Yom Kippur Greetings for Beginners

Image: Rabbi Sharon Sobel blows a large shofar. She wears a colorful tallit.

The High Holy Days have one good all purpose blessing that actually keeps working through the end of the cycle, at the end of Sukkot. We can say, “Shana tova!” [Good year!] to which “Shana tova!” is a perfectly acceptable reply.

But if you are spending any time, even online, with other Jews, you may hear some other greetings. Here are some of the choices:

G’mar tov! — (g’MAHR TOHV) — A good finish

G’mar chatimah tovah! — (g’MAHR khah-tee-MAH tow-VAH) — A good final sealing

Tzom kasher! — (zohm ka-SHAYR) — Have a proper fast

Tzom kal! — (zohm KAHL) — Have an easy fast

The good news is that all of those are answered just as they are asked. Just say them back, and it’s all good.

There are also some all-purpose greetings you may hear. They are a bit less common on Yom Kippur, given its sober tone.

Chag sameach! — (khag sa-MAY-akh) — Happy holy day!

Goot yuntiff — (goot YUN-tif) — Yiddish — Good Holy Day.

Join Me for the High Holy Days?

Image: Brightly colored logo for Jewish Gateways‘ High Holidays 2021 Logo. A pomegranate is cupped in a blue arc like a hand. A rainbow surrounds.

L’shana tova! Happy New Year! The Jewish New Year of 5782 begins at sundown on Monday night, September 6, and continues until sundown September 7.

Normally I’m a “Jew in the Pew” for High Holy Days, but this year I am pinch-hitting for Rabbi Bridget Wynne, who is recovering from an accident last week. If you’d like to join me for online services with Jewish Gateways, the registration and information for that is available on their website.

For more information about the High Holy Days I recommend reading my article High Holy Days for Beginners, 2020. The dates have changed but the information is the same.

Other ways you may hear Jews refer to these days, all correct:

  • High Holidays
  • Days of Awe
  • Yamim Noraim (Hebrew) (ya-MEEM no-rah-EEM)
  • Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (ROSH ha-sha-NAH and YOM kee-POOR)
  • “High Hols” (very informal)
  • HHD’s (in tweets and other shorthand media)

Whatever you call them, I wish you a Good and Sweet New Year. May it bring you health, healing, light, and love.

L‘shana tova! Happy New Year!

The Rabbi Goes Back to School

Image: The cover of Reading Hebrew with Tikva, one of the textbooks for class.

Today, on the first of Elul, I did something I’ve needed to do for a while: I signed up for a class in Modern Hebrew.

“But rabbi, don’t you already read Hebrew?” I can imagine a reader thinking. And yes, I read the Jewish Bible just fine. I can read the medieval commentaries, and of course the prayers in the prayer book.

However, drop me into the middle of Tel Aviv, and my shortcomings will truly shine. Biblical Hebrew is to Modern Hebrew as Shakespeare is to Modern English — yeah, they are the same language, sort of, but the vocabulary has changed. I’ve never been very good at Ivrit Modernit (Modern Hebrew) and my last class was 20 years ago. So, time to fix that!

Would you like to learn Hebrew? Tikva Farber, my teacher, is a highly trained teacher who gets excellent results with students. You can find her upcoming classes on her website, Hebrew with Tikva. If the class times are not good for you, or if you are shy, she offers private lessons, too. I’m signed up for the intermediate class, since I have not forgotten everything, but there are classes for total beginners, too.

Why learn Hebrew? There are many good reasons:

  1. Do you love Torah? Hebrew will take you into the heart of Torah.
  2. Do you care about Israel? Learning Hebrew is a way to express your love for Israel. It is not enough to say, “Oh, many Israelis speak English!” Many Israelis don’t speak English. Moreover, even if they do, Hebrew language is a key part to understanding and being understood in modern Israel. There are words and concepts that do not translate easily — by learning Hebrew, you make a beginning at understanding Israelis.
  3. Are you a critic of Israel? You, too, could benefit from learning some of the language. For one thing, if you want to be taken seriously by Israelis, one way to say, “I’m committed” is to learn some Hebrew.
  4. Attending services is entirely different when you’ve learned to understand Hebrew.
  5. Planning to visit Israel? The person who visits who speaks no Hebrew will be stuck as a tayar, a tourist or sightseer. Want to ask questions of someone beside your tour guide? Want to make friends? Learn some Hebrew!
  6. Finally, are you parenting a Jewish child? Want to communicate to them that Hebrew school is important? Children believe what they see us DO, not necessarily what we SAY. Tell you child Hebrew is important by learning some yourself.

