What’s “Shavua Tov”?

On Saturday evening or Sunday morning, someone may greet you with the phrase “Shavua tov!” (shah-VOO-ah TOHV).

It means “Good Week!” and it’s the greeting for the new week that begins at sundown on Saturday night. Remember, all Jewish days begin and end at sundown.

You’re most likely to hear it Saturday evening or Sunday morning, but it’s still appropriate (if a little belated) until sundown on Wednesday. You’ll rarely hear “Shabbat shalom” until Friday.

So if someone says “Shavua tov!” to you, you can say right back to them, “Shavua tov!” Alternatively you can say, “Gam l’cha!”  if they are male and “Gam lech!” if they are female.  Either way, it means “Also to you!” or “Backatcha!”

Shavua tov!


Government of Israel: Vocabulary

Image: The Israeli Flag, by PublicDomainPictures.

Following the news from Israel can be very frustrating if you don’t know some basic facts about government there. Americans are sometimes particularly puzzled by these facts, since there are terms that sound similar but mean quite different things. Here is a list of basic vocabulary that may help; if you want to know more about any item, follow the links within it.

Knesset – (k-NES-set) The Knesset is the legislative branch of the Israeli government. Israel is a parliamentary democracy.  The Knesset is its house of elected representatives. Bills become law via a fixed process through committees of the Knesset and then a vote by the plenary session. Knesset means “Assembly.”

Prime Minister [Rosh Hamemshalah]  – The Prime Minister heads the executive branch, the Government of Israel. Elections for Prime Minister are held at the same time as elections for Knesset. After the elections, the Prime Minister has to form a government, that is, put together a coalition of parties that he will present along with a slate of Ministers to the Knesset. This coalition must contain a majority of the votes in the Knesset. The current Prime Minister is Benjamin Netanyahu.

President [Nasi] – The President is elected by a secret ballot of the Knesset for a term of five years. It is largely a ceremonial position; the President is the public face of Israel. The current President is Reuven Rivlin.

Supreme Court [Beit Mishpat Elyon]- The Supreme Court sits atop the judiciary of Israel. It hears criminal and civil appeals from lower courts, and appeals from individuals who believe they have been wronged by a state authority or office. The lower courts include district courts, military courts, labor courts, and religious courts. There are religious courts for each of the four main religions resident in Israel: Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and Druze.

Basic Laws – Israel is a young state that has come into being at a time of continuous turmoil and considerable difference among religious and secular parties. As a result, while its Declaration of Independence forms the basis for much of its law, Israelis have not written and signed a Constitution. Instead, the Knesset enacted a body of laws called the Basic Laws which are intended to form the basis for a Constitution.

Elections – National elections are held at least once every four years, more often if the Prime Minister’s coalition falls apart. Every party running for election offers a slate of candidates for Knesset; how many of those individuals will actually become Members of the Knesset (MK) depends on the percentage of the popular vote the party receives. The Jewish Virtual Library offers a list of the parties in the current government and those who have figured prominently in recent elections. This list is particularly useful because it gives links to specific information about each party.

That’s enough for one post. I’ll follow up with another with more terms in future.

To my readers who are Israeli citizens: If I have done a poor job of explaining something, or offered downright misinformation, please correct me via the Comments!

To my readers who are not Israeli citizens: Your questions in the comments will tell me what the next such post needs to cover!


My Joseph Story

The Joseph story has its own place in my heart. I have always felt a strong connection to the powerful novella that closes out the book of Genesis. That connection was strengthened when my rabbi chose it to use as our text for learning Biblical Hebrew.

Like most adult learners in the US, my Hebrew studies had started with “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.

Each week we had a short passage to translate, divided among the members of the class. We were supposed to translate the whole thing, but each of us was responsible for “our” verses, meaning that each of us knew ahead of time which verses we, personally, would translate aloud.

Rabbi Chester was patient and kind, never shaming anyone. That was good, because I had no natural gift for it, and my translations were often a mess. I would go to class thinking “this CAN’T be right,” and sure enough, it wasn’t. But he always knew if we’d cheated, so it was better to bring what I had translated, even if it was obviously wrong. He’d use our mistakes to review grammar or review how to break down a verb 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 in Hebrew.

Sometimes our teacher 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 into 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.

What’s that Hat?

Image: A kippah or yarmulke with the logo of the Oakland Athletics baseball team, including “Athletics” transliterated in Hebrew letters. Photo by Linda Burnett.

You can call it a kippah (in Hebrew) or a yarmulke (in Yiddish) but a Jew will seldom refer to it as a “skullcap” or a “beanie.” It signifies respect: respect for the One who is greater, or respect for the community in which it is a custom.

For some, it may also be a fashion statement or a small personal billboard on which to express one’s passions.


A Guide to High Holy Day Greetings

There are a number of ways Jews greet one another during the High Holy Days.  The easiest, all-purpose greeting is:

SHANA TOVA – (shah-NAH toe-VAH) – literally “Good year” it means “Happy New Year.” You can reply with the same words.

Some other greetings you may hear leading up to Rosh Hashanah and on the day:

L’SHANA TOVA (luh-shah-NAH toe-VAH) – literally “To a Good Year.” It also means Happy New Year, and you can reply in kind.

