Who Brings On the Evenings

Image: Starry sky. Photo by Unsplash on pixabay.com.

Jewish prayer has a rhythm that roots it in the natural world. Our “day” begins at sundown, and we greet the day with a traditional prayer:

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe,
who speaks the evening into being,
skillfully opens the gates,
thoughtfully alters the time and changes the seasons,
and arranges the stars in their heavenly courses according to plan.
You are Creator of day and night,
rolling light away from darkness and darkness from light,
transforming day into night and distinguishing one from the other.
Adonai Tz’vaot is Your Name.
Ever-living God, may You reign continually over us into eternity.
Blessed are You, Adonai, who brings on evening.

– Ma’ariv Aravim, Evening Service, Mishkan Tefilah 

I love this prayer. I love the way it locates me in time and space. It invites me to watch the process of the arrival of nightfall. It mentions the sunset obliquely (“opens the gates”) and then holds my hand as I watch the stars come out.

It propels me from a contemplation of the marvels revealed by science into wonder that can only be expressed through poetry.

Whatever our understanding of God, it can speak to that understanding. It works as well if we believe in a personal Creator of all things, a Wisdom behind the scenes, or a Unifying Principle underlying all reality.

Here is my own translation, slightly different:

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of Time-and-Space,
who with Your word brings on the evenings.

With wisdom You open heaven’s gates,
And with understanding You change the times and cause the seasons to alternate.

You arrange the stars in their courses in the sky according to Your will.
You create day and night.
You roll away light before darkness, and darkness before light.

You cause the day to pass, and the night to come,
And you make the distinctions between day and night.
Lord of Hosts is Your name.
Eternal God, may You reign over us forever and ever.

Blessed are You, O God, who brings on the evenings.

Ma’ariv Aravim, my translation

 

 

 

Another Way to Pray

Image: A rabbit, listening. Photo by skeeze.

Jewish prayer can take many forms.

Formal, communal prayer happens with a minyan: we gather and we use the ancient words to fulfill the mitzvot of Shema and sacrifice.

Jewish prayer may take the form of blessings: blessings before and after eating, blessings before performing mitzvot, blessings for small everyday experiences and blessings for big things like brit milah or a wedding.

Jewish prayer may be meditative prayer, and there are many different forms of meditation. Lately I’ve been praying by listening. I sit quietly, I quiet my mind, and I listen.

Random thoughts enter; I notice them and let them float through. Random sensations nudge my consciousness: a breeze, a small muscle twitch. Most of it I simply allow to float through me.

But every now and then, as I sit quietly, I hear something I need to hear. Sometimes it is an insight. Sometimes it is an idea. Sometimes it is a reminder that I need to deal with something, need to speak with someone. And sometimes it is my body, telling me something I need to notice.

And occasionally, I hear a question.

The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”

Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.

Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” – I Kings 19:11-13

 

 

Prayer for the Opening of Baseball Season

Image: A baseball game in a large stadium. Photo by graymatters.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of the Universe, who created human beings out of the clay of the earth, breathing into them the breath of Your life. You set within each human being a love of play, a sense of fair play, and a desire for games that will satisfy both the body and the mind. From these human desires You brought forth baseball, a game of bats and balls played upon the diamond. It is an orderly game, as Your creation is orderly, and a mysterious game, as Your creation is mysterious, revealing to its devotees deep truths about Your world.

It is a game subject to times and seasons, and we give thanks for the fact that we are now at the beginning of the season of baseball. Amen.

It is a game subject to rules and statistics, and we give thanks for the Official Baseball Rules as well as their league variations, and also for the many statistics that add to the strategies of managers and the enjoyment of fans. Amen.

May our foes be unable to defeat us. Amen.

Let them be filled with dread at the sight of our bats. Amen.

And when the forces of Light and Dark join upon the diamond field, let our players play uninjured and mighty. Let the crack of the bat and the roar of the crowd fill every ear and every heart, so that the words of the prophet may be fulfilled: Play Ball!

