What is a Vidui?

Image: A walkway across a dune, to the ocean. (Ulrike Mai / Pixabay)

One of the prayers we will say during the Yom Kippur ritual is called a vidui (vee-DOO-ee). Vidui means “confession,” and that is exactly what it is. It includes an acrostic list of sins.

However, the use of the vidui prayer is not limited to the Yom Kippur service. Such prayers can be very helpful in cheshbon nefesh, taking stock of our lives, as we prepare for the High Holy Days.

The other principal time we say the vidui prayer is near the end of life. The sick person has the opportunity to consider their life in light of Torah values, taking responsibility for their life, for things done and undone, words spoken and unspoken. They may say the prayer alone, or with a rabbi or other support person.

The traditional vidui is a Hebrew prayer, and the English translations of it vary, depending on whether the translator is invested in maintaining the acrostic form. It is always a list of sins, which allows those saying the prayer to reflect on the ways and times they have slipped into those behaviors.

There are also a number of nontraditional vidui variations, such as:

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)

A Prayer for the Body: Take Two

Image: A footprint in the sand on the beach. (pixabay)

I just took an unpleasant little trip down memory lane, but with good news at the end of it. I’ve been dealing all summer with a minor foot problem, and avoiding the podiatrist. I knew I was avoiding him, rather as one might avoid the dentist. Today I finally got to the office, and as soon as I saw the big chair featured in podiatrists’ offices, all the memories came flooding back.

In March and June of 1985 I had surgery for bunions. The podiatrist-surgeon had an excellent reputation and the bunions had become a real barrier to a goal of mine: I wanted to run a marathon, but I couldn’t push off with the front part of either foot. So I went to this nice doc who said he could fix it, and I fell down a rabbit hole that would completely change my life.

I’ll spare you the details; the gist is that my mangled left foot is one of the reasons the rest of my body has troubles. I have stayed away from podiatrists’ chairs ever since my recovery from the final salvage surgery in 1988. I sat in that chair today, and I held Linda’s hand to keep memory at bay.

But here’s the lovely thing: today’s meeting with the doc was no big deal. My left foot, the mangled foot, had coped nicely with the splinter that had driven deep into it. My immune system swatted away any infection. The life force within me packaged up a long splinter that had gotten in there and had done such a good job sliding it back out that all the doc had to do was take a forceps and pull. My body works.

Back in rabbinical school, there was a prayer that used to make me angry and/or sad to say it as part of the daily prayers. It went:

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, who formed the human body with wisdom and placed within it a miraculous combination of openings and organs. It is evident and known before Your honored throne, that if only one of them should be opened or blocked at the wrong time, it would be impossible to exist and stand before You. Blessed are You, Eternal One, the healer of all flesh and worker of wonders.

“Asher Yatzar,” Shacharit

It was the “stand before You” that annoyed me – my body was steadily losing its ability to stand without pain in those years, until I finally rewrote the prayer:

Thank God it all works! — No. —

Thank God enough works.
For all our science, and all our technology,
These bodies You have made in Your wisdom are wrapped in mystery: Rooms within rooms, openings and closings,
All work so wonderfully that we only notice when they don’t.
We are able to stand or sit before You, our Creator,
Because enough works today.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of Time and Space,
Who heals our flesh and continues doing wonders.

Asher Yatzar, Ruth Adar, 2004

And I say that revised prayer today in gratitude, because the foot still has its problems, but the beautiful systems within me continued to function on other levels. And that was enough, praise God.

I know – so much fuss over a splinter! Ridiculous. But such is the power of bad memories. If there is some health matter you’ve been putting off out of dread I hope you will attend to it as soon as you can.

Heal Us and We Shall Be Healed

Image: Healing hands. (Image by chiisaihana20200 /Pixabay)

I’ve introduced several prayers from the Amidah, from one of the core prayers in the daily service. Here is one that I find particularly helpful for stressful times, and for maintaining my balance in unbalanced times:

Heal us, O Lord, and we shall be healed, save us and we shall be saved, for You are our praise. Bring complete healing to all our wounds,

(Prayer to add for a sick individual: May it be Your will in front of You, O Lord, my God and the God of my forefathers, that You quickly send a complete recovery from the Heavens – a recovery of the soul and a recovery of the body – to the the sick person, insert name, the son/daughter of insert mother’s name, among the other sick ones of Israel) for You are God and King, the faithful and merciful healer. Blessed are You, O Lord, Who heals the sick of his people Israel.

Siddur Ashkenaz

Am I asking God to magically fix things? No, I’m asking for the strength to do what I need to do, and for God’s mercy on all those who are suffering (who may include myself.) It’s another great prayer from our siddur.

Then it’s up to me to do what I can for myself, for my community, for my sick friend. We are the hands of God in the world.

