Jews by Which Means?

Image: A mikveh – ritual bath for immersion.

In discussions about conversion to Judaism, I’ve read various terms to denote people who have been Jewish all their lives, and people who became Jews as adults. There is considerable disagreement about English terminology for the latter: some of them object to “convert,” and some dislike the euphemism “Jew by Choice.” The Hebrew term is “Ger Tzedek,” or for a woman, “Giyoret Tzedek,” meaning “Righteous Resident.”

For those who have been Jewish all their lives, I generally hear “Born Jew” or simply “Jew.” Conversion is the exception, historically, and as any person who became Jewish as an adult can attest, there are prejudices against them in the modern Jewish community.

Lately I’ve been studying BT Yevamot 46a, a major source in the Talmud about the process of giyur [conversion.] One fascinating part of the discussion involves an implied explanation for our process of conversion: it is intended to be identical to a process the Israelites went through in the book of Exodus, before receiving the Torah at Sinai. It starts:

The Sages taught in a baraita: With regard to a convert who was circumcised but did not immerse, Rabbi Eliezer says that this is a convert, as so we found with our forefathers following the exodus from Egypt that they were circumcised but were not immersed. With regard to one who immersed but was not circumcised, Rabbi Yehoshua says that this is a convert, as so we found with our foremothers that they immersed but were not circumcised.

BT Yevamot 46a

In the verses that follow, the sages reason that many of the Israelites had stopped circumcising their children during the years in Egypt, but that all had to be circumcised before they had the ritual meal of Passover. Then they found verses to support the idea that all of the men and women immersed in living water before they received the Torah at Sinai. Their children would inherit their Jewishness (though children with penises still needed brit milah [ritual circumcision] at eight days.) They did not need immersion in a mikveh to be Jews.

So perhaps instead of saying “Born Jews” or “Jews by Birth” perhaps it is more accurate to say “Jews by Inheritance.”

Why does this matter? I think it is an important distinction, particularly with the racist nonsense circulating about “Jewish blood” and “Jewish DNA.” Judaism is not a biological thing: it is a precious possession, a valuable inheritance, or something that a ger tzedek has striven and made sacrifices to obtain.

Once the rituals are complete, and the conditions are met, there is no distinction between the person who inherited his Judaism, and the one who strove for it:

Once he has immersed and emerged, he is like a Jew in every sense.

BT Yevamot 47b

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Jewish Tradition on Money & Ethics: Foundational Beliefs

Image: An accounting ledger page, with numbers (Pixabay)

There are some basic concepts that form the foundation of the teachings of Jewish tradition on money.

First: We hold any possessions we have, including wealth, as stewards for God. We may say, “I earned what is in my bank account” and indeed, we may have worked hard for it. Or we may not have worked at all – perhaps we inherited it. Either way, we are responsible to the Holy One for what we do with our resources, great or small, because it is all part of the larger Creation.

Remember that it is the LORD your God who gives you the power to get wealth, in fulfillment of the covenant that He made on oath with your fathers, as is still the case.

Deuteronomy 8:18

Second: Poverty is bad. It is bad in and of itself. It does not serve any good purpose.

There is nothing in the world more horrible than poverty. It is the most terrible of all suffering. Our teachers have said that if every difficulty were on one side and poverty were on the other, poverty would outweigh them all.

Exodus Rabbah 31: 12, 14

Third: Wealth is neutral. It is not bad in and of itself, nor is it good. It must be acquired and used justly.

…And give to us a long life, a life of peace, a life of goodness, a life of blessing, a life of sustenance, a life of strengthening the body, a life that has in it a fear of heaven and a fear of sin, a life that does not have in it shame and disgrace, a life of wealth and honor, a life marked by our love of Torah and a fear of heaven, a life in which the wishes of our heart will be filled for good. Amen.

– Prayer for Rosh Chodesh, Ashkenazi siddur, my translation

They have sold for silver Those whose cause was just, And the needy for a pair of sandals.

Amos 2:6

Jewish tradition envisions a world in which everyone has enough to live, and those who have more than enough are just in their acquisition and use of wealth.

As it is written: “You shall eat, and be satisfied, and bless the Eternal your God for the good land that God has given you.”

Deuteronomy 8:10 (Also in the Birkat Hamazon)

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.

What is a Sefer Torah?

Image: Person lifting the Sefer Torah for all to see.

Once I was in synagogue, and I heard someone refer to something that sounded like “the Safer Torah.” I was new to the Jewish world and wondered: what made that Torah safer?

The person I asked laughed a little and said, no, it’s not “SAY-fer.” The proper pronunciation is “SEH-fer,” and it means “Book.” Sefer Torah is \Hebrew for “Torah Scroll.”