It’s OK to struggle. It’s OK to not be good at it. I am hard of hearing, and I’m terrible at understanding spoken Hebrew. I want 5782 (2021-22) to be the year that my Hebrew gets better, not worse. I invite you to join me!

What are Hagbah & Glilah?

Image: Hagbah at Congregation Dorshei Emet in Montreal. (Geneviev2/Wikipedia.)

Some things just go together: coffee and doughnuts, movies and popcorn, beer and pretzels. Hagbah and glilah are like that: you rarely see one without the other, since they are part of the ceremony of reading from the Torah scroll.

Hagbah [“lifting”] is the dramatic lifting of the Torah scroll after a Torah reading. It is done by the magbiah, who lifts the scroll in such a way that the part of it that was read is visible to the congregation. Hagbah takes both muscle and technique, since even a light Sefer Torah may weigh 20 pounds and is an extremely fragile object, sewn together with sinew from a kosher animal. (See How is a Sefer Torah like a Space Shuttle? for photos of Torah assembly.) A heavier Torah may weigh 50 pounds or more, and be just as fragile.

We lift the Torah so that everyone in the community can see that the reader was actually reading from the scroll, not from a book. It is also a reminder that at the first Torah reading mentioned in the Bible, everyone could see the scroll:

Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people.

– Nehemiah 8:5

The stakes are high: traditionally anyone who drops a Torah scroll and anyone who sees it drop must fast for 40 days. Also, a dropped scroll will have to be checked by a sofer [scribe] and repaired if damaged. If dropped during hagbah, while it is open, the parchment may tear, which requires a complete replacement of one or more panels of the scroll, a very expensive operation.

Who does hagbah? That will depend somewhat on the custom in the congregation. In most Reform and Conservative congregations, the magbiah must be an adult Jew who has been trained to do it safely. Training in hagbah, as with many things in congregational life, gets passed down the chain of tradition, person to person. If you are an adult Jew, and you are interested in learning, ask your rabbi or cantor to teach you or to point you to the person who can teach you.

Glilah [“rolling”] (pronounced GLEE-lah) seems somewhat less glamorous, since it is not a feat of strength, but it is no less important for the care of the Sefer Torah. After hagbah, the magbiah lowers the scroll carefully within reach of the goleil [person who does glilah] and helpers. They are usually sitting, and seize the top handles of the scroll as it is lowered towards their lap. Resting the bottom handles on their thighs, they roll the scroll snugly together, being careful not to pinch it or strain it. They tie the belt or wimple on the scroll, to hold it together, and then lower the Torah cover over it like a dress.

This is the procedure for Ashkenazi style Torahs, which have dress-like covers. A Sephardic style Torah is encased in a special box and remains in that box to be read. In most Sephardic services, hagbah comes before the Torah reading, not after. In its case, the Torah is heavy to lift, but easy to roll. (For an explanation of those terms, see What do Ashkenazi, Sephardic, and Mizrahi mean?)

Glilah may also be done by any adult Jew, according to the custom of the congregation. If you are invited to be a goleil (m) or golelet (f) and you have not done it before, just let the clergy or whoever is leading the service know that you will need a little help. While it is not as dramatic as hagbah, the potential for dropping or damaging the scroll is still quite real. I personally always ask for a hand when I’m the golelet – better safe than sorry!

Hagbah with a Sephardic style Torah.
Hagbah with a Sephardic-style Torah in its case, at Moshav Porat in Israel. (Public Domain)

How Do Jews Pray for the Sick?

Image: A figure is sick in bed, thermometer in mouth. (OpenClipart-Vectors / Pixabay)

One Jew says to another, “I am so sad, my mother is sick.”

The other replies, “I will make a mi shebeirach for her – may she have a refuah shleimah!”

The beginner, listening, wonders, “What just happened?”

Mi Shebeirach (mee sheh-BEH-rakh) is the name of a group of prayers the most common of which is a prayer for the sick. They may be said as part of the Torah service, between Torah readings, but increasingly they are also said both publicly and privately outside the Torah service.

