an email address for them. It’s nice to give them a “head’s up” about the topic: “Hi, Rabbi Levy, my name is Ruth Adar. I’m considering conversion and looking for a rabbi.”

7. IF YOU HIT A SNAG: If a rabbi says he doesn’t have time, or she feels “wrong” to you, or if your Jewish friend thinks you are crazy for even wanting a rabbi, take the advice that opened this essay and give everyone the benefit of the doubt. There are lots of rabbis around. The one who isn’t a good fit for you, or who didn’t have time when you called, might be a good fit for someone else. Your Jewish friend may be reacting out of some bad experience of his own.

If you are in the United States or Israel, you’re in luck – there are lots of rabbis. If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, you can check out the local rabbis via BecomingJewish.net.  If you keep looking and asking and listening, you’ll find your rabbi.

Happy hunting!

Teshuvah for Beginners

Archery World Cup
Archery World Cup (Photo credit: IntelGuy)

If you are a newcomer around Jewish community right now you’re probably hearing a lot about Elul. It’s the month when Jews prepare for the High Holy Days (arriving the evening of Sept 9).  During Elul and the High Holy Days, we work to make teshuvah, to return to the right path.

Teshuvah literally means “turning.” When we “make teshuvah” we notice what we’ve done wrong, we acknowledge that it is wrong, we take responsibility for it, we do what we can to apologize and make amends, and then we make a plan for not doing it again.

1. READ a Beginner’s Guide to the High Holy Days. It’s an entry on this blog, just follow the link.  This will give you an idea of what all the preparation is for.

2. SIN is a different concept in Judaism than in Christianity. If you are from a Christian background, you need to know that the English word “sin” is a translation of two different words in Latin and in Hebrew, and the original words mean different things.  The Hebrew word chet (sounds like “hate” only with a spitty sound on the front) is an archery term. It means that you aimed at something and you missed.  In Judaism, the focus is not on what a terrible person you are for doing something, the focus looks forward to aiming more carefully when you take the next shot.

Very Important:  The point of the season is not to beat myelf up, it’s to make myself better.  Taking responsibility and expressing sorrow are important but the act of teshuvah [repentance] is not complete until I do better.  (Remember, in Judaism the focus is on doing, not so much on one’s state of mind.)

3. PEOPLE are a prime concern during the process of teshuvah. I need to go through my address book and think, is there anyone I have treated badly? Have I apologized? (The only time an apology is not required is if it would cause greater pain.) Is it possible to make restitution, if that is appropriate?  The tradition is very clear that it is essential we apologize to those we have offended or injured and do our best to make things right.  If they will not accept an apology, or if something cannot be made right, then we have to do the best we can.

4. It is possible to sin against MYSELF, as well. Have I treated my body carelessly, either by neglect or by abusing it? Do I follow my doctor’s orders? For any of these things, I need to take responsibility, and to think about change.

5. Sins against GOD also require teshuvah. As a Reform Jew, I may or may not keep the commandments in a traditional way. Whatever my practice, it needs to be genuine: I should not claim to be more observant than I am. Which mitzvot do I observe? Are there mitzvot I think I should observe, but don’t? Why don’t I? What could I change so that I will observe that commandment?

6. ADJUSTMENTS  Follow-through is important: it is not enough to be sorry for things I have done or failed to do. What is my plan for the future? How am I going to do better in the coming year?  Sometimes this means asking for help, calling a rabbi or a therapist to talk about strategies for change.  A fresh pair of eyes and ears may see options that I don’t.

7. DON’T GO CRAZY As I said above, the point of all this is not to beat yourself up, it’s to make the world better by making your behavior better. Do not wallow in guilt, just note what needs to change and make a plan for change. If the list is overwhelming, pick one or two things and then take action. 