And when this season nears completion, when the dwindling hours of day reflect the dwindling number of teams in post-season play, let our team remain victorious to the last inning, so that we may glorify Your Name with the World Series trophy. Amen.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, who enlivens our hearts with games. Amen.

—–

A rabbinical note: The opening of the new baseball season (Rosh Z’man Beisbol) is a major festival for many American Jews. Discussions on the holiday are recorded in Tractate Miskhakim (Games) and in Hilkhot Z’man Beisbol (Laws of the Season of Baseball) as well as in HaYachalom HaHakir (The Precious Diamond), a mystical work. The prayer above is from Sefer Greenberg, a book of prayers attributed to Jewish baseball great Hank Greenberg, although those skeptical Wissenschaft yekkies insist that it is a pseudepigraphal piece, probably written in about 5768 by a ba’al teshuvah in Detroit, most likely a Tigers fan.

There is disagreement as to whether this prayer should be said at the opening of Spring Training or on Opening Day. Consult a rabbi or your home team office for the minhag hamakom (local custom) upon this matter.

Meditation on a Tallit

Image: A young boy puts on a tallit. He is wearing tefillin as well. Image by 777jew.

One of my teachers, Rabbi Dr. Rachel Adler, wrote to me after I published the post Why a Prayer Shawl?, suggesting in her very gentle way that there is also a poetic side to the tradition of wearing a tallit, a prayer shawl, for morning prayers.  A tallit is much more than a holder for the ritual fringes, the tzitzit.

I knew this, but I was so busy giving the basic facts that I forgot the poetic side, which is just as important, perhaps more important. So here I offer to you a poem I wrote and gave as a bar mitzvah gift some years back. For its imagery, it draws upon the psalms and prayers one traditionally says before donning the garment. If you are curious about those connections, click the links within the poem.

Meditation on a tallit

In honor of Jesse Benjamin Snyder, Bar Mitzvah, 20 Cheshvan, 5764

 The psalmist tells us that before God made the world
God wrapped Godself in a robe of light, a bright tallit:
Light before the dawn of the world, light before the making
Of the first day, the first ray to split the darkness forever.

Like a mother wrapping a newborn, the wings of Shechinah
Envelop us: soft as silk, warm as wool,
All colors, all together, white light. We will wrap the mitzvot
Around our frail shoulders, against the winds of the world.

Touch the tzitzit: Notice the cord
that winds around, binding the fringe together.
Finger the knots. So may we wrap ourselves and our lives
Together in wholeness, together in holiness, strengthened in covenant:
Touch the tzitzit.

Arrayed in the majesty of the Holy, we are robed like royalty:
Tasseled front and back, in folds of rich fabric. We are commanded
To wear tzitzit, so that we will remember and we will act:
We are a nation of priests, working to mend the world.

The psalmist tells us that before God made the world
God wrapped Godself in a robe of light, a bright tallit.
God has woven me a tallit, to match:
I will wrap myself in mitzvot, to do God’s work.

Help: the Prayer Book is Too Heavy for Me!

Image: A Reform prayer book. Photo by Linda Burnett.

A reader asked:

Please, PLEASE post about whether us disabled people who can follow along more easily via electronic devices than by hoisting heavy (for some of us) books is OK. Since reading your posts on this subject, I’ve been feeling like I have been a nasty, red carbuncle in the congregation when I’ve shown up to worship alongside my loved one who has an upcoming bat mitzvah, and I’ve actually held back from going at all. I don’t want to be a blot on my loved one’s special day when that day comes!

Congratulations on the upcoming bat mitzvah service!

There’s no problem with using a tablet or smartphone app on a weekday. It would be rude to check email or follow the stock market in services, but of course it is fine to use a prayer book app or a  Tanakh/Chumash app.

Shabbat is different. For a “Shomer shabbes” Jew, using such a thing in synagogue on Shabbat would be deeply offensive. Your options break down by movement:

Reform: There are several good apps available for a Chumash (Torah portions and readings from the prophets.) If anyone questions your use of the tablet, just explain that it’s due to a disability and that should be the end of it. (As for the siddur, I’ve been informed that there’s a problem with the app, but I’m going to research that and update asap.) There is also a small, lightweight “Traveler’s Edition” of Mishkan Tefilah available.

