Opening the Gates to Shabbat

Image: Iron gates opening to a stone path. (Tama66/Pixabay)

If you have ever been to a Shabbat dinner, or to a Reform service, you will recognize the prayer Kiddush Leyl Shabbat (Kiddush for Shabbat Evening) by the tune, as in this YouTube video by Rabbi Justin Kerber:

Kiddush Leyl Shabbat is a blessing. It begins with the regular blessing over wine and then moves on to bless Shabbat specifically. I like to think of it as a “toast to Shabbat” that I make every Friday evening.

Recently our Introduction to Jewish Experience class did a text study on the words, because these ancient words can open doors for exploring the meaning of Shabbat. Here is an English translation, with a few notes in italics to spark your thoughts:

Praise to You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe,
Creator of the fruit of the vine.

Some people refer to this first blessing as the “short Kiddush.” No, actually it is the blessing over wine, and it is a blessing you can say over any glass of wine or juice from vine-grown fruit. Kiddush is specific to Shabbat, and includes the blessing for wine. So for that part of Kiddush, keep reading:

Praise to You, Eternal our God, Ruler of the universe
Who sanctified us with commandments, and favored us, 

Eternal is a name I substitute for the four-letter name of God that Jews do not pronounce. Other choices are HaShem (the Name) and Adonai (my Lord.) What name do you prefer to use for God? Why that one?
What does it mean to be “sanctified with commandments”?
How do commandments make us holy?

and with love and intent gave us the holy Sabbath,
as a reminder of the work of Creation.

see Genesis 2:1-3. God rested on the seventh day. Why did God rest? Does God need rest? 

As first among our holy days,

Shabbat is the most important Jewish holiday

it recalls the Exodus from Egypt.

Shabbat not only recalls Creation, it recalls the Exodus as well.  What is the connection between Shabbat and freedom

You chose us and set us apart from the nations.

see Genesis 12:1-3  How does keeping Shabbat set us apart? How does it draw us closer?

In love and favor You have given us Your holy Shabbat as an inheritance.

What associations do you have for the words “in love and favor” and “inheritance”? What does this suggest to you about Shabbat?

Praise to You, Eternal, who sanctifies Shabbat.

What about this prayer intrigues you? Is there anything in it that disturbs you? What does it mean to you? What does Shabbat mean to you?

Shabbat table
Shabbat

Image: A loaf of challah, a pair of candlesticks, and a kiddush cup full of wine. (Shutterstock)

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Learning Hebrew: Reading the Joseph Story

Image: Part of the story of Joseph in the Torah Scroll.

Whenever we reach Parashat Vayeshev, this week’s portion, I can taste tuna fish. That may seem like a weird association, but this portion is linked in my heart to the lunchtime study group in which I learned to read Biblical Hebrew.

Like most adult learners in the US, my Hebrew studies started with the Aleph-Bet and “Prayer Book Hebrew,” the prayers in the synagogue service. There’s a giant step from knowing what the prayers say to reading the Torah, and Rabbi Steven Chester chose the Joseph story to carry us across that chasm in 1997.

Each week we had a short passage to translate. We were supposed to translate the whole thing, but each of us was responsible for “our” verse, meaning that each of us knew ahead of time exactly what we, personally, would translate aloud. We were a group of middle-aged learners, bobbing our heads to find the sweet spot in our progressive lenses in order to see the text.

Rabbi Chester was patient and kind, never shaming anyone. That was good, because I had no natural gift for it, and my translations were awful. I would go to class thinking “this CAN’T be right,” and sure enough, it wasn’t. Rabbi used our mistakes to review grammar or to show us (again)  how to break down a word to find it in the dictionary.

Our glacial pace through the text meant that we studied it deeply, noticing the choices about grammar and the repetition of certain words in the text. It was my first taste of learning a text on that level: word by word, even letter by letter. I was enchanted.

Sometimes Rabbi Chester enriched our study by showing us a midrash on a particular scrap of the text. This was also his sneaky way of introducing us to the glories of midrashic texts and rabbinic Hebrew and Aramaic, since he always gave us those texts in both the original and translation. We’d read the translation, but the original words would wink at me, promising more: more meaning, more depth, more nuance.

That class marked the beginning of my love for text study. It met Wednesday at lunchtime for years, and now as a teacher myself I marvel at his chutzpah and patience in leading us into that tangle of grammar and vocabulary. It was an unusual and bold way to teach Biblical Hebrew. It was also a brilliant choice, because the powerful current of the narrative kept us going. Who could quit, halfway through that story?

By the time we came to the end of Genesis 50, my translations were less ridiculous, and I felt confident enough to tackle other parts of Torah on my own. I learned the most important lesson for Hebrew study: stick with it long enough, and it will begin to sink in.

Foolish, feckless Joseph grew up to be a tzaddik, and I had begun to grow towards becoming a rabbi. And every year, when we read this narrative again, it stirs old memories of sitting around a table, munching our lunches and puzzling out the mysteries verse by verse.

Thank you, Rabbi Chester.