The Torah is indeed a book, actually five books. When we see it in the ark or touch it during hakafah, the parade during the Torah service, it does not look like a book. It looks beautiful and mysterious, an ancient shape wrapped in precious materials. Calling it the sefer Torah reminds us that it is not really a mysterious object: it is a book! It is a book with which we are intimately familiar, our inheritance.

Who Was Rashi?

Image: A monument to Rashi, marking the spot that scholars believe was the Jewish cemetery for his era in Troyes, France. This photo of La Maison de Rhodes is courtesy of TripAdvisor.

His name was Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaqi, or Solomon ben Yitzchak, abbreviated to the acronym RaSHI. He was born in the year 1040, in the city of Troyes. He was the only child of a winemaker-rabbi named Yitzchak and his wife, whose name is not known to us but whose brother was Rabbi Simon the Elder was the Rabbi of Mainz. As a young man, Solomon studied at yeshivot (schools of Torah learning) in Worms and in Mainz, along the banks of the Rhine River. Some of his teachers were among the greatest of that age.

Rashi was an industrious note-taker as he studied in the yeshivot of Worms and Mainz. At age 25, he returned to Troyes to stay. He was invited to serve on the rabbinical court (beit din) of Troyes, and his fame spread as someone who could answer subtle questions of halakhah (Jewish Law.) In about 1070 he opened a yeshivah of his own, and students flocked to it.

The work for which Rashi is best remembered are his commentaries on the Torah and on the Talmud. He took his notes, oral tradition from his teachers about the subtleties of the texts, and he spent his later years writing them all out as commentaries on the texts. This was fortunate, because when the Crusaders came through the Rhine Valley on their way to the East in 1096, they murdered about 12,000 Jews in the region, including many of the teachers in the yeshivot. All of their learning would have been lost forever, had it not been for R. Solomon ben Yitzchak.

While only a few oblique clues in his commentaries mention anything about the horrors of 1096, there is a piyyut (liturgical poem) attributed to Rashi which many congregations still say in the Yizkor service, Av Harachamim. It is said in memory of all the martyrs of Israel, from earliest times to the present day:

The Father of mercy who dwells on high
in His great mercy
will remember with compassion
the pious, upright and blameless
the holy communities, who laid down their lives 
for the sanctification of His name.
They were loved and pleasant in their lives
and in death they were not parted.
They were swifter than eagles and stronger than lions
to carry out the will of their Maker, 
and the desire of their steadfast God.
May our Lord remember them for good 
together with the other righteous of the world
and may He redress the spilled blood of His servants 
as it is written in the Torah of Moses the man of God:
“O nations, make His people rejoice
for He will redress the blood of His servants
He will retaliate against His enemies
and appease His land and His people”.
And through Your servants, the prophets it is written:
“Though I forgive, their bloodshed I shall not forgive 
When God dwells in Zion”
And in the Holy Writings it says:
“Why should the nations say, ‘Where is their God?'”
Let it be known among the nations in our sight 
that You avenge the spilled blood of Your servants.
And it says: “For He who exacts retribution for spilled blood 
remembers them
He does not forget the cry of the humble”.
And it says:
“He will execute judgement among the corpse-filled nations
crushing the rulers of the mighty land;
from the brook by the wayside he will drink
then he will hold his head high.”

– Ashkenazi Siddur
A page of Talmud with the Rashi commentary highlighted.
The Rashi commentary on this page of Talmud is the light-blue area.

What is the Mishnah?

Image: A stained glass window in Or Torah Synagogue, in Akko, Israel picturing the six orders of the Mishnah at Mt. Sinai. Photo by Ilana Shkolnik, via PikiWiki. Some rights reserved.

The Mishnah is a collection of discussions of Torah which were written down in 200 CE by Rabbi Judah the Prince (R. Yehuda haNasi.)

The Jewish Bible, or Tanakh, is Torah Shebichtav (Written Torah.) The Mishnah is the first part of Torah Shebal Peh, Oral Torah. z

Rabbinic Judaism understands the Oral Torah to be handed down from Sinai just as the Written Torah was handed down, only Oral Torah was passed only by word of mouth. The early rabbis sought it out by searching their memories for what their teachers had taught them. They also sought it out via reason, as you will soon see if you read a bit of Mishnah. For many Jews, the process of understanding Torah continues today.

The early rabbis were engaged in trying to understand the Written Torah. The Bible is often vague about the details of commandments, for instance:

Impress [these words] upon your children. Recite them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up.

Deuteronomy 6:7

“These words” refer to the Shema. It is clear from the text that recital of these words is very important, and that there are times when it should happen. But when, exactly? In Mishnah Berakhot (Blessings) we have a record of the beginning of the rabbis’ discussion of the time to say the Shema in the evening:

From what time may one recite the Shema in the evening? From the time that the priests enter [their houses] in order to eat their terumah until the end of the first watch, the words of Rabbi Eliezer. The sages say: until midnight. Rabban Gamaliel says: until dawn. Once it happened that his sons came home [late] from a wedding feast and they said to him: we have not yet recited the [evening] Shema. He said to them: if it is not yet dawn you are still obligated to recite. And not in respect to this alone did they so decide, but wherever the sages say “until midnight,” the mitzvah may be performed until dawn. The burning of the fat and the pieces may be performed till dawn. Similarly, all [the offerings] that are to be eaten within one day may be eaten till dawn. Why then did the sages say “until midnight”? In order to keep a man far from transgression.