Some congregations project the pages of the siddur and other service materials on the front wall or a screen. If the synagogue offers that sort of arrangement, you’re in luck!

Conservative and Modern Orthodox: They are unlikely to be open to the use of electronics on Shabbat, but if you call ahead and speak with the rabbi, it may well be that they have alternative accommodations to offer. One of my teachers, Rabbi Dr. Rachel Adler, reminded me that there are pocket-sized siddurim (prayer books) easily available, and perhaps getting your own lightweight copy is an answer. Certainly you can ask to use one at the synagogue, if you don’t own one.

Renewal and Reconstructionist: Call ahead and ask; the answer will differ from place to place.

When I made the original post (More Etiquette for Bar & Bat Mitzvah Guests) I was thinking of the people who come to a bar mitzvah and pull out the phone out of habit and begin checking email. That’s very offensive, and would be so on any day of the week. Using a tablet to follow the service is in the same category with using an electric wheelchair, and is OK on a weekday anywhere, and on Shabbat in some synagogues but not others.

In synagogues where using a tablet or smartphone isn’t an option on Shabbat, and there’s no lightweight option available, I’d arrange to sit next to an able bodied person who is willing to share, to hold their book where you can see it. You will then have the added bonus of a knowledgeable page turner, which can be quite helpful. Since one cannot know who is able by looking at them,  I’d phone ahead (WELL ahead)  to the synagogue and ask if they might be able to find a volunteer.

Another option: if you are not familiar with the service, you may find the prayer book more frustration than help, anyway. Give yourself the option of simply sitting and listening. If someone presses a prayer book on you, just say, “No, thank you.” There are many ways to be in a Jewish service – for more about that, see New to Jewish Prayer? 9 Tips for Beginners.

I hope that you are able to find arrangements that work for you, so that you can enjoy the occasion.

What if it Hurts to Stand in Services?

Image: Eight blue walking sticks against a background of green grass. Photo by https://pixabay.com/en/walking-stick-handle-cane-handle-415810/

And the sun rose upon [Jacob] as he passed over Peniel, and he limped upon his thigh. – Genesis 32:32

Aging, illness, and accidents are part of the human condition. We know that two of our three Patriarchs had disabilities. Isaac was blind and Jacob walked with a limp.

When chronic pain issues from some old injuries began to give me trouble my primary impulse was to hide my disability. Especially in services, I felt that it was important to stand whenever the congregation stood. That was even more true if I was the one leading services. So I stood, sometimes drenched in sweat from the pain. When anyone commented about the fact that my clothes were soaked and my hair was dripping, I’d change the subject.

To make a long story short, that was a sad and stupid “solution” to my problem. I have since acquired a mobility scooter and learned how to pray sitting down. I encourage my students to be gentle with their bodies: if a temporary or permanent situation makes a particular posture painful, the answer is simple: don’t do it. 

Pain doesn’t enhance Jewish prayer. I did not get extra points from God for sweating and trembling my way through the Amidah. Clinging to the furniture in front of me and trying not to cry did not make me a better Jew. Now that I sit when I need to sit, my prayers are more focused, more conscious, and I am better able to pay attention to the “still, small voice” within. (1 Kings 19)

Here are my suggestions, if standing for prayer is painful for you, or if you have any other disability that sets you apart from the congregation at prayer:

