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.

What are Zemirot?

Image: Young woman playing guitar and singing with friends. (bbernard/Shutterstock, all rights reserved.)

Zemirot (singular is z’mirah) are Jewish songs with an association with Shabbat or holidays. Many zemirot are sung to several different tunes, and for the most popular, new tunes are being written all the time. Some Sephardic Jews also use the term to refer to the series of psalms in the morning service prior to the Barechu prayer.

The Zemirot Database is an online collection of zemirot with lyrics in the original language (Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino, etc), and a translation into English. It also lists information about the origins of the song and links to recordings.

Another place to find zemirot is on YouTube.com. If you know the title (often the first few words of the song) you can search and find recordings on YouTube.

Some zemirot that may be familiar as Shabbat table songs:

Shalom Aleichem
Eleh Chamda Libi
Hinei Ma Tov

Another way to learn zemirot, the best way, is to learn with a bunch of Jews singing them together – learn around a Shabbat table, or at services at your synagogue.

What is (an) Aliyah?

Image: Several people gather on the bimah at Temple Sinai, Oakland, for an aliyah to the Torah. (Photo: Linda Burnett, all rights reserved.)

Aliyah (ah-lee-YAH or ah-LEE-yah) (plural, aliyot) is a Hebrew word meaning “going up.” In English, it has two principle meanings:

First meaning: When a Jew from the Diaspora (outside the land of Israel) moves to make their home in Israel, that is called “making aliyah.” It is regarded as a mitzvah, a religious duty, and the ideal of aliyah appears in numerous places in Jewish prayers and texts, most famously at the close of the Passover seder: “Next year in Jerusalem!”

Currently aliyah is governed by the Law of Return of the State of Israel. For more information about making aliyah, contact the Jewish Agency.

Second meaning: During the Torah service, readers are called up to the bimah (a raised platform in front of the congregation) to chant or read the blessings before and after each section of the Torah reading. We are called “to go up” to the Torah for these blessings, which are considered an honor. The one who blesses may or may not be the person who chants the verses from Torah. There are always a minimum of three sections of Torah read, so three sets of blessings as well.

The person who makes an aliyah to the Torah should be a Jew, should be 13 or more years of age, and should feel confident enough in their Hebrew to recite the blessings.

Here is a video from MyJewishLearning.com on how to make an aliyah to the Torah:

Rabbi Steven Exler explains the exact procedure for making an aliyah to the Torah.

What is Benching Gomel?

Image: A life preserver floating on green water. (DimitriWittmann/Pixabay_

“A car accident! Are you going to bench gomel?”

The first time I heard the phrase, I thought I heard, “bench Gomer.” What a weird thing to ask, I wondered, and who is Gomer? What did he have to do with the car accident?

Benching gomel is a beautiful Jewish tradition of gratitude and relief. It is a traditional expression of gratitude for survival of something perilous: an extremely long journey, a situation of grave danger, recovery from serious illness, or release from prison. It is also said by a mother after she has survived childbirth.

In Biblical times, when the Temple was standing, a person who wanted to give thanks for delivery from danger would bring a Korban Todah, a thanksgiving sacrifice, to the Temple. Nowadays, just as the Amidah substitutes for the daily sacrifices, the Gomel blessing fills in for the Korban Todah.

Here is the text of the blessing:

The one giving thanks says:

Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha-olam, ha-gomel l’chayavim tovim she-g’malani kol tuv.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of all that is, who bestows goodness upon those who are accountable, and who has bestowed every goodness upon me.

The minyan responds:

Mi she-g’malcha kol tuv, hu yi-g’malcha kol tuv selah.

May the One who has rewarded you with goodness bestow you with goodness for ever.

Birkat haGomel, my translation

Bench means “to bless.” HaGomel is “the thanksgiving.”

There are some rules for benching gomel:

  1. One must be 13 or over (bar/bat mitzvah) to say the blessing.
  2. One should say the blessing within three days, but extra days are allowed if it takes that time to find a minyan.
  3. One must say it with a minyan, preferably in the presence of a Torah scroll.
  4. If the one saying it does so in connection with an aliyah to the Torah, he says the blessing of gomel immediately after the blessing following the Torah reading.
  5. One stands, if possible, to bench gomel.
  6. After benching gomel, it is traditional to give tzedakah as a thanksgiving.
  7. Some also host a thanksgiving meal [seudat hoda’ah] afterwards.
  8. While it is preferable to bench gomel in the synagogue with the Torah in the room, it is permissible to bench gomel in any place suitable for prayer, as long as one has the minyan.
  9. Out of courtesy, ask the person leading the service if you can bench gomel BEFORE a service begins, preferably well ahead of time.

In case you are wondering, yes, I have benched gomel. It was after a car accident in which my car was totaled. It was helpful to me to share what had happened with my community (cuts down on gossip) and it let them know that I might need help in the coming weeks.

Readers, if you have benched gomel at some time in your life, how was that experience for you?

Blessing of Gratitude

Image: An abacus with blue beads. (pixabay)

Blessed are You, Eternal One our God, who brings us the unexpected blessing.

Thank You for the beauty of the natural world, as small and available as a dandelion.

Thank you for water, for its blessing as it replenishes us.

Thank you for the parts of my body that work. Help me to continue to appreciate that miracle.

Thank you for the fellowship of animals, for the friendly dog and the familiar cool glare of the neighbor cat.

Thank you for fish, so slippery and mysterious.

Thank you for friends who travel alongside me.

Thank you for mentors who show me the way.

Thank you for the questions that press me forward, and for the answers that still elude me.

Thank You for morning light; thank you for the relief of dusk.

