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!

 

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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.

 

 

Judaism and Pregnancy

Image: A pregnant woman by the sea. Photo by pexels/pixabay.

When I wrote about Hasidah and Jewish infertility support recently, I realized I’d never written about Jewish pregnancy. There are a few Jewish customs which may seem odd to those outside our community.

A few things to know:

What to say: Do not say “mazal tov” or “congratulations” until the baby is safely born! Instead say, “B’sha’ah tovah” (b-shah-AH toe-VAH) to the parents until that time. It means, “In a good hour” which means, “May everything go well.” You can also say, “Wonderful! I’m happy for you.”

About gifts: Many Jewish families do not collect things for the baby in the home of the parents-to-be. While some will tell you this is about “tempting the evil eye” or some such, it has practical implications as well, since there are no guarantees about pregnancy. Ask what the family is doing about gifts, and follow their lead.

About the name: It is an old Jewish tradition to keep the name of an infant private until the bris or naming (usually at eight days.) If they seem coy about telling you the names they’ve picked out, it’s because they are observing that custom.

Good books about Judaism and new babies:

Anita Diamant, The New Jewish Baby Book also How to Raise a Jewish Child

Rabbi Paul Kipnes and Michelle November MSSW, Jewish Spiritual Parenting

Books about God & Judaism

Image: Sombrero Fog Galaxy, photo by the Hubble Telescope, via Wikimedia. Public Domain.

Tomorrow night I’m going to be teaching “God, Covenant & Mitzvah,” in Intro to Judaism class. It’s a challenging topic for many, because it’s one of the areas where Judaism is quite different from many other religions.

There are no creeds in Judaism. As a rule, Judaism is much more concerned with speech and behavior than it is with belief. Judaism is a religion of doing: making the world better through actions and the careful use of language.

There are two books I recommend to students who are interested in exploring the topic of God & Judaism further:

Finding God: Selected Responses by Rifat Sonsino and Daniel B. Syme is a very succinct introduction to Jewish ideas about God over the centuries.

God? Jewish Choices for Struggling with the Ultimate edited by Josh Barkin is a wonderful little book written for adolescents. It addresses questions such as “Who created God?”  and “Does prayer work?” and “Where do people go when they die?” The answers are short answers from rabbinical students and young Jewish teachers, and they provide a nice feel for the variety of voices and opinions in the Jewish world.

These two are the best books I know for approaching the questions most people want to ask about Jewish belief. Beyond them, we move very quickly into much deeper water and heavy duty theological language. I recommend you read these two, and if you are interested in going further, ask your rabbi for suggestions!

 

What is Sukkot?

Image: A sukkah in New England, in the USA. Public Domain via wikimedia.

After the intensity of the High Holy Days, Jews celebrate a completely different kind of holiday. (What, more holidays? Yes!)

Beginning on the fifth day after Yom Kippur, we celebrate Sukkot, the “Feast of Booths.” It’s a holiday of celebration, rest, and hospitality, when we build little shacks in the back  yard or on the roof of the apartment building and have friends over to eat for seven days. The first and last days are solemn days of rest.

It began as a harvest celebration, held at that nervous moment in the Middle East when the summer crops were in and the rain had not yet begun to fall. Winter rains are crucial not only for crops, but also for the survival of animals and people when the cisterns have run dry. In the climate of Israel, summer rains are rare; the year’s moisture falls in autumn and winter. Without water, everyone and everything dies.

So there they were, desperate for rain, with the last of the harvest in their hands. No surprise that the people prayed. The interesting thing is that our own story, the Exodus, is woven into the holiday as well. This is a holiday with a double meaning, and a doubled set of commandments:

You shall observe the festival of weeks, the first fruits of wheat harvest, and the festival of ingathering at the turn of the year. – Exodus 34:22

You shall live in booths for seven days; all that are citizens in Israel shall live in booths, so that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the Eternal your God. – Leviticus 23:42-43

So Jews all over the world take the days right after Yom Kippur to build a sukkah, a little booth, in their yard. on their balcony or on a roof, to “dwell” (eat and sleep) in to remember our tenuous existence in the wilderness.  For those in a cold climate, that means building a sturdy little sukkah and bundling up to sit there. For those in warmer climes, it’s a laid-back time of outdoor living. For all of us, it is a reminder of the fragility of life, of our vulnerability, a time of closeness and friendship, appreciation and joy.

For the tachlis [practical information] about the holiday and how to celebrate, see 7 Questions about Sukkot and Sukkot Hospitality.