What is Shalom?

Image: The word “Shalom” in Hebrew letters, in blue. Public domain.

Shalom.” It is often the first word a Hebrew student learns to read. It is the Hebrew word the most non-Jews are likely to know. If you ask for a definition, most people will tell you “Peace, Hello, or Goodbye,” and they won’t be wrong.

But that isn’t the whole story.

Shalom is a positive value, far more than just the absence of war. It signifies wholeness. One can be not-at-war and still be miserable. However, a miserable person by definition lacks shalom.

Like most words in Semitic languages it is based on a root of three consonants: shin, lamed, mem.  From that root we get many words: shalam, complete; nishlam, finished; l’shalem, to pay a bill; meshulam, repay; shlaymut, wholeness. What they have in common is a sense of integrity, of nothing missing or awry.

When I greet you with “Shalom!” I am wishing you wholeness of body and spirit. When I use a related greeting, “Mah shlomkhah?” the literal translation is “How is your peace?”

Shalom is not an abstract. It depends on real conditions in the world. A hungry person, a fearful person, or a hurt person cannot have shalom. Shalom includes bodily needs as well as spiritual ones. When we deny the needs of others, we deny them shalom.

Shalom also requires participation. We deny ourselves shalom when we bear a grudge. We deny ourselves shalom when we mistreat our bodies so that they get sick. We deny ourselves shalom when we tell ourselves we need something we cannot have, or when we refuse things we actually need. We deny ourselves shalom when we sin and choose not to make teshuvah.

At the close of the Kaddish, we pray for peace:

Oseh shalom bimromav, hu ya’ase shalom aleynu, v’al kol Yisrael, Veyimru: Amayn.

May the Maker of peace on high, make peace upon us, and upon all Israel. And we say: Amen.

When we say these words, it is both a prayer and a commitment to action. We are saying, “Please, God, give us shalom!” while at the same time saying, “I am ready to do what it takes to make shalom!”

Are we?

 

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Online Classes Starting Soon!

Image: A laptop sits on a desk at home beside a notebook.

Lehrhaus Judaica is a non-denominational center for Jewish learning, and in recent years, we’ve grown our online offerings.  This winter we’re offering a variety of classes online. Click on the class name to go to the catalog, where you can see a video about the class, get a fuller description, dates and times, tuition figures, and links for registration.

I’m happy to answer questions about the classes; feel free to leave them in the comments section. However, most of the answers you want will be in the catalog, to which I’ve supplied links.

Israel & Texts: A class for those who want to learn more about Jewish texts in the context of Jewish history and the land of Israel.  I’ve written at length about the class here. No Hebrew required.

Beginning Prayer Book / Biblical Hebrew: An introduction to Hebrew basics, taught by Dr. Jehon Grist, whom I can recommend heartily because I learned from him, myself.

Intermediate Prayer Book / Biblical Hebrew: This course will take you from “beginner” status into actually reading Biblical texts. Also taught by Dr. Grist.

Advanced Biblical Hebrew 3: The Book of Esther: Join a group of advanced Hebrew students working on translation of the Book of Esther. Quoting from Dr. Grist’s description of the class: “We will translate and analyze selected passages from this amazing story, visiting both the ancient Persian Empire and additional versions of the text to discover how Esther’s tale developed and what its meaning is for us today.”

Traditions of Judaism: An 8-week spring course on the various expressions of Judaism: Movements, Ashkenazi, Sephardic, Mizrahi, American Judaism, etc. I’m the teacher for this one.

Israel at 70: An Ancient and Modern Adventure: This is the recommended pre-tour course for the Lehrhaus/Tiyul Jewish Journeys trip to Israel with an optional extension to Petra, but is also open to those who want to learn more about our original homeland. Dr. Grist, an accomplished archaeologist with deep roots in the land will lead this course.

The Book of Esther(Tuesday evenings) Dr. Jehon Grist and I are studying Esther together. He comes at it as an academic, a translator, and as an archaeologist. I come at it from a rabbinic perspective. Then each of us teaches a course on the book! This link is to my version of the class, available both at Temple Sinai in Oakland or online.

The Book of Esther – (Wednesday evenings) The same as above, but with Dr. Jehon Grist teaching. Our project is to look at the scroll of Esther with new eyes and perhaps get some new insights before Purim. We’ll have one meeting post-Purim to share how our study has influenced our experience of the holiday. Dr. Grist will teach the class at Congregation Bnai Israel in Berkeley, CA, as well as online.

The Jews of Italy: A Journey of 2,000 Years – A web-based course on the history of Judaism in Italy, taught by Dr. Jehon Grist. Whether you’re planning a trip to Italy or simply interested in exploring the topic digitally, we’ll help you discover the people, places and key events that make this one of the most compelling stories of the Jews in Europe.