L’SHANA TOVA TIKATEIVU (shah-NAH toe-VAH tee-kah-TAY-voo) literally, “May you be written for a good year [in the Book of Life.]

GUT YUNTIFF – (GOOT YUN-tif), (Yiddish) “Happy Holiday.”

From Rosh HaShanah to Yom Kippur, it’s polite to assume that someone has already been “written in the book of life” so you wish them a “good sealing”:

GAMAR CHATIMAH TOVAH – (ga-MAR chah-ti-MAH toe-VAH) – “May your final sealing be good.”

Remember, you can never go wrong greeting or answering with “Shana Tovah!”

Thank you to Rabbi Michal Loving of Temple Beth Orr, Coral Springs, FL for the photo featured with this article. I use it by permission of Rabbi Loving, and all rights to its use are hers.

A Little Tip for Hebrew Learners

There is a common sound in Hebrew that is a dead giveaway that an English speaker didn’t grow up with the language. It’s the sound associated with the letters  ח and  כ. We often transliterate it with “ch” or “kh” (that’s been my practice here) but the sound simply doesn’t exist in English.

People who learn Hebrew as children pick up the sound pretty easily, but for adults it can be harder.  We usually tell adult students “it’s like the ch in Bach” which is only much help if they speak German. Here’s what I tell students:

  1. Lift the rear part of your tongue to your soft palate. Blow air out around it.
  2. Think of a cat hissing. Now make that sound very short.
  3. That’s ח and  כ.

If you practice it, it will come. Most adults have trouble at first, and then it gets easier. Make silly games with it to practice in private.  Substitute the ח sound for H in the sentence below:

Hi, I’m here to see Harry. (Khi, I’m khere to see kHarry.)

It sounds ridiculous, but if you keep doing it, your mouth will get used to it.

If you have tried, and you are quite sure you cannot make that sound, here’s another tip:  do not substitute a K sound for it. I get the impression that in some college Hebrew classes teachers allow that, and the trouble is that it will stand out like a neon flasher in synagogue.

Instead, substitute an H for it.  “H” is not completely correct, but it will get you closer to the sound. It also puts your mouth close to the right shape for the sound. “K” builds a bad habit. “H” leaves room for improvement. You may find, over time, that you will pick up the sound naturally.

If you are making the effort to learn some Hebrew, good for you! Every bit of it that you learn will help you feel more at home around Jews. More than almost anything else, the Hebrew language is our common ground. Every scrap of Hebrew that you learn will pay rich benefits in Jewish connection.

I learned Hebrew as an adult; started in my 40’s. It can be done, and if you are making the effort, kol hakavod – all honor to you!

What Does It Mean, “To Fear God”?

A while back Linda and I toured the exhibit “Night Begins the Day: Rethinking Space, Time and Beauty” at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, curated by Renny Pritikin and Lily Siegel. The exhibit explores the notion of yirah, awe or fear, which is one of the core concepts of Jewish theology, as it plays out in the work of 27 “artists, scientists, and creative thinkers.”

The concept of yirah is a troublesome one for many modern Jews. “Why would God want us to be afraid?” some ask. Sometimes our personal theologies develop in reaction to antisemitic notions of Judaism, statements that the “Old Testament” message is about fear while other books are messages of love. It’s understandable that in pointing out the ways in which the God of the Hebrew Bible is loving and caring, we down-pedal the fearsome. However, “fear” as a translation for yirah also falls a bit short; there is no tidy English translation for it.

Exodus 9 offers us a lovely juxtaposition to help us understand of the concept of yirah. Before sending the plague of hail upon the Egyptians, God sends Moses to warn Pharaoh and the people of Egypt that the plague is coming, and to get the servants and animals inside before it comes. Then some took heed of the warning, and some did not:

He that feared the word of the Eternal among the servants of Pharaoh made his servants and his cattle flee into the houses, and he that did not pay attention to the word of the Eternal left his servants and his cattle in the field. – Exodus 9:20-21 (translation mine, very literal)

“He that feared” took the warning seriously. But “he that did not pay attention” left his people and animals in the fields to die. The parallel phrases suggest that another way to define yirah is “paying attention.”

Artists and scientists are in the business of paying attention. They see the world in very particular ways, and they call our attention to aspects of the world that we might otherwise miss. That’s what goes on in this remarkable exhibit at the CJM: artists and scientists invite us to see the world in all its grandeur and mystery, and to engage with it in awe.

If you are wondering what the title means, consider that in Jewish time, a calendric day begins at sundown: night begins the day. It is a fundamental Jewish idea, and it is also a way in which Judaism is out of step with most ordinary ways of perceiving time. For more on this idea, read Why is the Jewish Calendar so Weird?

Some of the objects in the exhibition are what you expect when you hear the word “art.” Some of them are not. What they all offer is a trip outside of ordinary reality by way of paying close attention: to the shape of a raindrop, to the sound of a pocket watch, to the idea of time, to the useful fiction of longitude. All, however, also point beyond themselves to the More we commonly call “God.” If you will be in San Francisco area anytime before Sept 20, go see this remarkable show.

Night Begins the Day was at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco until September 20, 2015.