The Meaning of Mitzvah

Image: Photo of a wall decoration outside a synagogue in Zwolle, The Netherlands. By Jedidja/pixabay.com. The inscription reads, “Because My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” – Isaiah 56:7

A student asked me last night what “mitzvah” meant.

(I love my students; they keep me honest. I should have defined the term instead of just throwing it around.)

Mitzvah is Hebrew for commandment. In Yiddish and then in English, it acquired a colloquial meaning of “good deed,” and in truth, many good deeds are actually the fulfillment of commandments, but the literal meaning is the stern “commandment.”

Many modern Jews are resistant to that translation, because it fills our to-do lists to bursting. Our ancestors counted 613 commandments in the Torah, and no one has time for all of them. Some of them are impossible at this time (Temple sacrifices, for example) and others require equipment we don’t have right now (the Temple, again.) But we still have a long list of things we are commanded to do.

No one wants to be a failure.

What I said to the student last night was this:

“Commandment” means that it’s a serious thing. We have to deal with it, we can’t just ignore it and call ourselves good Jews.

Dealing with it may mean doing it, fulfilling it as perfectly as we can. (e.g. Keeping our tzedakah budget at a particular level and treating it as a budget item.)

Dealing with it may mean knowing that the commandment is there, as an ideal for behavior we regretfully cannot live up to at this time.  (e.g. Observing Shabbat as well as we can, in the hope that at some time in the future we will be able to do better.)

Dealing with it may mean acknowledging that it is there, on the books, and that it is inappropriate to observe it at this time. (e.g. Rebuilding the Temple would involve destroying someone else’s place of worship, against their will.)

Dealing with it may mean saying, no, we’ve misunderstood this one and we need to go back and study. (e.g. So-called mitzvot that exclude women from full participation in Jewish life are an antiquated mis-reading of Torah.) Going back and studying it is hard work, sometimes the work of generations. It is not an “easy way out.”

 

When we engage with the commandments, even if what we do is struggle with them, we’re on the Jewish path.

[Rabbi Tarfon] used to say: It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it. – Pirkei Avot 2:16

What is z”l?

Z”L after a person’s name means that that person is dead. It is an abbreviation for the Hebrew phrase Zichrono livracha. [Of Blessed Memory.] The feminine form is zichronah livracha. The correct way to pronounce the abbreviation is “zahl.”

Jews love acronyms. If there is a phrase that takes a long time to write, why not just abbreviate it it? Added bonus: that way you don’t have to spell it! And if you put a vowel or two back in there, you can make it into an acronym!

When a word in Hebrew is abbreviated, there’s a little sign put into the letters that remain to clue you in to what’s going on. It looks like a lone quotation mark and most people refer to it as a “choopchik.”

SO:

Z”L  = Zichrono  + choopchick + Livracha = Of Blessed Memory, or “ZAHL”

in Hebrew, it looks like this:

abbreviationzl

And for your further edification and amusement, here’s a list of other common Hebrew and Hebrew-ish acronyms.

 

Nothing New: The Threat of Rape in Ruth

Image: Laborers work in a field. Public domain, pixabay.com.

Earlier this week I posted a study on Ruth 2:21-23.  I used a rather old-fashioned translation available on the Sefaria.org site because it was sufficient for my purpose at the time:

And Ruth the Moabitess said: ‘Indeed, he said to me: You will keep fast by my young men, until they have ended all my harvest.’ And Naomi said to Ruth her daughter-in-law: ‘It is good, my daughter, that you go out with his maidens, and that thou be not met in any other field. So she kept fast by the maidens of Boaz to glean unto the end of barley harvest and of wheat harvest; and she dwelt with her mother-in-law. – Ruth 2: 21 – 23 (JPS translation, 1917)

But now I’d like to look at a different angle on the passage using a more nuanced translation:

Ruth the Moabite said, “He even told me, ‘Stay close by my workers until all my harvest is finished.” And Naomi answered her daughter-in-law Ruth, “It is best, daughter, that you go out with his girls, and not be annoyed in some other field.” So she stayed close to the maidservants of Boaz, and gleaned until the barley harvest and the wheat harvest were finished. Then she stayed at home with her mother-in-law.” – Ruth2:21-23 (JPS translation, 1985)

The 1985 JPS translation seems quite a bit different, although it is a translation from exactly the same Hebrew text. The difference important to me here is the translation of יִפְגְּעוּ, which 1917 translates “be met” and 1985 translates “be annoyed.” (If you wish to see the Hebrew, you can do so here.) Other possibilities for translating that verb include “be hurt,” “be bothered,” or “be disturbed.”