Meet Hillel, Who Would Teach Anyone

Image: The entrance to the Tomb of Hillel the Elder, as it was around 1900. From the Jewish Encyclopedia, published by Funk & Wagnalls between 1901 and 1906. Public Domain.

Hillel the Elder is perhaps the most famous and most quoted of the early rabbis. He was born in Babylon about 110 BCE and died in Jerusalem about 10 CE. He was renowned in his own time as a teacher of Torah and had many students, who became known as Beit Hillel, the House (or School) of Hillel. His name is forever associated with his fellow scholar, Shammai, who had his own followers, known as Beit Shammai.

He is not called “Rabbi Hillel” because he is from a time just before the rabbis. Some writers give him that title, but in his case it is an anachronism.

 

All of our information about Hillel comes from sources written down long after his death, in some cases, hundreds of years after his death. What we know for sure is that he founded a great school of Torah study. The debates between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai became the model for beneficial disagreements, “arguments for the sake of heaven.” (Pirkei Avot 5:17)

The stories we have about Hillel himself depict him as a mild individual with a brilliant mind for Torah. One of the longest stories about Hillel is from Shabbat 31a, which is so good that I will quote it in its entirety:

The Sages taught in a baraitaA person should always be patient like Hillel and not impatient like Shammai. The Gemara related: There was an incident involving two people 

who wagered with each other and said: Anyone who will go and aggravate Hillel to the point that he reprimands him, will take four-hundred zuzOne of them said: I will aggravate him. That day that he chose to bother Hillel was Shabbat eve, and Hillel was washing the hair on his head. He went and passed the entrance to Hillel’s house and in a demeaning manner said: Who here is Hillel, who here is Hillel? Hillel wrapped himself in a dignified garment and went out to greet him. He said to him: My son, what do you seek? He said to him: I have a question to ask. Hillel said to him: Ask, my son, ask. The man asked him: Why are the heads of Babylonians oval? He was alluding to and attempting to insult Hillel, who was Babylonian. He said to him: My son, you have asked a significant question. The reason is because they do not have clever midwives. They do not know how to shape the child’s head at birth.

That man went and waited one hour, a short while, returned to look for Hillel, and said: Who here is Hillel, who here is Hillel? Again, Hillel wrapped himself and went out to greet him. Hillel said to him: My son, what do you seek? The man said to him: I have a question to ask. He said to him: Ask, my son, ask. The man asked: Why are the eyes of the residents of Tadmor bleary [terutot]? Hillel said to him: My son, you have asked a significant question. The reason is because they live among the sands and the sand gets into their eyes.

Once again the man went, waited one hour, returned, and said: Who here is Hillel, who here is Hillel? Again, he, Hillel, wrapped himself and went out to greet him. He said to him: My son, what do you seek? He said to him: I have a question to ask. He said to him: Ask, my son, ask. The man asked: Why do Africans have wide feet? Hillel said to him: You have asked a significant question. The reason is because they live in marshlands and their feet widened to enable them to walk through those swampy areas.

That man said to him: I have many more questions to ask, but I am afraid lest you get angry. Hillel wrapped himself and sat before him, and he said to him: All of the questions that you have to ask, ask them. The man got angry and said to him: Are you Hillel whom they call the Nasi of Israel? He said to him: Yes. He said to him: If it is you, then may there not be many like you in Israel. Hillel said to him: My son, for what reason do you say this? The man said to him: Because I lost four hundred zuz because of you.Hillel said to him: Be vigilant of your spirit and avoid situations of this sort. Hillel is worthy of having you lose four hundred zuz and another four hundred zuz on his account, and Hillel will not get upset. – Shabbat 30b-31a

This passage is followed by other stories about Hillel. Here is another, perhaps the most famous story of all:

There was another incident involving one gentile who came before Shammai and said to Shammai: Convert me on condition that you teach me the entire Torah while I am standing on one foot. Shammai whacked him with the builder’s cubit in his hand. This was a common measuring stick and Shammai was a builder by trade. The same gentile came before Hillel. He converted him and said to him: That which is hateful to you do not do to another; that is the entire Torah, and the rest is its interpretation. Go study. – Shabbat 31a

The image that emerges of Hillel is a man so willing to teach Torah that he will put up with some significant shenanigans from students. He means it when he says “no question is too stupid!” In the second story, Shammai rejects a jokester who seems to be mocking the Torah. Hillel summarizes the Torah, then admonishes him: Go study. Hillel has faith in the power of Torah study to change a life.

Hillel was a modest man who established a great school of rabbis. He is one of the foundational figures for Rabbinic Judaism, and a role model to all of us who try to do justice to Torah in our own time.

Talmud and the Absurd: The Elephant in the Sukkah

Here is a lovely bit of Talmud to study. When we need a break from a painful present, Jewish study can provide both rest and refreshment.

This particular story offers some of the arcana of sukkah construction – or does it? What are the rabbis up to in this passage?