8. PRAYER. During Elul the shofar is sounded at morning services in the synagogue on weekdays. Some people find that the ancient sound of the ram’s horn “wakes them up.” That may sound silly, but try it and see.  Towards the end of Elul, on a Saturday night, there is a beautiful service called Selichot (Slee-CHOT) in which we gather as a community to read through prayers and lists that will help us identify the things we need to improve. If you can, attend; it can be a big help.

These eight elements can help you have a fruitful Elul. Each year is an opportunity to do better, to rise above the past.

L’shana tovah:  May the coming year be a good year for you!

Selichot: Seven Tips for Beginners

Spill
Spill (Photo credit: simpologist)

Rosh HaShanah is coming, and the temple bulletin says about something called Selichot. What’s that? Do I want to attend?:

1. WHAT IS SELICHOT? Loosely translated, it means “Please forgive.”  The word has two meanings at this time of year: (1) prayers asking God’s  forgiveness for misdeeds and (2) a service of such prayers, usually on the evening of the last Saturday before Rosh HaShanah.

2. WHAT HAPPENS AT THE SERVICE? The Selichot service marks the beginning of the High Holy Day season. While individuals may have been observing Elul, this is the point at which we see big changes in the synagogue. Torah covers are changed from the regular covers to white ones. The clergy may begin wearing white, or white robes. The music and the tunes of the prayers change from the familiar tunes to the High Holy Day tunes.  We read lists of sins (vidui) that individuals or the whole community may have committed.

3. WHAT ARE HIGH HOLY DAY TUNES? For a taste of the High Holy Day nusach (tune), listen to this playlist of melodies assembled by Student Rabbi Ahuva Zaches. It’s particularly nice because it shows you the words while you learn the tunes, and because it is so simply done that you can really hear the melodies.

4. WHY READ LISTS OF SINS, ESPECIALLY IF THEY AREN’T MY SINS? First, we are fallible human beings, and it is easy to forget things, especially things we do not want to remember. Going over a list jogs the memory and the heart. Secondly, we approach the High Holy Days both as individuals and as a community, responsible for one another. While I am not responsible for the sins of my neighbor, he and I are responsible for each other’s well-being, and so his sins affect me. Finally, some sins are communal: for instance, we may talk about “the poor” and the need to “love the stranger” but what action have we as a community actually taken? Are we a community who fosters sinful behavior such as gossip? The lists bring up those questions as well.

5. WHY IS IT HELD SO LATE AT NIGHT? In some communities, Selichot may be a midnight or late night service.  Traditionally, the hours between nightfall and midnight are hours of din, of stern justice, but the hours after midnight are a time when the presence of God is gentler. We are asking for mercy in these prayers, so we say them late at night. (This has to do with the darkness, which will begin to lift towards morning.) In more modern terms, it gives a very solemn feel to the service, and breaks us out of our usual routine, which is a way of saying, “Look out! The High Holy Days are almost here!”

6. WHAT IF I DON’T BELIEVE IN GOD? Even if you don’t believe in God, you may need to deal with things you have done.  If you find the idea of a God who sits in judgment problematic or even ridiculous, that’s OK. When we sin — do things that damage relationships, do harm to the world or ourselves — our actions have consequences. When we pray for mercy, we are praying that those consequences will be light. However, wishing alone won’t do the job — we have to take responsibility for our deeds, and take action to minimize the damage we have done. That’s teshuvah, or repentance.  All the sins listed in the vidui (list of sins) are things that left unchecked will have bad consequences and hurt someone. If we have done any of those things, we need to take responsibility (ask forgiveness), and take action to fix and prevent in the future.

7. WHAT IF I USUALLY FIND SERVICES BORING? Selichot is a different kind of service, wherever it is held. You will get an introduction to High Holy Days music. It is usually not a long service. But more than anything else, it is a service with a very distinct purpose: to get us ready to change our ways for the better. This is not your usual synagogue service.  Also — added bonus! — if you are not going to be able to go to the High Holy Day services for some reason, this is a small taste of them that does not require tickets.

L’Shana Tova Umetuka!  I wish you a good and a sweet New Year!