Naomi is explicit that she worries that Ruth may be “hurt, bothered, disturbed, or annoyed.” Plainly, Naomi is afraid that if the male workers see Ruth as vulnerable, she might be raped. Her advice is to stay with the other women, seeking protection in numbers and perhaps in the protection of their respectability.

Today when I was studying the passage with some other women rabbis, we read the passage together. Then they were surprised when I continued with the study from my previous post. The were surprised because there has been a particularly horrible story in the news here in the Bay Area about a rape trial, and they thought that I was going to teach a lesson in connection with that.

And certainly there is such a lesson here, although it is a sad and frustrating lesson. We have here evidence that even in the 5th century BCE women felt the need to warn other women about the possibility of rape. Ruth was exactly the sort of woman who is still the most vulnerable today: poor, without influence, and a member of a minority group who was despised because of stereotypes that painted minority women as hypersexual and available. Naomi feared that a man might see Ruth as someone who could be used and discarded without serious consequence.

We know that such warnings are of limited help, that “doing everything right” is sometimes no protection at all. The dramatic tension in the Book of Ruth derives from the vulnerability of the two poverty-stricken women and their uncertain fate.

Ultimately the Book of Ruth teaches that every human being has a right to respect. Ruth the Moabite, vulnerable in the field because of her minority status, was the same Ruth who was worthy of being the great-grandmother of King David.

This is one of the larger points the book makes: Ruth, the ultimate outsider is always also the ultimate insider, a woman fated to be the ancestor of King David. David, the ultimate insider, chosen by God, is also the great-grandson of a poor foreign woman.

What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again;
    there is nothing new under the sun. – Eccesiastes 1:9

I pray for a day when no woman has to worry about rape. I pray for the day when Ecclesiastes will be wrong.

 

The One (Best) Key to Jewish Experiences

Image: A golden key. Public domain.

What single thing could most strongly improve the quality of your Jewish experience? It’s simple: learn some Hebrew.

Hebrew is as essential to Jewish citizenship as English is to American citizenship. Sure, there are American citizens who don’t speak English well, but much of the American experience is closed to them. The same is true for Jews and Hebrew: a person can certainly be a good Jew and not be able to read a word of Hebrew, but they will forever be on the outside looking in.

Total fluency takes time and effort. Fortunately, every little bit you learn has a big payoff:

Learn the alef-bet and reap these rewards:

  • The letters will cease to be squiggles and become familiar.
  • You will have the essential tool to move forward.

Learn a few greetings, and you will:

  • Be able to exchange greetings with fellow Jews from all over the world.
  • Have something to say to any Israeli you meet.
  • Begin to feel more connected to Jews everywhere.

Learn to read and understand a few simple phrases and you will:

  • Be able to order coffee on Dizengoff St. in Tel Aviv.
  • Know more Hebrew than most American Jews.

Take a conversational Modern Hebrew class and you will:

  • Be able to visit Israel and feel like mishpachah [family], rather than a tayar [tourist.]
  • Have the tools for ever-expanding conversational skills – just keep at it!
  • Open the door to Modern Hebrew literature.

Take a Prayer Book Hebrew class and you will:

  • Understand prayers, rather than just mouth them.
  • Be able to follow along as the Torah and Haftarah are chanted.
  • Open the doors to Jewish spirituality.

Take a Biblical Hebrew class and you will:

  • Discover that there’s much, much more to those stories in Genesis.
  • Begin to enjoy the rich poetry in every line of Hebrew.
  • Hold your own in any discussion about “what the Bible really says.”

Keep on studying and the vast universe of Jewish texts and experiences will open to you!

“But I’m not talented at languages!”

So what? You have probably learned many things in your life without being “talented” at them. One can learn to make toast without being a “talented” cook.

In Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, the rabbis tell us that one good deed leads to another. So too, with Hebrew, every bit of progress leads to more progress. The sooner you begin, the sooner you will learn your letters and their rewards will begin!

 

 

 

What is the Haftarah?

Image: Ezekiel’s Vision of a Chariot, in St. John the Baptist Church in Kratovo, Macedonia, 1836. Artist unknown, public domain.

“Haftorah?” asked a puzzled student, “So where is the other half?”

Haftarah (pronounced haf-tuh-RAH, or haf-TOH-rah) is a word that puzzles many people who hear it. It is not “half-Torah” as the Ashkenazi pronunciation seems to hint. Haftarah is a reading from the books of the prophets, the Nevi’im.

