Have We Learned Anything?

I cannot sleep.

I was a little girl when the Cuban Missile Crisis scared the wits out of us. I was in second grade, and I still remember kneeling in the hallway of Overbook School as Sister Mary Martin led us in the rosary. I remember my knees grinding into the floor as I recited the responses. I remember my relief — our national relief — when Mr Krushchev turned his ships around and the threat of nuclear war receded.

When I heard the President threatening North Korea today, snarling like a teenage boy intent on winning a game of chicken, I had to wonder where he was in 1962.

Tonight as I said my bedtime Shema I asked the Holy One to spare us. Not only us, but all the people living in range of a nightmare: the children of South Korea, of Japan, of Guam, of anywhere the North Korean missiles (and any other missiles!) can reach.

A few years ago I had the honor of getting to know a woman who grew up in Fukuoka, Japan during World War II. Fukuoka is 280 km from Hiroshima, and 153 km from Nagasaki. Her home was between the two bombs we dropped on Japan. Later, during the occupation of Japan, she married a G.I. and moved to Georgia.

I did not plan to ask Mairi about her experience in the war. She was very elderly and did not need curious questions. I was only a friend helping out for a few weeks while her son had to be away. But one day something came on TV that reminded her of the bombs and she began to talk about it. I will never forget the pain in her voice, talking about the things she had seen.

And yes, I know that the Japanese had done terrible things in the war. I know Mr Truman felt it was better to drop those bombs. I suspect he had no idea of the horror it would set loose on civilians, things that would haunt survivors to the end of their days.

Now that we know, and we know that the weapons in our arsenals are much, much worse, how can we think of using them? And how could our President think that taunting the North Korean dictator, a man who seems to care little for the welfare of his own people, is a good idea?

I have to wonder: have we learned nothing?

Hashkiveinu, Adonai, Eloheinu l’shalom, v’ha’amideinu malkeinu l’chaim. Ufros aleinu sukkat sh’lomecha, v’tak’neinu b’eitza tova mil’fanecha. 

Let us lie down, O Holy One, our Ruler, in peace, and raise us up, our Sovereign, to life. Spread over us the shelter of Your peace, and guide us with Your good counsel. — from Hashkiveinu, the prayer for peaceful rest.

“Guide us with your good counsel” — Yes, guide the leaders of our world, help them to see the paths of peace. Give them wisdom, and give them the courage it takes to step back from the brink.

We ask this of You, who knows the hearts of each of us, and we ask it for the sale of your Name. Amen.


What’s a Chumash? What’s a Siddur?

Image:  Service books are stored by the door in most synagogues. These books are at Congregation Beth El in Berkeley, CA. Photo by Rabbi Ruth Adar.

If you attend services for the first time on a Saturday morning, odds are that an usher will hand you two big books, and maybe a service sheet of some sort to go with them. If you are like many of us at our first service, this will be both terribly exciting and totally intimidating. What’s with these huge books which appear to be filled with (oh dear) Hebrew?

One of the books is a siddur (si-DURE or SID-der.)  It’s the book with the service in it, and you will need to listen for page numbers, because no matter which edition of which service book it is, it will not be intuitive. If you are attending an Orthodox synagogue, and the book has no English in it, go back to the usher and ask for one with translations. Most Conservative, Reform, and other synagogues will offer a siddur with translations. If there is no usher, ask for help – most synagogue bookshelves have all sorts of books and you will have trouble finding what you need without a guide.

Do not use the siddur to beat yourself up. The service is a bit mysterious if this is your first time. If you are on the right page, mazal tov! If you are not sure which is the right page, you have some choices as the service progresses:

  1. You can listen for page number announcements.
  2. You can quietly ask a neighbor for help.
  3. You can close the book and let the language of the service wash over you.
  4. You can read wherever you like in the book. No one will mind, although some kind soul may try to help you get to the right page.

You are free to say responses, or to be quiet. Either is perfectly fine on a first trip to synagogue.

The other big book is a chumash (khu-MAHSH or KHUM-mush.) It has the readings for the portion of the service with the Torah and Haftarah readings. You’ll know when you get to that part because they will get out the Torah scroll, march around with it (hakafah), and then announce pages. The chumash is a little easier to use. Begin on the announced page and read the translation as the person up front chants first the Torah portion and then the Haftarah (reading from the prophets.) It is actually against the rules for us to read from the Torah without a translation into the vernacular; the chumash is usually the way that we cover that requirement. Alternatively, there may be an oral translation.

How do you tell which is which? Look around you. Most people will set the chumash down until the Torah portion of the service. First they will use the siddur.