The words mi shebeirach are the opening words of the prayer, and they mean “may the One who blessed.” Here is what it says, in English:

May the One who blessed our ancestors — Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah — bless and heal the one who is ill: ________________ son/daughter of ________________ . May the Holy Blessed One overflow with compassion upon him/her, to restore him/her, to heal him/her, to strengthen him/her, to enliven him/her. The One will send him/her, speedily, a complete healing — healing of the soul and healing of the body — along with all the ill, among the people of Israel and all humankind, soon, speedily, without delay, and let us all say:  Amen!

Refuah schleimah (reh-FOO-ah SHLEY-ma) or (reh-foo-AH shley-MAH) means “a complete healing.” It is important to keep in mind that a “complete healing” might mean “a cure” but it also might mean a peaceful conclusion to the illness. We do not assume that God is in the business of dishing out miracles, but it is possible for there to be wholeness (shleymut) without a return to the exact same level of previous health. Therefore we can say this prayer even for someone we believe to have a terminal illness: in that case, if there is no chance of a return to health, we can hope for the easiest possible progress of disease and for shalom, peace, at the end of life.

Whether prayer can affect the course of illness is the subject of debate. It can be very comforting to a sick person or their loved ones to know that others care and are praying for healing. If for any reason the sick person is uncomfortable with the practice, however, it is important to respect their wishes.

Some congregations maintain a “mi shebeirach list” of people who are sick and who wish prayers said for them. It can serve not only as a list of people who wish for prayers, but also as an opportunity to send a card or offer a visit.

For the Hebrew and transliteration of the Mi Shebeirach, see this page on ReformJudaism.org.

What is Hakafah?

Image: Hakafah in the 19th Century in Italy. Painting: The Feast of the Rejoicing of the Law at the Synagogue in Leghorn, Italy. By Solomon Hart (1806-1881) via Wikimedia.

“During Hakafah, people may reach out to touch the Sefer Torah.”

If that sentence means bobkes (Yiddish for “nothing”) to you, that’s OK — that’s what this post is about!

As I wrote in an earlier post, Sefer Torah is the Hebrew word for the Torah scroll.

Hakafah is a Hebrew word meaning “to go around” or “orbit.” In Jewish services, it most often refers to the procession in which the Torah scroll is carried around the congregation so that people can celebrate and interact with the Torah scroll.

If you are in a service, for instance a bar or bat mitzvah service, the person who is being called to the Torah for the first time (the bar or bat mitzvah) may carry the scroll, in its coverings, around the congregation. People may reach out to touch the Torah scroll, either with the tzitzit (fringes) of their prayer shawls or with the spine of their prayer books. Then, after touching the scroll, they bring the fringes or the book to their lips to kiss. It is a way of showing reverence for the scroll and its contents. For some congregations, this is a regular part of the Torah service. For others, it happens only on special occasions.

For more on how we interact with Torah scrolls, see Kissing the Torah Scroll – Idolatry? elsewhere on this blog by following the link. Rabbi Barry Block wrote a wonderful sermon on The Deeper Meaning of the Hakafah which I recommend highly.

Other uses of hakafah:

  1. In a traditional wedding, the groom circles the bride seven times, orbiting around her. In an egalitarian wedding service, the bride an groom circle one another. Either way, it is proper to refer to the circling as hakafot (plural for hakafah.)
  2. At Sukkot, it is a tradition to encircle the bimah (speakers’ platform) with people bearing lulav and etrog.
  3. On Simchat Torah, many congregations get all their Torah scrolls out and dance with them.

What is a Sefer Torah?

Image: Person lifting the Sefer Torah for all to see.

Once I was in synagogue, and I heard someone refer to something that sounded like “the Safer Torah.” I was new to the Jewish world and wondered: what made that Torah safer?

The person I asked laughed a little and said, no, it’s not “SAY-fer.” The proper pronunciation is “SEH-fer,” and it means “Book.” Sefer Torah is \Hebrew for “Torah Scroll.”

The Torah is indeed a book, actually five books. When we see it in the ark or touch it during hakafah, the parade during the Torah service, it does not look like a book. It looks beautiful and mysterious, an ancient shape wrapped in precious materials. Calling it the sefer Torah reminds us that it is not really a mysterious object: it is a book! It is a book with which we are intimately familiar, our inheritance.

What is the Beit HaMikdash?

Image: Model of the Temple in Jerusalem before its destruction by the Romans in 70 CE. (noamhen / Pixabay)

Beit HaMikdash means “the holy house,” and it refers exclusively to the Temple in Jerusalem. Bayit means house (beit is a grammatical construct that makes it into “house of.”) HaMikdash comes from the root kuf-dalet-shin, which denotes holiness. The specific term Beit HaMikdash appears in rabbinic literature but not in the Tanakh.