Traditions of Continuity and Diversity: The Rise of Rabbinic Judaism and Classical Christianity –  Judaism and Christianity have a long and sometimes uncomfortable relationship. The goal in this class is to provide a firm historical basis to begin anew a more fruitful discussion and true dialogue based on mutual respect and appreciation. This course will presume no previous historical knowledge of this era and will use audio-visual, textual, and lecture and discussion formats to carry us through the material. Jews, Christians, and anyone else interested in the topic are encouraged to attend. The class will be taught by the Rev. Bruce R. Bramlett. He is an Episcopal priest and theological scholar. He has spent his academic career exploring and understanding the long, complex , and often tragic history of the Jewish-Christian encounter throughout the west.

 

What is “Mazal Tov”?

Image: The stem of a wine glass, with a label saying “Mazal tov!” (Iwona Kellie via Wikimedia, some rights reserved.)

If you are a consumer of American pop culture, you are likely familiar with the Jewish saying, Mazal tov! (מזל טוב, MAH-zel tahf or mah-ZAL tohv.) Everyone yells it at the end of the Jewish weddings in the movies, right?

Colloquially, mazal tov! means “congratulations!”  We say it when someone has a happy moment. We might say it to a new parent, a graduate, or the parent of a bat mitzvah girl. In all those cases, the speaker is rejoicing with the fortunate person, and the proper reply is “Thank you!”

Literally, mazal tov means “Good fortune!” or even more literally, “Good stars!” Mazelot are the constellations of stars, and for many centuries, they were thought to determine one’s luck in life, even among Jews. Even though science has debunked astrology and modern Jews do not put stock in it, the practice survives in the expression.

On a deeper level, mazal tov recognizes that the good things that happen to us are only partially dependent on our own accomplishments. Luck is a factor in all human experience; bad things happen to good people, and good things sometimes happen to bad people. The fact of fortune or misfortune does not tell us about the moral status of that individual.

This stands in contrast to some other theologies, including one expressed in the Book of Deuteronomy, which asserts boldly that sinners will have bad luck and that the faithful will have good luck. (See Deuteronomy 28 for examples.) While this is an alluring idea (“people get what they deserve,”) as a theory it does not stand up to real life experience. Most Jewish thinkers have moved on to a more nuanced view, in which we recognize that our life experiences are a mixture of our own efforts and chance, and that the role of God in such matters is mysterious.

So if mazal tov means “good fortune,” what should one say to wish another person luck? That phrase is בהצלחה, b’hatzlecha (buh-HATZ-luh-KHAH.) We use it in the same situations in which an English speaker would say, “Good luck.” Literally, it means “in (or to) your success.”

Also, remember that mazal tov is only appropriate for a matter that is resolved. We do not say mazal tov to news of a pregnancy, because there are still many things that can go wrong. Rather, we say b’sha’ah tovah (buh sha-AH to-vah) “at a good time.” In this case, we do not want to make any assumptions about the luck of the parents or child, since traditionally such assumptions are seen as tempting fate!

 

 

Learning Hebrew: Reading the Joseph Story

Image: Part of the story of Joseph in the Torah Scroll.

Whenever we reach Parashat Vayeshev, this week’s portion, I can taste tuna fish. That may seem like a weird association, but this portion is linked in my heart to the lunchtime study group in which I learned to read Biblical Hebrew.

Like most adult learners in the US, my Hebrew studies started with the Aleph-Bet and “Prayer Book Hebrew,” the prayers in the synagogue service. There’s a giant step from knowing what the prayers say to reading the Torah, and Rabbi Steven Chester chose the Joseph story to carry us across that chasm in 1997.

Each week we had a short passage to translate. We were supposed to translate the whole thing, but each of us was responsible for “our” verse, meaning that each of us knew ahead of time exactly what we, personally, would translate aloud. We were a group of middle-aged learners, bobbing our heads to find the sweet spot in our progressive lenses in order to see the text.

Rabbi Chester was patient and kind, never shaming anyone. That was good, because I had no natural gift for it, and my translations were awful. I would go to class thinking “this CAN’T be right,” and sure enough, it wasn’t. Rabbi used our mistakes to review grammar or to show us (again)  how to break down a word to find it in the dictionary.

Our glacial pace through the text meant that we studied it deeply, noticing the choices about grammar and the repetition of certain words in the text. It was my first taste of learning a text on that level: word by word, even letter by letter. I was enchanted.

Sometimes Rabbi Chester enriched our study by showing us a midrash on a particular scrap of the text. This was also his sneaky way of introducing us to the glories of midrashic texts and rabbinic Hebrew and Aramaic, since he always gave us those texts in both the original and translation. We’d read the translation, but the original words would wink at me, promising more: more meaning, more depth, more nuance.

That class marked the beginning of my love for text study. It met Wednesday at lunchtime for years, and now as a teacher myself I marvel at his chutzpah and patience in leading us into that tangle of grammar and vocabulary. It was an unusual and bold way to teach Biblical Hebrew. It was also a brilliant choice, because the powerful current of the narrative kept us going. Who could quit, halfway through that story?

