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.

A Prayer for MLK Day

Image: Martin Luther King, Jr., speaking against the Vietnam War, St. Paul Campus, University of Minnesota, 4/27/1967. This image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.


A vidui is a Jewish confession of sin. We tend to associate this form of prayer with Yom Kippur and with the prayers of the dying, although a short vidui is part of the traditional weekday liturgy.

A communal vidui includes sins which I may not personally have committed, but which some in my community may have committed. By claiming them as my own sins, I underline that I am responsible not only for myself, but also for elements in our communal life which may have fostered the sin in our members.

I offer this vidui for my sins and those of my communities.

For all our sins, may the Holy One who makes forgiveness possible forgive us, pardon us, and make atonement possible.

For the sin of Arrogance, that makes it difficult to see our own failings

For the sin of Brutality, that makes it possible for us to stand by and think, “He must have deserved it”

For the sin of Credulity, in which we have believed “news” from unreliable sources

For the sin of Disregarding facts that were uncomfortable for us

For the sin of Executing those whose offenses did not merit their death, and for standing by as our civil servants carried out those acts

For the sin of allowing unreasoning Fear to dictate our behavior towards others

For the sin of Greed, underpaying for work or over-charging for services

For the sin of baseless Hatred, that demonizes entire groups of other human beings

May the Eternal forgive us, pardon us, and make atonement possible.

For the sin of willful Ignorance, not wanting to know things that are embarrassing to us

For the sin of Jailing massive numbers of people for nonviolent crimes, separated from opportunities to better themselves and their families,

For the sin of Killing the hope of young men who believe that their only futures lie in prison or the grave

For the sin of Laziness in speaking up, when we hear racist language

For the sin of Minimizing the discomfort of others

For the sin of Non-Apologies that didn’t express true sorrow

For the sin of Omission, when we failed to act upon our expressed convictions

For the sin of Presuming that someone has a particular role because of their skin color

May the Eternal forgive us, pardon us, and make atonement possible.

For the sin of Quiescence in the face of the racist behavior of others

For the sin of Racism, in all its myriad forms

For the sin of Self-congratulation for acts of common decency

For the sin of Taking umbrage when someone calls us on a racist word or act

For the Unconscious acts which have injured others without our awareness

For the sin of Violence against other human beings

For the sin of using Words in ways that perpetuate racism in any way

For the sin of Xenophobia, fearing and hating those who seem foreign to us

May the Eternal forgive us, pardon us, and make atonement possible.

For the sin of Yakking when we should have been listening

For the sin of Zoning out when we assumed this list wasn’t about us

For all of the sins of commission and omission, all the sins we committed consciously and unconsciously, for those that were simply accidents and those for which we failed to make an apology

May the Eternal forgive us, pardon us, and make atonement possible.

For it is through true acts of genuine repentance and a sincere desire to change that we will open the future before our nation: a future of fairness, justice and peace. May all troubled hearts be comforted, may all wounded souls be healed, and may we live to see the day when the scourge of racism is truly behind us.



This is a repost of an earlier post on this blog.

A Prayer for December 25

May all my Christian readers have a Christmas of holiness and love. And may the rest of us find a respite from our routine today.

Tonight’s full moon will be beautiful, reflecting the light of the sun. May it remind us that lights of celebration (of whichever holiday) are merely a reflection of the true light, the Source of light.

May each of us find the strength to reflect the light of heaven, bringing warmth and light to this poor world of ours. May all those who are suffering be comforted, and may each of us be a comfort to someone in need.

Third Night: Three’s a Crowd

There is something in the human psyche that is attracted to groups of three. Research shows that three examples form the most powerful argument for persuasion. Comedians use groups of three to make us laugh. The U.S. Marine Corps uses the “Rule of Three” for all levels of organization, because it is their experience that an effective Marine can attend to three things at once, no more.

  • Two is a coincidence. Three is a pattern.
  • Two have a disagreement. Three has decision-making power.
  • Two is a couple. Three is a crowd.

Three also shows up in Jewish practice and tradition. A beit din [rabbinical court] consists of at least three rabbis. In modern times, a beit din is composed of three rabbis, and usually it is convened to authorize a conversion.