The Talmud Blog

Since the 1990’s (and Daniel Boyarin’s Carnal Israel), there has been a fair amount of discussion about the Talmud, the carnivalesque, and the absurd.  Put simply, the Talmud contains a fair number of passages, even halakhic ones, that we might say operate on a plain other than the normal sphere of human existence.  Amazingly, these passages interact in strange and unexpected ways with the more regular talmudic fare.  Much of this research has been driven by criticism developed in the study of literature that probes the meaning of “bizarre” texts and their relationship to the normative work. This is, for example, one of Socrates and the Fat Rabbis primary concerns, and it also powers a fascinating discussion about courtroom etiquette in Barry Wimpfheimer‘s  Narrating the Law.

This morning, reader Yair Rosenberg sent me Pshita‘s most recent creation – a children’s story that reworks the following talmudic discussion.

If…

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Our Biblical Cousins?

Some of the excavated ruins of Ugarit, or Ras Shamra. Photo by Loris Romito, via Italian Wikipedia. Some rights reserved.

I have a word to tell you, a message to recount to you: the word of the tree and the whisper of the stone, the murmur of the heavens to the earth, of the seas to the stars. I understand the lightning that the heavens do not know, the word that people do not know, and earth’s masses cannot understand. Come, and I will reveal it. – Ras Shamra inscription

The Bronze Age city of Ugarit sat on the coast in northern Syria. The citizens of that city left an enormous library of clay tablets inscribed in Ugaritic, a Semitic language. From those writings, we know that they worshiped El, Asherah, and Baal, Canaanite deities mentioned in our Bible. Some of their poetry has close parallels in our Book of Psalms. As you can see from the example above, the writings were vivid and very beautiful.

The “golden age” of Ugarit came to an end about 1200 BCE, at a time of great upheaval in the ancient Near East. The invasions of the Sea Peoples (Philistines) coincided with the destruction of the city. This corresponds to the period described in the Book of Judges:

In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did that which was right in his own eyes. — Judges 21:25

Baseless Hatred

Image: A white wall with two angry men’s faces painted in black and shades of gray. Artwork: “Hatred” by Ben Slow, photographed by MsSaraKelly, used under a Creative Commons license.

However, considering that the people during the Second Temple period were engaged in Torah study, observance of mitzvot, and acts of kindness, why was the Second Temple destroyed? It was destroyed due to the fact that there was baseless hatred during that period. This comes to teach you that the sin of baseless hatred is equivalent to the three transgressions: Idol worship, forbidden sexual relations and bloodshed. – Yoma 9b  

The ancient rabbis tell us that the Second Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinam, baseless hatred. (Yoma 9b) We practice sinat chinom when we hate another person or group of persons without having a good reason.

The trouble is that people who are filled with hatred are always sure they have a very good reason. In fact, they are sure that what they feel is not really hatred – it’s just a reasonable dislike.

Let me rephrase that: When we are filled with hatred, we are sure we have a very good reason. We are sure that what we feel isn’t hatred – just a reasonable dislike.

I have heard otherwise good people express something that sure sounded like hatred for the following groups of people:

  • Christians
  • Muslims
  • Palestinians
  • Israelis
  • Jews
  • Zionists
  • Trump voters
  • African-Americans
  • Refugees
  • Liberals
  • Conservatives
  • Journalists
  • Rednecks
  • Fat people
  • Immigrants
  • Californians
  • People who believe in climate change
  • People who don’t believe in climate change

… and the beat goes on. I imagine you’ve heard it too.

So the place to start in weeding out sinat chinam from my own heart might be:

For whom do I have a perfectly reasonable dislike?

And then I can ask myself: why do I extend that dislike to an entire group of people?

And maybe: Is there any group I don’t dislike but I don’t particularly care about either? What’s going on with that?

These are hard questions.

Av is a hard month.

 

 

Three Texts for Changing the World

Image:  “I Can Change the World, Every Child Counts” painted on a schoolhouse in South Africa. (henkpijper/pixabay.)

Do you want to change the world? Here are some texts for help and encouragement. One is ancient, one medieval, one modern.

Anxiety in one’s heart saddens it, but a good word gladdens it. – Proverbs 12:25

It is tempting to criticize. However, when we scold and scold without a word of encouragement, no one has the heart to keep on going. Therefore it is important to to put as much energy into encouragement as it is into criticism. Reward good behavior, always. Encourage any move in the right direction.

Proper generosity involves not only money and goods, but also power . . . Generosity with power entails using [the power] bestowed [on us] by God to help those in need.  – Rabbi Abraham Maimuni in The Guide to Serving God.

It is not enough to give to good causes. It is also important to share power. Sometimes that means listening instead of talking, encouraging instead of criticising, serving instead of insisting always on leading.

We must continue to remind ourselves that in a free society all are involved in what some are doing. Some are guilty, all are responsible. – Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

It is easy to point at others and say, “That person is doing a bad thing!” We must also look within and say, “What am I doing that contributes to the bad situation? How can I contribute to real change?” Some are guilty, yes, but all of us are responsible to make things better.