Dear God: Help Us

Image: A hurricane, from space. (Image by WikiImages / Pixabay)

A monster hurricane ground the Bahamas almost to dust

while

Men with guns killed people in several different places

and

One of them shot a toddler in the face

while

Alaska and Siberia and the Amazon rainforest burned

and

unspeakable crimes punctuated the news cycle.

This is the new normal, apparently: things that once would have been the big news of the entire month or season are now piled up in a single day, disaster upon disaster. These are human-made disasters: they aren’t earthquakes or tsunamis. Every few days, some guy grabs a gun and kills a bunch of people because he feels like it. Despite the political pressure to think otherwise, climate change is real and the evidence is all around us. For the past two years, the changed climate in California and the rest of the American West has engendered monster fires, fires so big that they are visible from space, and now the Arctic and the Amazon are burning, as well.

So how should we pray about these messes that we human beings have made?

Jewish tradition does not encourage us to pray for miracles. It does not encourage us to look towards the heavens and say, “God, please fix it.”

Jewish tradition encourages us to work to make the miracles we need. When we stood trembling at the bank of the Red Sea, God scolded Moses for stopping to pray and said, “Get moving!” (Exodus 14:15) In that story, God may have stretched out “a mighty arm” as the Haggadah says, but we were expected to seize the hand offered and ultimately, deliver ourselves. We did not fly out of Egypt; we walked.

For too long, we have whined and scuffed our feet at the edge of these Red Seas we face today. We have wasted precious time arguing instead of acting.

Can’t get the solution to gun violence that we want? Push our elected officials to get whatever compromise might help a little. Enforce existing laws, tighten what controls can be tightened. Fund more mental health care. Fund research. Explore every possible option. Do not simply blame it on “bad people” or “stupid people” or “liberals” or “conservatives.”

Let’s do the same with climate change. Let each of us push our elected officials to take it seriously, and do what we can individually. If our grandparents and great-grandparents could sacrifice to fight the Nazis, why can’t we make sacrifices to make the changes we must make to survive? WE – not “other people.” Let’s tell the corporations that they get to make sacrifices, too. We are all in this together; there is only one Earth.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, who gave us brains and intended that we use them. Please give us the strength to save ourselves from ourselves.

The Trueist Name of God

Image: Cartoon of many people speaking, different colored speech balloons. (RudieStrummer / Shutterstock)

Recently I was answering a question about the names of God. In Judaism, there is only one deity but that one deity has LOTS of names: Biblical names like

  • El – name of an ancient Canaanite deity
  • Yud-Heh-Vav-Hey – The name we never say. (Ex. 3:14)
  • Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh – (“I am who I will be”)
  • El Shaddai – (Genesis 17:1)
  • Elohim – (looks like a plural, but refers to one God) (Genesis 1:26)
  • Adonai – (also looks plural, and isn’t) Psalm 136:3

and newer names like

  • Shechinah – the Presence of God)
  • HaMaqom – “The Place” – God is everywhere, and right here.)
  • HaShem – “The Name” – a substitution for the name we don’t say, and for Adonai in some communities.
  • Ein Sof – The highest Kabbalistic name of God.
  • HaRachaman – “The Merciful One.”
  • Ribbono Shel Olam – “Master of the Universe”
  • Avinu Malkeinu – “Our Father, Our King”

… to name just a few!

As I was explaining, I flashed back on a wonderful memory. At Temple Sinai we used to use the Gates of Prayer siddur , which had gendered language in reference to God. (He/him, etc.) The congregation felt that this was not appropriate, and the clergy came up with a fix. Whenever we came to any name for God or pronoun for God in the service, everyone was encouraged to say whatever name of God they liked – any of the above or dozens others.

So our prayers would periodically erupt in a glorious cacophany of names, for example:

Blessed are You, {cacophany of names}, {cacophany of names} our God, who sanctifies us with mitzvot and commands us to light the candles of Shabbat.

Soon I came to feel that the real name of God was that eruption of voices and names, all the names together. The name of God was the sound of many Jews saying all the names of God, together.

By the time I came back from rabbinical school, the new prayer books had arrived, and there was no need to worry about gendered language: it had all been written out of the new siddur. It’s nice and tidy and tame, but sometimes the wild Jew in me would love to hear once again the cacophony of all the names of God, all together, spoken in love and awe.

Moses’ Prayer for the Sick

Image: Sunrise over Sinai. (MountainsHunter/Shutterstock)

Yesterday I wrote about the Mi Shebeirach, a long and beautiful prayer we say when someone is sick. But what if we want something short and easy to remember?

There is such a prayer in the book of Numbers chapter 12. Moses’ sister Miriam develops tzra’at (tzah-RAH-at), a disfiguring illness something like psoriasis. (It’s often translated “leprosy” but that translation is inaccurate.) Horrified, Moses blurts out the shortest prayer in the Torah, indeed, in our tradition: “El nah refah na la!”  “Please, God, heal her!” God’s response is to say that she will be healed, after it runs the minimum course of seven days and she follows the rules for those who have tzara’at, living outside the camp.

