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.

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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

What are The Three Weeks?

Image: An imprint of a foot in the sand, just before the surf obliterates it. (Pixabay)

Believe it or not, we are at the barest beginning of a cycle that will bring us to the High Holy Days in the fall.

Sunday marked the beginning of the build-up to the grimmest day in the Jewish calendar: Tisha B’Av. For the next three weeks, the Haftarah (prophetic) readings will warn us that God is angry with Israel, that it is time to repent our selfish ways.

What to do with these? We can go to shul, read or listen to the Haftarah readings, and let them open our hearts. If the Saturday morning services are difficult for you to access, read the readings:

  1. Jeremiah 1:1 – 2:3
  2. Haftarah for Ashkenazim: Jeremiah 2:4 – 28; 3:4 Haftarah for Sephardim: Jeremiah 2:4 – 28; 4:1 – 4:2
  3. Isaiah 1:1-27

How can we make use of these readings to enrich our spiritual lives?

1. We can hear them in the context of the synagogue service -or-

2. We can read and ponder them: “What do the prophets’ words have to do with me?”

3. We can open our hearts to repentance and change.

Traditionally this was a season of sadness, preparing to re-experience or remember the trauma of Tisha B’Av, the destruction of the Temple.

Besides that, it is a reminder that our tradition is to remember and learn from past mistakes. It is another “Never again” – this time not about the Holocaust but about the terrible, terrible damage we do ourselves and others when we indulge in sinat chinam, baseless hatred.

So I will not say “Enjoy” – but I will wish you fruitful reflection and fruitful prayers during this solemn time.

Do Jews Believe in the Devil?

Image: An image of a devil. (by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay)

The very short answer is: No, Jews do not believe in the Devil of Christian theology.

A longer, more complete answer:

Jewish scripture has a character known as HaSatan, the Adversary. HaSatan appears in the beginning of the Book of Job:

One day the divine beings presented themselves before the LORD, and the Adversary came along with them.

The LORD said to the Adversary, “Where have you been?” The Adversary answered the LORD, “I have been roaming all over the earth.”

The LORD said to the Adversary, “Have you noticed My servant Job? There is no one like him on earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and shuns evil!”

Job 1:6-8

In this and in chapter 3 of the book of Zachariah, “HaSatan” is not a personality. HaSatan is the title of a role, a job description. “Ha” means “the.” “Satan” means “adversary.” In Job, HaSatan plays the persecutor, taunting God that Job only loves God because God has been good to him. God allows HaSatan to inflict suffering on Job so that Job can demonstrate his faith in God. In Zachariah, he is the Accuser, and an angel (malach) is God’s mouthpiece, rejecting the accusations of HaSatan.

The figure in the adversary role has little or no volition: it cannot do anything without the permission of God. It plays a role equivalent to that in English of a “devil’s adversary:” it is an expression of opposition. Angels have a similar role in the Jewish Bible: they function as messengers or as extensions of God, but they do not have agency of their own.

Sometimes in other texts HaSatan is an expression of the yetzer harah, the evil or selfish inclination. It never acquires the independence, to say nothing of the raw power, of the Satan figure in Christian tradition.

There are a number of Talmudic texts about HaSatan, for instance:

Reish Lakish says: Satan, the evil inclination, and the Angel of Death are one, that is, they are three aspects of the same essence. He is the Satan who seduces people and then accuses them, as it is written: “So the Satan went forth from the presence of the Lord, and smote Job with vile sores” (Job 2:7). He is also the evil inclination, as it is written there: “The impulse of the thoughts of [the human] heart was only evil continuously” (Genesis 6:5); and it is written here: “Only upon [Job] do not put forth your hand” (Job 1:12). The verbal analogy between the various uses of the word “only” teaches that the evil inclination is to be identified with the Satan. He is also the Angel of Death, as it is written: “Only spare his life” (Job 2:6); apparently Job’s life depends upon him, the Satan, and accordingly the Satan must also be the Angel of Death.

Bava Batra 16a

HaSatan has these roles (a named figure in Job, the evil inclination in humans, and the Angel of Death) as it is picked up as a theme in Jewish mystical writing and in folklore, but it is in those sources that it takes on a role more like that of the Christian Satan. That may be from cross-pollination of Jewish and Christian ideas in golden-age Spain and in northern Europe. It may also have arisen from the need of a suffering people to separate the suffering in life from the all-good person of their God.

At any rate, most modern Jews do not believe in “Hell” and do not believe in “Satan” as an independent figure busy in the world. We are much more inclined to attribute the evils that come from human misbehavior to human beings, and to attribute “evils” from the natural world (earthquakes and other natural disasters) to the balance of nature established by God.

Jews have been and continue to be ferociously monotheistic, so that an independent and equal opponent to God is a logical impossibility.

What do you believe, and why?