Three also has special significance at mealtimes. While we say blessings before we eat food to take note that it comes from God, we say a blessing of thanksgiving after a meal. That blessing is called the Birkat Hamazon, the Blessing for Satisfaction, from the passage in Deuteronomy:

And you shall eat and be satisfied, and bless the Eternal your God for the good land which God has given you. – Deuteronomy 8:10

It’s a long and beautiful blessing. It is a “thank you” blessing, but it doesn’t stop with a private thanksgiving. It goes on to thank God for sustaining all creatures, for sustaining the Jewish People, asking that God sustain the Jews in the future (sort of a thanks-in-advance) and then a fourth blessing gives thanks for the many happy relations between God and Israel.

If three or more Jews say or sing it, there is a special introduction, called the zimmun, an invitation to the group to say the blessing:

If three Jews eat together, they have an obligation to invite one another [to say the blessing after a meal.] – Mishnah Berakhot, 7.1

What does this have to do with Chanukah? Chanukah is a feast of dedication. Dedication is public, not private. We advertise it. And because it is not private, we invite other Jews to celebrate it with us.

As the nights go by, the light grows. Tonight, with three candles lit, we advertise the miracle and invite other Jews to celebrate, to dedicate themselves, to grow in relationship with the Jewish people.

Thanksgiving, Jewish Style

Modah ani lifanekha melekh chai v’kayam shehecḥezarta bi nishmahti b’cḥemlah, rabah emunatekha.

I offer thanks before you, living and eternal Ruler, for You have mercifully restored my soul within me; Your faithfulness is great.

A Jewish day properly begins with gratitude.

Some say Modeh Ani* even before they set a foot on the floor in the morning. Some say it in the synagogue. And even for those who do not say it, it waits in the prayer book.

What is it that we can be grateful for, before standing up, before washing, before the first cup of coffee? We are grateful simply to be alive. “Restored my soul within me” refers to the ancient Jewish belief that sleep is 1/60th of death. We begin the day reminding ourselves that life itself is a gift.

This week Jews in the United States observe the national holiday of Thanksgiving. There’s a particular joy in sharing a holiday with our non-Jewish neighbors: there’s no need to ask for a special day off and no need to explain it to children as someone else’s holiday.

And yet: Let’s remember that in our tradition, every day is thanksgiving day. The Torah teaches us that life itself  is a precious gift: fragile, transient, infinitely precious. Use it well.


*”Modeh” is the masculine form, “modah”the feminine.

Lost in the Service?

At Mi Shebeirach, about 4,000 people whispered to their neighbor “I don’t know this one”

Rabbi Mike Harvey @Island_Rabbi, November 7, 2015

This is a tweet from Rabbi Mike Harvey, who was attending the Union for Reform Judaism Biennial Convention in Orlando, FL. I loved this tweet because it communicates a great truth about attending services: in any given group, there will be some people who don’t know a particular prayer, or tune, or combination thereof.

The next time you are sitting in a service and you feel badly because you don’t know something, remember that you are not alone. A whole bunch of others in the congregation are lost, too: maybe not 4,000 of them, but plenty.

I have been going to services for a long time, and I have studied the services long and hard. Yet sometimes I will go to a new (to me) synagogue or service and I will be a little lost. I know generally where the service is going, but I may not know the tune that they “always” use at Synagogue Beit Yehudi, or I may not realize that they have a particular custom for a prayer. So I keep my eyes and ears open, and I learn. Occasionally I hope I will never encounter that tune again, but usually it’s nice to learn yet another way to sing Adon Olam.

Often students will come to me and say that they don’t go to services because they feel “stupid” in services. They don’t know the prayers or the tunes, and they are afraid everyone will know that they are new. Here are some thoughts about that:

  1. No one is born knowing how to daven [pray] the service. NO ONE.
  2. The only way to get better at services is to go to services.
  3. It’s perfectly OK to sit quietly and listen.
  4. It’s perfectly OK to hum along.
  5. No one will pay attention to how you pray, unless you sing very loudly off key or cross yourself.
  6. You have a right to be there, even if you never learn how to say anything in Hebrew.
  7. You have a right to be there, period.