Thank you for mystery, and for sweetness, and for the relief of sleep.


Why Ritual? Saying the Shema

Image: Women of the Wall, Nashot HaKotel, reciting the Shema. (http://womenofthewall.org.il)

I’ve been reading a lot lately about ritual. I’m getting ready to write an article about ritual, and I wanted to brush up, so that I don’t look like too much of a dinosaur when I publish the thing.

Most of what I know on the subject I learned from an Episcopal liturgist, the Rev. Dr. Marion J. Hatchett, z”l. He taught at the University of the South back in the 1980’s and I first learned about ritual from him. He was planted firmly inside his tradition, and he would tell you that when he celebrated the Eucharist (the Mass,) he was bringing a past event into the present, making the sacred happen right there in St. Luke’s Chapel. According to phenomenology of religion (a fancy name for that understanding of religious activity) we perform rituals in order to bring a sacred event into the now, to sanctify the participants, the present time, and the present place. (His text on the subject, now out of print, was Sanctifying Life, Time, and Space.)

I am no longer an Episcopalian (it turned out to be a stopping place on my journey from Catholicism to Judaism) but Dr. Hatchett’s lessons shape a lot of my understanding of ritual to this day.

What does that look like, for me as a Jew? When I say my prayers, for instance, the Shema, I say it (1) because I am commanded to say it (2) because in saying it, I join all the Jews, past, present and future, in saying that elegant, compressed statement of belief and solidarity. In saying the Shema, even by myself, I am participating in a cosmic Now, a moment of oneness with the Holy One and with the Jewish people across time and space.

In that moment, when I sit or stand with my hand over my eyes, and I recite the ancient words:

Shema Yisrael! Adonai Eloheinu! Adonai echad!

Hear, Israel! Adonai is our God! Adonai is one!

– Deuteronomy 6:4

In that moment, I am standing next to Rabbi Akiva, who recited those words as the Romans tortured him to death.

I am sitting in the study hall with Rabbi Judah the Prince, redactor of the Mishnah, as he covers his eyes to recite. (BT Berakhot 13a)

I sit next to the writer of Deuteronomy as he recites them to a scribe, who scratches his goose quill across the surface of a scroll. (Deut. 6:4)

I say them with every Jew who has whispered them, fearing for their lives.

I whisper them with the mothers who teach that first prayer to their babies.

I say them with the Women of the Wall, every Rosh Chodesh.

I say them with the Jews, past and present, who might not agree that I am a Jew.

I have said them many times sitting by the bed of a Jew who is about to leave this world, sometimes with them, sometimes for them.

I expect to say that prayer at the hour of my own death.

We say those words together at bedtime, and when we rise up.

We say them on the road, and in our houses, and in our schools.

We say them twice a day, and in times of great stress:

Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad!

Blessing for Auto Service

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, who invested Betzalel every with the skills and talents to build the Mishkan to make a vehicle for transporting the Tablets in beauty and safety.

Let me see each person at the mechanics’ shop as a human being with a story of their own. Let them see me as well; may we recognize the humanity in one another.

May those who work here be skillful and honest. May they see into the mysteries of my vehicle, and find ways to make it safe and dependable.

Blessed are You, Eternal God, who gave to human beings the ability to build and to repair. Amen.

Prayer In a Time of Disasters

Image: Storm and lightning. (triff/Shutterstock, all rights reserved)

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of Time and Space, who created all things great and small. You are the Maker of life, the Fashioner of the World; You decreed the laws of physics and set the world in motion with Your word.

We were not there when You laid the foundations of the world. You laid the cornerstone, and we were not yet born; we did not hear the song of the morning stars or the sound when Your creation shouted for joy. We have not entered into the springs of the sea, or walked in the recesses of the deep. We have not surveyed the breadth of the Earth, and despite the study of scientists, we have not mastered all her secrets.

Have mercy on your creation, mighty God; remember the fragility of some of your creatures. We know better than to ask that you revoke the laws of nature; but we ask for your mercy in time of peril.

Remind us of the powers we possess in time of storm and trouble: the power of reaching out one to another, the power to share resources, the power to study and better understand. Help us to be merciful in expression of Your mercy, make us abundant in kindness. Remind us to be tolerant, fair, and forgiving. For as you have taught us, we are holy as You are holy – without Your holiness we are truly lost.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, who decreed the laws of physics and set the world in motion with Your word.

“Return Us” – A Daily Prayer

Image: Two people and an open Torah scroll. (Photo by Linda Burnett)

Return us to Your Torah and draw us to Your service,

and in complete repentance restore us to Your Presence.

Blessed are You, Adonai, who welcomes repentance.

Mishkan Tefilah, p 84

In English, this prayer doesn’t immediately signal that it is about repentance, but in Hebrew the first word gives it away: Hashiveinu. Hashiveinu means “return us” but nestled in the heart of it is the root shuv, which can mean “turn” or “return” but often something having to do with repentance. The word teshuvah (repentance) comes from the same root: see the shuv right at its heart?

For Jews, repentance is all about turning and return: turning away from one behavior, turning towards another, returning to the values of Torah. Turn is a key image:

Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it.”

Ben Bag Bag, in Pirkei Avot 5.22

In Ben Bag Bag’s famous line, there is no shuv, instead he’s using the verb hafuch: turn it over, turn it over, which is what we do with the etzim, the “trees” of a big scroll. We turn and we overturn. We turn so that we do not run in circles. Turning returns us to the beginning, to the heart, to the end of the scroll and then back again: repentance as homecoming.

There is comfort in this blessing. “Return home! Your place at the table is waiting!”