After the Torah service, everyone will go back to using the siddur for the final portions of the service.

Some other things to know:

  1. Do not put either book on the floor or sit on them. Jews treasure our holy books, and we treat them with great respect. If you are confused as what to do with the book, look at the people around you for clues.
  2. Siddurim vary from synagogue to synagogue. Don’t bother to bring your own; you want to use the one that they use in this particular synagogue.
  3. Chumashim are not just “Bibles.” They have specific readings, labeled week by week. Some of them also contain brief commentaries, either by a contemporary editor or by the medieval commentator Rashi.
  4. There are “apps” for both siddurim and chumashim, but in many synagogues you should not try to use them on Shabbat. Two reasons: first, electronics are not OK for Shabbat and second, someone will think you are bored and checking your email.  (Yes, the rabbi can see you and does notice.) IF it is a Reform synagogue, IF it is the custom at that synagogue, you may see people using electronics but don’t assume until you see the regulars doing it.
  5. Most people will carry the siddurim and chumashim back to the rack by the entrance when the service has ended. If you see an elderly person or someone juggling small children, it is nice to offer to put their book away for them.
  6. I should not have to say this, but I will: do not write in these holy books. Do not tear a page out. Do not dog-ear pages. Do not do anything to them but handle them reverently and enjoy using them.

For more about the synagogue service and how to get the most out of a service without understanding any Hebrew, check out these articles:

What Goes On in a Jewish Service? (Especially for Beginners) 

Lost in the Service? How to get the most out of a service even if you don’t understand Hebrew.

Dancing with the Rabbis An article about the movements you see people make in the service.

What Vestments Do Rabbis Wear? You will see unusual clothing on some people. Here’s a guide to that.

What is a Machzor? It’s the prayer book for High Holy Days. Read this if your first service will be a High Holy Day service.

Kissing the Torah: Idolatry? The procession with the Torah involves people kissing and touching the Torah scroll as it passes. If you are curious about that practice, this article explores it.

Still have questions? I love questions. Please ask me questions in the comments, and I will enjoy writing articles in reply.

ChairsBooksBethElSometimes books are stored in racks in the pews or under the chairs. Photo by Rabbi Ruth Adar.

What’s the Blessing for Train Food?

Image: The Coast Starlight rounds a curve north of Paso Robles, CA. Photo by Loco Steve, who reserves some rights. Check his flikr page for details.

Wow! I just returned from a family trip to Southern California and found 42 replies to the questionnaire I posted day before yesterday. Thank you all for your answers; I will tally them as quickly as possible and get back to you with what I’ve learned.

Honestly, it was wonderful to take a day on the train and simply step aside from the news cycle. I rode the Coast Starlight and watched the scenery of California sliding by my window. I had no idea what shenanigans were going on in Washington. When I had cell service, I called a senator’s office and said, “PLEASE DON’T LEAVE PEOPLE WITHOUT HEALTH CARE!” and then returned to my reverie watching the world go by.

Trains are a lovely way to travel. They are slower than airplanes, and that slowness seems to translate to an increase in civility. I chatted with several people of various backgrounds and our conversations remained friendly. We were all interested in going somewhere but we weren’t in a hurry. Maybe that is the answer to something.

One thing I noticed was that while there are still economic differences on the train, they are not as wide as on airplanes. Everyone had somewhere reasonably comfortable to sit. No one was horribly crowded. The people in sleeper cars had prepaid for their meals, which came with some priority on meal signups. However, if people ate in the dining car, they sat at tables set for four. If your party had less than four people in it, you were guaranteed an opportunity to make new friends.

The dining car was not an option for me. I was in the “accessible sleeper” which allowed me to lie down (for my back issues) and do stretches while flying along at 60mph up the California coast. I could not ascend to the dining car, so my steward took my order and brought food to me. Since I don’t eat meat, I chose Kraft Mac’n’Cheese from the kids’ menu. They were out of the vegetarian dish for grown-ups, but I was fine with the mac and yellow stuff plus some salad.

I did have to think for a while about the blessing to say over food that I wasn’t sure was actually agricultural output. (What IS that yellow stuff? I am not convinced it is really cheese.) I finally settled on the blessing for snacks, which is also appropriate for a pasta meal in which there is no bread:

Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haOlam, borei minei mezonot.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of all that is, who creates various kinds of sustenance.

Whatever you are eating as you read this, may it sustain you, too.

Holy Earworm, Batman!

Image: Actors Adam West and Burt Ward as Batman and Robin (Photo from the Independent, 8/24/16)

An earworm is a tune that gets stuck in your head.

Recently a student asked me why, every time she goes to services, she comes home with one of the tunes playing over and over in her head.