Mishnah Berakhot, 1:1

If you felt a little confused after reading that, you aren’t alone. In one short paragraph, we have three different opinions, a story, and a principle of Jewish Law! This is typical of the Mishnah: it is incredibly compact, almost in code. The rabbis are just beginning their discussions and when they continue (in the Gemara, which won’t be redacted until at least 300 years later) they will have more to say. This bit of Mishnah concludes with something that will become a principle in shaping Jewish life: “In order to keep a man far from transgression” some rabbis set limits beyond “the letter of the law” so that people won’t accidentally make a mistake.

The Mishnah is arranged into six orders, or parts:

  • Zera’im (Seeds) Agricultural law, as well as blessings.
  • Mo’ed (Festival) Laws of Shabbat and holidays.
  • Nezikin (Damages) Civil and criminal law.
  • Nashim (Women) Laws of marriage, divorce, and some kinds of oaths.
  • Kodashim (Holy Things) Sacrifices and ritual slaughter.
  • Taharot (Ritual cleanliness) Ritual purity and impurity.

Each of these parts is further broken down into tractates, which focus on more specific topics. Berakhot, which has to do with blessings, is a tractate within Order Zera’im.

The discussions in the Mishnah are unfinished, so why study them?

First, this is the document in which the precedent was set for including minority opinions. Rabbi Judah the Prince included not only the opinions that would eventually become law, he included minority opinions so that those ideas would not be lost. This reflects an attitude about discussion that would color Jewish education forever going forward: all opinions are important, even those that aren’t in favor at the moment.

Second, it is a snapshot of the rabbinic world at a critical moment in time. The First and Second Jewish Revolts against Rome had gone badly for the Jews. Life in the land of Israel (by then, Palestina) was becoming untenable for Jews. The centers of Jewish scholarship were moving to Babylon, outside the Roman Empire. There were still living individuals who remembered the Temple services (Much of Tractate Yoma is essentially an account of what went on at the Temple on Yom Kippur, for instance.)

Mishnah plus the further discussions of Gemara equal Talmud. The Talmud is also a collection of discussions, arranged in the same orders as the Mishnah. It, too, is often unfinished in spots and includes many minority opinions. For more about what the Talmud is, and how it functions, read What is the Talmud?

Children in Cages: More Ways to Help

Image: A chain-link “room” jammed with people. The news is full of pictures of the camps on the southern border of the United States. The photo above is from one such news item, from “What We Know: Family Separation And ‘Zero Tolerance’ At The Border” from npr.org.

First a quotation from the great teacher Maimonides:

You do not find a mitzvah greater than the redemption of captives, for captivity is in the same category as famine, drought, or exposure, and one stands in danger to one’s life. One who averts his eyes from redeeming [the captive] transgresses [the commandment], (Deut. 15:7Do not harden your heart and shut your hand, and (Lev. 19:16Do not stand upon the blood of your neighbor, and (Lev. 25:53He shall not rule ruthlessly over him in your sight, and nullifies the commandment (Deut. 15:8You must open your hand, and the commandment, (Lev. 25:36Let him live by your side as your kinsman, and (Lev. 19:18Love your fellow as yourself, and (Proverbs 24:11If you refrained from rescuing those taken off to death, [those condemned to slaughter–if you say, “We knew nothing of it,” surely He who fathoms hearts will discern], and many such sayings. You cannot find a greater mitzvah than the redemption of captives.

– Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Gifts to the Poor, 8:10

One of the most important forms of tzedakah is money given to free the captive, according to Maimonides in the Mishneh Torah. I have already listed opportunities for gemilut hasadim, acts of kindness that do not involve cash, in Children in Cages: Things We Can Do Today.

This is a list of good places to donate where your money (however small an amount!) will make a difference for the people in detention camps:

Holly Cooper, Co-director of the Immigration Law Clinic at UC Davis, is one of the few attorney [sic] with legally mandated access to some of the worst facilities where the children are being held. Her team is doing vital work, investigating, advocating and suing to help the children. Over the weekend has already been an outpouring of support for this work, and now we can add ours too. We can click here to donate to Together Rising’s fight for the rights of children in Detention camps. Information here.

From Rogan’s List, June 25; via Valerie Sopher at Temple Sinai

A list of links to places to donate, from Rabbi Suzanne Singer:

        Legal Support

        Political Support

        Bail/Bond Funds and Support

        Psycho-social support

Humanitarian Support        

Community or Multifactor Support