  • Own the disability. Hiding or denying disability won’t make it go away. As the brilliant blogger at The Squeaky Wheelchair wrote recently, “You can’t ‘do anything you set your mind to.'” I cannot sprout wings and fly. I cannot read minds. And at this stage of my life, my body cannot stand for more than 3 minutes without pain. Owning the things that are impossible means that we are freed to take on other things – things we can do.
  • Care for your body. Caring for the body is actually a mitzvah. Usually people envoke it to talk about eating right, getting checkups, and getting exercise, but it’s also about not abusing the body. Praying in postures appropriate for your body is indeed a mitzvah.
  • If you need help, ask. People like to help. After all, helping is a mitzvah. You deserve to get what you need to attend services. And if you need a ramp or whatever, talk to the leadership. Maybe it isn’t possible immediately, but if you don’t ask, you don’t get!
  • If you don’t want help, be as firm as you need to be about it. Sometimes people want to help, but they are inappropriate. I have learned to say “No thank you” firmly. Sometimes I have to escalate to a louder “NO!” or (rarely) even a very very loud “NO! STOP IT!” It’s sad that some people can’t learn from the first polite “no thanks,” but it is perfectly appropriate for me to be firm in taking care of myself if need be.
  • Use other ways to mark standing times as different. I put my tallit [prayer shawl] (when I’m wearing it) over my head when I pray the Amidah. I cover my eyes for the Shema. I sit near the aisle, so that I can touch the Torah as it goes by.Just because I’m sitting down, doesn’t mean I can’t use my hands or even my feet. With other disabilities, you may have different options, but explore those options to get the most out of prayer!*
  • You don’t have to be consistent. Some days I feel better than others. I used to worry that if I used the scooter one day, I couldn’t come in on just a cane the next. Or if I stood for the Torah service one week, I couldn’t sit down the next week. Guess what? No one gets to judge your disability, and you are not “faking” because you have a few good days.  Do what you need to do. If someone foolishly comments on it (“Oh! You are getting better!”) I generally say, “I have better and worse days. This is a pretty good one.”

*Readers, if you have different disabilities, but can offer suggestions on what you’ve done to more fully participate in parts of the service, I’d love to hear from you in the Comments. I can only speak from my own experience, and I’d very much like to learn from yours.

 

 

 

 

The Voice of Torah

Image: Julie Arnold chants Torah at Congregation Ner Tamid in Henderson, NV. At her side is Rabbi Sanford Akselrad. Photo courtesy of Julie Arnold.

The first record we have of anyone reading Torah from the scroll to a congregation is in the book of Nehemiah, chapter 8:

And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate. And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the Lord had commanded Israel. So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard, on the first day of the seventh month. And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand. And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law. And Ezra the scribe stood on a wooden platform that they had made for the purpose… They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. – Nehemiah 8: 1-4, 8

The Hebrew phrase sefer Torah [the book of the law] is still the way we refer to a Torah scroll. The sefer Torah from which Ezra read to the people was very similar, if not identical, to the Torah scrolls in synagogues worldwide today.

A Torah scroll has only consonants and spaces in it: imagine reading this article without vowels, capitalization or punctuation:

trh scrll hs nl cnsnnts nd spcs n t mgn rdng ths rtcl wtht vwls cptlztn r pncttn

Between the 6th and 10th centuries CE, in Tiberias and Jerusalem, a group of scholars called the Masoretes worked to make sure that the text was preserved properly. Part of their work was setting up a system of markings to show vowels, punctuation, and emphasis for the Torah text.  These markings are called te’amim. They are not written in the Torah scroll – nothing is ever added to a Torah scroll! – but instead they are available in a book called a tikkun korim [correction for readers] which the Torah reader uses to prepare – think “notes for homework.”

The te’amim function as punctuation and emphasis and they are expressed by the Torah reader in musical tunes called “trope.” Those tunes are established by tradition and will differ depending on where one’s teacher learned the craft. My te’amim teacher, Cantor Ilene Keys, uses one of the Lithuanian traditions for trope. (For more about that tradition, and about its place in my life, see The Chain of Tradition.)

So when we sit in synagogue and listen to a Torah reading, we are hearing not only the text itself but also the generations of effort to safeguard that text:

Ezra the Scribe copied down the scroll with great care;
his heirs are the soferim [scribes] who make each new Torah scroll
with such great care that it is usual for it to require a year of work.

The person reading the text “stands on the shoulders” of their teachers,
who guarded the text by teaching the te’amim and the proper use of the tikkun.

And each reader has spent significant time in the past week,
studying and preparing to vocalize the text:
learning the trope, learning the words,
practicing to say each word clearly and correctly.

Thus is the ancient text transmitted from generation to generation.