According to psychologists, over 90% of people experience earworms. There’s something in the wiring of our brain that “catches” certain songs and plays them on repeat. A new study in the Journal of Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts offers insights on why this happens. According to music psychologist Kelly Jakubowski, her team identified three main reasons why they occur: pace, the shape of the melody and a few unique intervals that make a song stand out.

  • Pace: Earworm tunes tend to be upbeat, and to encourage movement.
  • Musical shape: The tunes tend to be simple and somewhat repetitive.
  • Unique intervals: While the tunes are simple, they have something that makes the tune unusual, often an interval (distance between notes) that is unexpected and catchy.

It’s a very effortless form of memory, so we’re not even trying, and this music comes into our head and repeats. And it’s very often very veridical, meaning it’s a very good representation of the original tune that we’re remembering.

So my big hope is that that can tell us something about the automaticity of musical memory and its power as a tool for learning. So imagine if we could recall facts that we wanted as easily as we can bring new ones to mind without even trying. – Kelly Jakbowski interview reported on CNN, 5/8/17

Not all Jewish service music sticks in our heads, but the tunes that do can serve a wonderful purpose: they are a memory aid to learning the words of prayers. For example, if I said to a non-Hebrew speaking person who is regular at services, “Recite for me the first lines of the Song of the Sea in Hebrew,” they’d probably panic and protest that they don’t speak Hebrew. But if I were to say, “Do you know the first few lines of Mi Chamocha?” they would be able to sing it, likely with correct pronunciation of the Hebrew, which is fairly tricky!

This is why I tell beginning adult students of Hebrew that regular attendance at services will help their studies immensely. Tunes and fragments of tunes will stick in their heads, anchoring bits of Hebrew grammar in a completely painless process. Even if you are not consciously trying to learn Hebrew, you’ll be surprised how much prayer book Hebrew you will learn by letting the earworms play in your head!

This phenomenon is not limited to pop or “camp” tunes. One of the most powerful service earworms for me is Helfman’s Shma Koleinu [Hear Us,] a very dignified High Holy Day setting for the prayer. I cannot read the words to that section of the daily Amidah without triggering Helfman’s beautiful tune in my head.

I no longer need help learning the Hebrew words of prayers, but earworms still have a function for me. Now, when I get a service tune and its words stuck in my head, I use it as a meditation on that prayer. I assume that there’s something I need in that prayer, and I let it play over and over in the background of my mind.

When it gets tiresome, I go for one of two common earworm cures: I play the tune all the way to the end (YouTube is good for this) or I sing a verse of “America the Beautiful” very slowly and loudly. That generally does the trick!


What is the Jewish Prayer for the Dead?

Image: A sculpture of a mourning angel. (Maxpixel)

No, it isn’t the Kaddish.

Kaddish Yatom, “the Orphan’s Kaddish” is the prayer of praise said by mourners as part of Jewish mourning ritual. It has no mention of death at all, and no mention of the departed.

The Jewish Prayer for the Dead is a lesser-known prayer called El Malei Rachamim, “God, full of Mercy.” A cantor once told me that if you want a roomful of Jews to cry, just chant the first line of it. Even if they don’t know exactly what it is, they have heard it at the saddest moments of their lives, and they’ll cry. (I don’t recommend doing that, I’m telling the story to illustrate the power of this prayer.)

The text of the prayer, in English:

God, full of mercy, who dwells in the heights, provide a sure rest upon the wings of the Divine Presence, within the range of the holy, pure and glorious, whose shining resemble the sky’s, to the soul of (Hebrew name of deceased) son of (Hebrew name of his father) for a charity was given to the memory of his soul. Therefore, the Master of Mercy will protect him forever, from behind the hiding of his wings, and will tie his soul with the rope of life. The Everlasting is his heritage, and he shall rest peacefully upon his lying place, and let us say: Amen.

When the departed is a woman, the words are changed accordingly. As you can see it is a personal prayer, and a prayer explicitly for the dead. Mourners are not mentioned, accomplishments in life are not mentioned, simply the fact that this person has died and is now with God.

The service leader chants El Malei Rachamim at funerals and at other mourning events: shiva services, memorial services, Yizkor, and at services remembering the Shoah. Normally this prayer is assented to by the congregation and mourners with the word “Amen” but it is said by the officiant. It is a public prayer, not a private prayer.

For the Hebrew and a transliteration of the Hebrew, see Kel Malei Rachamim on shiva.com (an excellent mourning resource, by the way.)