In Tanakh, the Jewish Bible, the Temple is usually referred to as HaBayit, the House. It is the dwelling place for God’s presence with Israel.

Some terms to know:

  • Beit HaMikdash – The Temple in Jerusalem
  • 1st Temple or Temple of Solomon – built by Solomon, destroyed by Babylonian armies in 586 BCE.
  • 2nd Temple – rebuilt with permission of Cyrus of Persia in 538 BCE.
  • Herod’s Temple – the 2nd Temple, expanded and elaborated by Herod the Great in 20 BCE.
  • Churban – (khoor-BAHN) The destruction of the Temple.
  • Holy of Holies – the centermost enclosure of the Temple where only the High Priest was permitted to go.
  • Kotel, Western Wall – An area on the western side of the Temple Mount where Jews traditionally go to pray (since the Temple Mount is forbidden.) Sometimes it is referred to as the “Wailing Wall” but Jews do not use that name for it, because it was coined in derision of the Jews who wept for the lost Temple.

A timeline of the Temple and its site:

  • 10th c. BCE – Built by King Solomon, heir of King David.
  • 587 BCE – Destroyed by the Babylonians. (Tisha B’Av)
  • 538 BCE – Rebuilding authorized by Cyrus the Great of Persia.
  • 168 BCE – Seleucid King Antiochus IV Epiphanes orders sacrifices to Greek gods in the Temple, Maccabean Revolt erupts.
  • 165 BCE – Rededication of the Temple (Chanukah)
  • 20 BCE – Expansion and decoration of the Temple by King Herod
  • 70 CE – The Temple is destroyed by Roman legionnaires. (Tisha B’Av)
  • 361 CE – Roman Emperor Julian makes plans to rebuild the Temple
  • 363 CE – Julian’s death and the Galilee earthquake of 363 put an end to rebuilding plans.
  • 7th c. CE – Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan ordered the construction of an Islamic shrine, the Dome of the Rock, on the Temple Mount, as well as the Al Aqsa Mosque.
  • 1967 CE – Israeli troops capture the Old City in Jerusalem from Jordan during the Six Day War. This marks the first time since 70 CE that Jews have been free to visit the Western Wall at will. The Muslim Waqf retains administrative control of the Temple Mount itself.

Some Jews continue to pray daily for the Temple to be rebuilt on the same site in Jerusalem. Other Jews believe that the time of the Temple is past and they do not look to rebuild it.

What is (an) Aliyah?

Image: Several people gather on the bimah at Temple Sinai, Oakland, for an aliyah to the Torah. (Photo: Linda Burnett, all rights reserved.)

Aliyah (ah-lee-YAH or ah-LEE-yah) (plural, aliyot) is a Hebrew word meaning “going up.” In English, it has two principle meanings:

First meaning: When a Jew from the Diaspora (outside the land of Israel) moves to make their home in Israel, that is called “making aliyah.” It is regarded as a mitzvah, a religious duty, and the ideal of aliyah appears in numerous places in Jewish prayers and texts, most famously at the close of the Passover seder: “Next year in Jerusalem!”

Currently aliyah is governed by the Law of Return of the State of Israel. For more information about making aliyah, contact the Jewish Agency.

Second meaning: During the Torah service, readers are called up to the bimah (a raised platform in front of the congregation) to chant or read the blessings before and after each section of the Torah reading. We are called “to go up” to the Torah for these blessings, which are considered an honor. The one who blesses may or may not be the person who chants the verses from Torah. There are always a minimum of three sections of Torah read, so three sets of blessings as well.

The person who makes an aliyah to the Torah should be a Jew, should be 13 or more years of age, and should feel confident enough in their Hebrew to recite the blessings.

Here is a video from MyJewishLearning.com on how to make an aliyah to the Torah:

Rabbi Steven Exler explains the exact procedure for making an aliyah to the Torah.

A Puzzle: Yashar koach!

Here’s a puzzle…

According to the WordPress software 100 people have gotten to this site today by searching for the string, “What is Yasher Koach?”

I wonder what wonderful thing happened today that so many people had that question all at once?

Whatever it was, Yasher koach to all the readers who asked the question, because asking questions is a fine thing to do. May it lead you to greater heights!