By the time we came to the end of Genesis 50, my translations were less ridiculous, and I felt confident enough to tackle other parts of Torah on my own. I learned the most important lesson for Hebrew study: stick with it long enough, and it will begin to sink in.

Foolish, feckless Joseph grew up to be a tzaddik, and I had begun to grow towards becoming a rabbi. And every year, when we read this narrative again, it stirs old memories of sitting around a table, munching our lunches and puzzling out the mysteries verse by verse.

Thank you, Rabbi Chester.

The Secret to Learning Hebrew

Image: Exodus 31: 16-17 in Hebrew. (from www.ReformJudaism.org) If you look carefully, you can see the word “Shabbat.”

Yesterday’s post about a first Hebrew lesson got such a warm response that I thought I’d follow up with the secret for learning Hebrew as an adult. People often say to me, “I don’t know, Rabbi, I am not good with languages.”

Here’s the secret I learned the hard way: persistence counts. When I was learning Hebrew, there are two and only two things that may be happening:  I was improving, or or I was falling back. There is no standing still with Hebrew.

I needed to practice every single day because either my Hebrew was getting better or it was getting worse. 5 minutes moved me forward. On days I skipped, I lost ground.

I began my Hebrew studies in my 40’s. I still read some Hebrew every day (easy for me now, since it is also my work.) I get out the book, I look at the words, and I read them. It is still true, twenty years later, that I am either moving forward or backward in my skills.

The good news is that persistence will work, even if you believe you are no good at languages. Persistence is everything. 

 

 

Learning Hebrew, In the Beginning

Image: “Shabbat” in Hebrew. Read right to left, shin, bet, taf.

Fall is always exciting, with new classes beginning. Both the Oakland and the online Intro to the Jewish Experience classes have begun. Today I started something entirely new: I began study with a gentleman who wants to prepare for an adult bar mitzvah.

I thought that some of you might like to find out what happens in a first Hebrew class.

He’s already taken the whole Intro series, so the main issue is going to be learning some Hebrew. We’re going to start with the book, Aleph isn’t Tough by Linda Mozkin. It’s a fairly new book, and a big improvement on the collection of paper handouts from which I learned my aleph-bet.

You read that correctly: ALEPH – BET, not alphabet. This is Hebrew, and the first two letters are aleph and bet.

We don’t learn the letters in order. For one thing, aleph is a tricky and mysterious letter. It makes no sound. Some say that it makes the sound of a person just about to speak. It’s also one of the harder ones to write.

No, we’ll begin with a word: Shabbat. The letters are ShinBetTaf. Three important sounds that we use a lot, and one of the most important words in the entire Hebrew language. If you want to see the letters, they spell “Shabbat” in the image at the top of this post.

Every Hebrew letter is part of a door. Every Hebrew word is a door that opens into a house full of rooms. We will learn Shin – Bet – Taf today, and Shabbat. That door opens into a house with rooms:

  • Shabbat – Sabbath
  • Shabbaton – A complete day of Sabbath rest
  • Shvitah – A strike, as with a union. “Down tools!”  (Modern Hebrew)
  • Shabbat. – He rested.
  • and many more, all somehow connected to the concept of “rest.”

Semitic languages like Arabic, Hebrew, and Aramaic build words this way, with “root”  [shoresh] forms of three or four consonants from which a family of words can be built.

Today was a beginning. Another Jew began to claim his heritage, the lashon kodesh, the holy language.

 

 

Yiddish Words I Don’t Use

Image: Wooden letters spelling “WORD.” Art by exopixel/shutterstock.

There are some words in Hebrew or Yiddish that I don’t use ever.

I’ve written about one of them in Who are You Calling Shiksa? – it’s a nasty, unfriendly word, and no amount of “reclaiming” will fix it.

Another such word is shaygitz. It means “varmint,” or “rascal” and it is distinctly unfriendly.

Like shiksa, shaygitz has its roots in the Hebrew word sheketz, meaning “abominable,” “filth,” or “blemish.”

My colleague Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr pointed out to me today that the word goy needs to join the list. Its original meaning in Biblical Hebrew was innocent, meaning “nation,” or “people,” – there are places in the Torah where it actually refers to the Jews! But it has come to take on a pejorative meaning in Yiddish and even worse, it has been co-opted by white supremacists as a badge of honor for anti-semitic chants, etc. I don’t use the word, and now I will gently correct people who use it to me, even when it’s supposed to be a joke.

Some words can be salvaged. “Queer” is one such word. It had a neutral meaning until someone chose to use it hatefully to taunt LGBTQ folk. We took the word as our own, and defanged it. Shiksa and shaygitz are hateful in their core meaning; they can’t be repurposed without dragging along the stigma.

Goy is a little different. It hasn’t always been used to disparage. I look forward to a day, someday, when we can use the word as Isaiah did:

Lo yisa goy el goy cherev
V’lo Yil’m’du od milchamah!

Nation shall not lift up its sword against nation
Neither shall they learn war anymore” – Isaiah 2:4

But for now, not in my vocabulary.