Rabbis and other officiants sometimes omit “for a charity was given to the memory of his soul,” depending on circumstances. I do not chant that line when I officiate at a funeral unless I know for sure that the family has given tzedakah in the name of the deceased, and the line matches their theology. If I’m not sure, I leave it out. I do not teach that tzedakah given after death affects God’s opinion of the dead, nor do I want to include anything in a prayer that might constitute a promise on someone else’s behalf.

For more about Jewish funeral practices and memorials, see these articles:

Jewish Social Skills: Death & Mourning

Jewish Funeral – Why not send flowers?

Five Tips for Shiva Visits

What to Wear to a Jewish Funeral

Can I Go to Shiva Instead?

What to Say When Someone Dies

Death and the Jew by Choice

Mourning for a Non-Jewish Loved One

What is the Mourner’s Kaddish?

Jews at a Christian Funeral: Some Thoughts

Mortality and the Jews


What is the Mourner’s Kaddish?

Image: A yahrzeit candle. 

People sometimes refer to the Kaddish as “the Jewish prayer for the dead.” That’s almost right. The Kaddish is a prayer said by mourners, and the people who benefit are the mourners. Saying Kaddish is an ancient and important ritual, a part of the mourning process for Jews.

It didn’t start out that way. The Kaddish began as a doxology, a prayer of praise. We know that it is quite old because it is said in Aramaic, the vernacular of the Jewish People from the sixth century BCE and the eighth century CE, over 1000 years. Hebrew became the lashon kodesh [holy language]- used only for specific religious purposes.

In an early siddur from about 900 CE, the Kaddish is a prayer of praise that separates parts of the service.

To this day, in an Orthodox service, if you get lost, each Kaddish is an opportunity to find your place again, because it means that the congregation is about to move on to another part of the service. A vestige of that practice remains in the Reform service, where we say a Kaddish at two points: just before the Shema and its Blessings, and then at the end of the service. (For more about the Reform Service, see What Goes On in a Jewish Service?)

In the Middle Ages, the practice took hold for the last Kaddish of the service to be called the Orphan’s Kaddish (that’s what Kaddish Yatom means literally.) Mourners in the congregation would say Kaddish daily. While it was sometimes framed as “praying for the dead,” the function of it was that mourners couldn’t isolate themselves. Instead, they had to join 10 other Jews (a minyan) with whom to say Kaddish, usually at the daily prayer services at their synagogue.

If you think about it, it’s brilliant from the psychological perspective. Most people who observe the mitzvah of saying Kaddish for 11 months for a deceased parent report that it is a transformative experience. They are supported as they move through the stages of grief. They have a daily reminder that they do not mourn alone, but “Among the mourners of Israel.”

המקום ינחם אתכם בתוך שאר אבלי ציון וירושלים
“May God comfort you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” – Traditional to say to a person in mourning

For the text of the Kaddish in Aramaic, a recording of the prayer, and a transliteration, see the My Jewish Learning page.


“And They Will Keep” – V’shamru


Image: Exodus 31: 16-17 in Hebrew. (from www.ReformJudaism.org)

If you attend Shabbat services in a the synagogue, sooner or later you will notice these lines, either sung or spoken:

V’shamru v’nei Yisrael et HaShabbat,
la’asot et HaShabbat l’dorotam b’rit olam.
Beini u’vein b’nei Yisrael ot hi l’olam,
ki sheishet yamim asah Adonai
et hashamayim v’et haaretz,
u’vayom hashvi-i shavat vayinafash.

It’s actually a quotation from the book of Exodus:

The children of Israel will keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath in every generation as an everlasting covenant. It is a sign between Me and the children of Israel forever, for in six days God made the heavens and the earth, but on the seventh day [God] ceased work and refreshed God’s self. – Exodus 31:16-17

Reading this in the context of a Shabbat service, we remind ourselves why we continue this ancient practice. We keep it because our ancestors were commanded to keep it. We keep it because it is our custom as a people. We keep it in remembrance of our unique Creation story.  We keep it because it keeps us.  We have many different ways of keeping it, but when we do, our lives are fuller.

Jews have had a special place in our hearts and in the liturgy for these verses from Exodus because they express our love affair with Shabbat. We love them so much that we often sing them.

Many different musicians and cantors have set it to music: search YouTube with the string “v’shamru” and thousands of recordings will pop up. One version you will hear in many Reform and Conservative shuls is a tune by Rabbi Moshe Rothblum:

One of my favorites is this one by Cantor Jacob Goldstein:


And the meditative Debbie Friedman z”l setting:

What is your favorite prayer in the Shabbat service? If you tell me in the comments, I can either direct  you to an article I’ve written on it, or I will be inspired to write one!