So next time you are feeling lost in a service, think about Rabbi Harvey’s cogent observation. He was in a crowd of dedicated Reform Jews, and a huge number of them were unsure of themselves for a moment. Maybe it was a new tune. Maybe it was an experimental way of saying the Mi Shebeirach for the Sick. I have no idea. But I am so, so glad that he tweeted about it, because I get to pass that golden tweet along to you!

Image: U.S. Air Force Rabbi, Chaplain, Captain Sarah D. Schechter leads the evening Leil Shabbat service on Friday, Sept. 4, 2009 at Lackland Air Force Base’s Airman Memorial Chapel. Schechter was the first active duty female Rabbi in the Department of Defense. (U.S. Air Force photo/Lance Cheung)

The Frustrating Language of Prayer

Many of my students find the language of Jewish prayer frustrating. I’m not talking about Hebrew; I’m referring to the language that seems addressed to the archetypal Old Man in the Sky. That language doesn’t match up with their own experience of the sky, of human beings, or of God.

Take for example the wording of the blessing for creation in the evening service:

Blessed are You, LORD our God, King of the Universe,
who by His word brings on evenings,
by His wisdom opens the gates of heaven,
with understanding makes time change
and the seasons rotate, and by His will
orders the stars in their constellations in the sky.
– from The Koren Siddur, 2009

I chose this translation because it is a very literal translation of the Hebrew from a leading Orthodox scholar. Some translations in liberal siddurim have been softened a bit with inclusive language, but for my purposes here I want the full impact of the traditional language.

What is a modern, scientifically minded Jew to do with this? There are many options employed by such Jews in dealing with the language of the prayer.

TRADITION I – “This is the ancient prayer. It was good enough for my grandparents. I say these words because my ancestors said them, and I have been saying these prayers all my life. I find the images of God in these prayers suitable and comforting. These prayers are great poetry; please don’t take them away from me!”

TRADITION II – “This is the ancient prayer. I may find it archaic, but my people have been praying in these exact words for many centuries. I don’t take the images literally; I say the words because my ancestors said them. There is holiness and beauty in the continuity of saying them and teaching them to another generation. We can update a few things that are theologically problematic, perhaps, but in the main, I don’t want big changes.”

TIME FOR REVISION – “This may be the ancient prayer, but my Judaism is alive and living things grow and change. I want a siddur that reflects my own experience of God.” This person might want to seek out a congregation that uses the Reform siddur Mishkan Tefilah or the Reconstructionist siddur Kol Haneshamah. Neither is perfect, but both are striking attempts to use inclusive language and to offer interpretive versions of prayers that are more appropriate in an age of science.

Mishkan Tefilah offers several alternative readings for the Ma’ariv prayer above. I am partial to a reading in one of the footnotes:

To be “religious” might mean to have an intuitive feeling of the unity of the cosmos…. Oneness is grounded in scientific reality: we are made of the same stuff as all of creation. The deepest marvel is the unity in diversity. – Daniel Matt (Mishkan Tefilah, p 7)

BEYOND METAPHOR – Sometimes the problem isn’t gendered language, it’s all of the metaphor-laden language about a God who has “hands” and “opens gates” and is a person not all that different from any human being. One of the most famous and successful attempts to write a siddur that gets beyond personalized language is Marcia Falk’s The Book of Blessings, which is truly a new vision of Jewish prayer. I am not aware of any congregation that uses it regularly, but if you find traditional Jewish prayer language terminally off-putting, you may want to check it out.

STUDY AND REVISE – Sometimes no version of the prayer I can find works for me. Then I study the prayer, and I struggle with it. I try to understand the original intent of the prayer and my specific issue with it. Then I work on a new interpretation of the prayer. Asher Yatzar is one example of a prayer I’ve reworked. Obviously, this is a labor-intensive approach, and if you choose it, you will need access to a commentary on the prayer to study it. Talk to your rabbi and explain that a particular prayer is troubling you, and that you’d like to study it with them.

Jewish prayers are not easy. None of us are born knowing how to pray Jewishly, and whenever we begin learning, we are never “finished.” What seems fine at one stage of life may bug the daylights out of us at another stage. However, where there is a will, there is a way to pray.

Have you ever felt that you simply could not say a particular prayer? Which prayer, and why? How did you resolve the issue?