Nevi’im (neh-vee-EEM), the second part of the Jewish Bible, includes:

Former Prophets (sometimes called “Histories”):

  • Joshua
  • Judges
  • Samuel I & II
  • Kings I & II

Major Prophets (“major” for length, not for pre-eminence)

  • Isaiah
  • Jeremiah
  • Ezekiel

The 12 Minor Prophets (“minor” for length, not importance)

  • Hosea
  • Joel
  • Amos
  • Obadiah
  • Jonah
  • Micah
  • Nahum
  • Habakkuk
  • Zephaniah
  • Haggai
  • Zebediah
  • Malachi

Unlike the Torah readings, which include, over the course of the year, every word from the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, the Haftarah readings are only from selected portions of the prophetic books. The readings always have some link to the Torah reading, although sometimes it takes study to perceive the link.

We do not know for sure when or why the Haftarah readings became part of the Shabbat Torah service. For some interesting speculation on that subject, read What is the Haftarah and Why Do We Read It? by Rabbi Peretz Rodman.

Haftarah is usually read or chanted in Hebrew from a book or printed page, not from a scroll.

The Haftarah reading have its own set of blessings, before and after, like the Torah reading. It is chanted to a distinctive trope [melody] used only for Haftarah. For an example of Haftarah trope, watch this video of (now Rabbi) Michael Harvey chanting the Haftarah to Parashat Noach:

 

Why Call It The Shoah?

Image: Barbed wire fence at Majdanek concentration camp in Poland. Photo by Barak Broitman via pixabay.com. Public domain.

The murder of six million Jews and many others (Roma, homosexuals, disabled persons, and others) in the 1930’s and 40’s in Europe are often referred to in English as “the Holocaust.” Some Jews, myself included, prefer the Hebrew word “Shoah.” Here’s why:

The word “holocaust” is the Anglicization of a Greek word, ολοκαύτωμα [complete combustion.] It appears in some English Bibles (for instance, the Douai – Rheims Catholic translation) as the translation for עֹלָה [oh-LAH, meaning offering that will be completely burnt.] An example:

Isaac said to his father: My father. And he answered: What wilt thou, son? Behold, saith he, fire and wood: where is the victim for the holocaust? – Genesis 22:7, Douay-Rheims translation)

Here is the same verse, in the Jewish Publication Society translation:

Isaac then said to Abraham his father, “Father!” He answered: “Here I am, my son.” And Isaac said, “Here is the firestone and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt-offering?” – Genesis 22:7, JPS translation

Later, the word “holocaust” was adopted by English writers to mean “complete destruction by fire.” It first appeared in reference to the treatment of the Jews by the Nazis in a British newspaper, the News Chronicle of December 5, 1942. From there the use spread until today, when that has become the primary definition of the word.

So why use “Shoah” instead?

“Holocaust” entered the English language as a term for a sacrifice, specifically for the sacrifices asked of the Jews by God. For anyone who grew up using a Douai-Rheims Bible, that still is a primary meaning of the word. It therefore implies a particular understanding of the events in Europe: that the murder of the Jews was a sacrifice acceptable to God. For many of us, this is a blasphemous implication.

That’s why I always use “Shoah” unless I am talking or writing to someone who is likely not to know the word. Even though “Holocaust” is generally in use as a term for the Nazi “Final Solution,” it still has the power to suggest that there was something acceptable to God in those events.

My own understanding of the Shoah is that it was the culmination of centuries of antisemitism in Europe, purely the actions and intentions of human beings, not anything wanted by the Holy One. That’s why I and many others prefer the term “Shoah.”

Passover Greetings

Image: A fresh spring salad. Photo by Jill111 via Pixabay.com.

Yes, Passover is still going on – the seders may be over, but we’re still scattering matzah crumbs at my house.

Most people know the simplest Passover greetings:

Chag sameach!” (Khahg sah-MAY-akh)  means Happy Holiday. The proper reply is simply “Chag sameach!” right back.

Pesach sameach” (PAY-sahkh sah-MAY-akh) means Happy Passover. The proper reply is simply “Pesach sameach.”

However, in the middle days of Passover are different. They are called the Chol HaMoed, which translates to “Ordinary (days) of the festival.” That means that regular activities like work are permitted (which they aren’t on the chagim, the holy days at the beginning and at the end).

There’s a special greeting for the chol hamoed, the middle days:

Moadim l’simchah!”  (moh-ah-DEEM l-seem-KHAH) – “Festival of Happiness!”

The proper reply to this is, “Chagim U’zmanim L’sasson” – (Khahg-EEM oo-z’mahn-EEM l’sah-SOHN”   “Holiday and Times of Joy!”

Thanks to Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr, who reminded me of these special greetings in a facebook conversation.