So what do we learn from this? One way to read this is that prayers for a sick person can be helpful, but that prayer is not a substitution for proper treatment. Miriam has to take the treatment for tzara’at, she has to be isolated for a while, but she will be healed.

If you wish to use the prayer, you can certainly pray in English. But if you wish to pray in Hebrew, here are some choices:

  • El nah refah nah lah! “Please, God, heal her!”
  • El nah refah nah loh!”Please, God, heal him!”
  • El nah refah nah hem! “Please, God, heal them!”
  • El nah refah nah hehn! “Please God, heal them!” (females only)

I sometimes combine this prayer with my breath, thinking or saying softly “El nah” on the in-breath and “refah nah lah” on the out-breath. This sort of breath prayer can become almost automatic, so that “with every breath” the prayers become a part of us.

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.

Jewish Prayer Keeps Me Going

Image: A person holds a book, hands resting on top of it. (Pixabay)

More than anything else, prayer keeps my boat afloat in turbulent times.

Jewish prayer has two major forms, public prayer and private prayer.

Public prayer keeps me going by reminding me that I’m not alone. I’m part of something much larger than myself: Am Yisrael, the people of Israel. The words of the prayers often remind me of other things, mitzvot I need to fulfill, or of my true place in the world (neither the highest nor the lowest in creation.) The ancient words are a lifeline to sanity.

Public prayer happens in the synagogue or sometimes in the home, very occasionally other places. It involves minyan or a family. It generally is composed of words that are familiar in their repetition.

In the synagogue, there will usually be Shabbat services on Friday evening and Saturday morning. Most synagogues offer services at that time. Some offer weekday prayers as well: Morning prayers called shacharit (dawn), and evening prayers called Ma’ariv (west). There is also an afternoon prayer service called Minchah, which may be said anytime from noon but which in practice is often said immediately before the evening prayers.

If I can’t get to synagogue, I can say the prayers at home in the spirit of saying them with my congregation. Even if my own Temple Sinai doesn’t have a morning service on Wednesday mornings, I can read the shacharit service and know that there are other Jews, somewhere in my time zone, who are saying it too.

In the home, there are prayers before and after meals, and holiday observances like the Passover seder or the prayers for lighting Chanukah candles. I call those “public prayers” because they are usually said with a group of people.

Elsewhere, there are prayers that are said in a funeral chapel or at a graveside, as part of the funeral service. There may also be prayers at a public event, but those are usually said by one person with everyone chiming in after with “Amen!”

For suggestions about how to approach Jewish public prayer and get something out of it, read New to Jewish Prayer? Nine Tips for Beginners.

Private prayer includes both individuals reciting familiar prayers, and spontaneous prayer.

Before I eat a bagel, I quickly say the blessing for bread. I may not think about the words, but it is a pause to appreciate the fact that I have a bagel, and that this little piece of bread comes to my hand as the result of a series of miracles. Other things I ingest have their own blessings: vegetables and fruit, and even a glass of water. The Jewish Virtual Library offers a one-page introduction to kinds of food and their blessings.

There are also blessings for natural wonders, large and small: for a lovely fragrance, for one-time events, for seeing a wonder of creation, and for the pleasure of Torah study.

Saying each of these blessings slows me down and invites me to pay attention, either to the words of the blessing or, better, to the experience for which I am blessing. Without them, I am more apt to rush through life “sightless among miracles” as Rabbi Chaim Stern, z”l wrote. The blessings are speed bumps, slowing me down to smell the roses.

I say the prayer Modah Ani when I wake up, giving thanks for the fact that I woke up. I say the morning blessings, either publicly or privately, and they walk me through the miracles of beginning my day.

Sometimes prayer is simply silence. Someone might call that “meditation” but I like to think of it as listening. I sit quietly and let the thoughts running through my mind run themselves out. When I finally get to silence, it feels like sitting in the presence of the Holy One.

At the close of day, I say the Bedtime Shema, another reminder that I am not alone in the world, that my interactions and relationships with others are important. It also helps me release the day and settle down for night.

You may be wondering about now, how I manage to get anything done, with all this praying! Some of it happens in a mumble, between one moment and the next. Some of it is imperfectly done, too – I strive to say all my prayers every day, but I am an imperfect person and sometimes they don’t get said or done. What prayer DOES impede is mischief: if I’m doing all the mitzvot I’m supposed to, including prayer, I don’t have time for gossip or resentment or nonsense!

Ideally we bring our imperfect selves to prayer and we become better people – that’s the goal. Praying reminds me of the person I wish to become, and points me down the road to becoming that person. It kicks me in the pants, reminding me of mitzvot I’ve not yet done. In happy times, it insures that I don’t overlook the good in the world. In upsetting times, it readies me for challenges, and steadies my resolve. Prayer keeps me going in times like these.