A Prayer for Love

There is no place for hate in American society, if we are truly a nation “of liberty and justice for all.”  We are a nation committed to the concepts:

  • that every person has a right to the free exercise of their religion
  • that every person has a right to speak their mind
  • that every individual is innocent until proven guilty
  • and many other rights secured by our Constitution and its amendments.

There is no place for hate among the Jewish people, because we are commanded to love those who are most different from us. (Leviticus 19:34)

The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.” – Leviticus 19:34


This Shabbat, we are in shock from the events of the week just behind us. We have seen hateful carnage. We have heard hateful words.

Some of us, in our shock, in our fearful response to fearful events, have said hateful words.

We have had strong reactions, spoken strong words, spoken up for dearly held beliefs.

In the quiet of Shabbat, let us release our fears and open our hearts.

Let us choose to see the face of the Other with compassion and a recognition of the divine spark within.

Let us repent of all speech that failed to meet the test of love, and resolve to do better in the week ahead.

May the peace of Shabbat bring us to wholeness, to wisdom, to a fearless commitment to the principles we hold as citizens and to the mitzvot, the commandments, we observe as Jews.

And then, as the holy day passes, may we face the future with renewed strength and calm.

May we comfort the mourners and heal the wounded. May we resolve to speak words of love to the face of hatred, because love will always be stronger than hate.

Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm; for love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave. It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame. – Song of Songs 8:6



After Orlando: 10 Options for Action

Image: Graffiti on a brick wall: “Seek Justice.”

Here are ten ways we can take action, if we choose:

  1. We can mourn the dead and comfort the mourners.
  2. If there is a memorial or demonstration in our area, we can attend.
  3. We’ve already begun to see places to donate to assist the victims and their families. Pulse Victims Fund by Equality Florida is a GoFundMe site with responsible connections.
  4. We can contact our elected officials about the loopholes and gaps in gun safety legislation. The murderer has already been described as a mentally unstable domestic abuser who had already been investigated twice by the FBI for terrorist connections, but he was able to purchase a military-style assault weapon with a high capacity magazine. What’s wrong with that picture?
  5. Register and VOTE. Before you vote, do your homework and vote accordingly: which candidates have voting records that match with your values? Which indulge in hate speech when they are campaigning? Which elected officials are in the pocket of the National Rifle Association? Which elected officials have sponsored or supported the over 100 anti-LGBTQ bills pending in the states? (Thanks to my colleague, Rabbi David Novak, for reminding me of this one!)
  6. We can speak up whenever we hear hateful speech from anyone about any group of people. Every time we say, “Not cool” to someone spouting it we remind them that it is wrong. Every time we fail to say something, we suggest by our silence that those words and attitudes are acceptable to us.
  7. We can donate to institutions that track hate crimes, like the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti Defamation League.
  8. We can educate ourselves about anti-LGBTQ violence. Did you know that 20% of the hate crimes in the U.S. are directed against this small minority? Or that 70% of ant-LGBTQ murder victims are people of color?
  9. We can donate to local organizations that provide mental health support to LGBTQ clients. Here in my local area one choice is JFCS-East Bay but it should be easy to find organizations in your own area. Many of us are freaked out pretty badly after a day when on one coast, 50 LGBTQ people were murdered in cold blood and on the other coast, a man was arrested on his way to the Pride parade with a car full of weapons and ammunition.
  10. Donate blood, if you are able. Even if you live thousands of miles from Orlando, this and other gun violence puts pressure on the supply of blood. According to the American Red Cross, every pint donated may save up to three lives.

Notice what isn’t on this list: “thoughts and prayers.” Author John Scalzi wrote an eloquent post yesterday about “thoughts and prayers” and the emptiness of those words. I am reminded of the prophet Isaiah, who spent most of Chapter 1 of the book carrying his name decrying the futility of ritual when real live people are suffering.

To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? says the Holy One.

I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts;
and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he-goats.

Why are all those sacrifices offered to me? asks the Holy One.
I am fed up with burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fattened animals!
I get no pleasure from the blood of bulls, lambs and goats!

Yes, you come to appear in my presence; 
but who asked you to do this, to trample through my courtyards?

Stop bringing worthless grain offerings.
They are offerings of abomination to me!
Rosh-Hodesh, Shabbat, calling convocations —
I cannot stomach the sin within your assemblies!

My soul hates your Rosh-Hodesh and your festivals.
They are a burden to me; I am tired of putting up with them!

When you spread out your hands I will hide my eyes from you;
no matter how much you pray I won’t be listening,
because your hands are covered with blood.

Wash yourselves clean. Get your evil deeds out of my sight.

Stop doing evil! Learn to do good!

Seek justice, relieve the oppressed,
defend orphans, advocate for the bereaved! – Isaiah 1:11-17

If you have other ideas of action to take in the face of this terrible event, I welcome your suggestions in the comments.

Hospitality is a Mitzvah

Image: A welcome mat, with a friendly dog sitting on it. Photo via Shutterstock.

All the world is a narrow bridge. The important thing is not to panic.

-Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav

Yesterday I wrote about being welcoming at synagogue. However, don’t stop there! The mitzvah of hospitality commands us to open our homes, as well. Before you panic, read on!

BIBLICAL ORIGIN – There are many examples in Torah of the patriarchs observing the mitzvah of hospitality. Possibly the most famous is in Genesis 18, when Abraham ran to meet his guests at Mamre, and hurried to feed them, even though he was still recovering from his circumcision.

LIFE AND DEATH – Hospitality in the Bible was not just an issue of friendliness. If travelers could not find a safe place to rest, they could die. It was part of the social contract of the wilderness to welcome strangers. It was also part of that contract for strangers to behave themselves as guests. In much of Jewish history, Jews were not safe except in the homes and settlements of other Jews, and so it has remained a sacred duty to care for visitors, and to cherish hosts.

WHAT ABOUT TODAY? – Today hachasat orchim (literally, “bringing guests in”) remains a mitzvah. You might say, well, rabbi, we have hotels and restaurants for that! We have Jewish institutions for that! But today many of us are aching for personal connection. We are not nomads like Abraham, but often our families of origin and our old friends live far away.  We human beings are social creatures, and we crave connection to others.  There are few ways to better get to know someone than to visit them in their home, or to welcome them into yours. And yet many of us only see other Jews in synagogue, or maybe at events.

THE HOST – A Jewish host is responsible for making their guests welcome, and to see to it that guests are not embarrassed in any way.  It’s good to offer food or something to drink if that is possible, but it doesn’t have to be fancy food. A box of cookies or a bowl of canned soup tastes wonderful when someone has invited you to have it in their home. The host also watches out for the emotional comfort of guests. It can be as simple as changing the subject when someone seems uncomfortable.

THE GUEST – A Jewish guest should do his best not to be a burden to his host. (This is not accomplished by prefacing demands with “I don’t want to be any trouble, but…”) Say “Please” and “Thank you.” Do not embarrass the host by asking rude questions or criticizing. After being a guest, send a thank you note, or at least an email. For more about being a guest, see 5 Ways to be a Great Shabbat Dinner Guest.

THE MAIN THING Rabbi Nachman of Braslav said, “All the world is a narrow bridge; the important thing is not to panic.” It is easy to get stuck thinking that I don’t want to have anyone over because my apartment isn’t nice enough, or my cooking isn’t fancy, or because I fear some other judgment that a guest may bring.

To conquer these fears, start small: invite someone to share an event of some sort, or invite a person you are sure will be kind. If they say “no” don’t take it personally – people say “no” for a lot of reasons – but invite someone else. If you really can’t see opening your home, invite them for coffee! But I challenge you (and myself!)  to reach out to other Jews. And if you have a big success, come post in the comments. If it’s a disaster, yell at me in the comments!

Home Safety is a Mitzvah

Image: Life preserver hanging on a wall. Photo by tookapic.

When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, so that you do not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone should fall from it. -Deuteronomy 22:8

We often think of spirituality as a high and lofty subject, but Jewish spirituality can be a gritty pursuit. At its best, it permeates our daily lives, for the mitzvot [commandments] often address very practical matters.

The commandment above is one of my favorites. It addresses the question of home safety: put a railing on your roof so that no one will fall off. The rabbis extended this to include the principle of all home safety matters: if I have a loose stair, or an unlighted entry, or a tricky throw rug, the Torah commands me to fix it, lest someone be injured.

I’m engaged with this mitzvah right now, because I’ve begun my Passover preparations. Every year at this time I check my “earthquake supplies” (really, emergency supplies) to make sure that I can take care of myself, my family and my two elderly neighbors should a big earthquake hit or some other disaster complicate life in the Bay Area.

I do this as part of my Passover prep because it’s very convenient time to do it. One of the things I do is cart last year’s canned tuna and peanut butter to the Food Bank. It’s all still good, and someone will benefit, but when/if there’s trouble, I won’t be stuck eating ten year old peanut butter for a month. I promptly sell the renewed supplies to my non-Jewish son, who is the official owner of my emergency stash, so I can still observe a kosher Passover.

Silly? Nope. I have vivid memories of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, which was not “The Big One” but was certainly the Bad Enough One which wrecked our home and disrupted our lives for more than a year. The next big quake may very well cut me off from water and food for an extended period, so I prepare.

If you don’t live in earthquake country, you still need to be ready for emergencies. Should something bad happen in your neighborhood, can you lay hands on these things?

  • Clean (probably bottled) water (1 gallon per day per person)
  • Nutritious food (high in protein and/or calories)
  • Can opener
  • Flashlight, with extra batteries
  • Battery-operated or crank radio
  • First aid kit
  • Prescription meds
  • Emergency blanket or wrap
  • Shoes
  • Copies of essential personal documents (whatever you’d want to have if the house burned down, God forbid)
  • Chargers for electronics like your cell phone
  • Phone numbers and contact information
  • Copies of passports and driver’s licenses
  • Cash in small bills (ATMs may not be working)
  • Baby supplies (if needed)
  • Pet supplies (if needed)

I also have a roll of duct tape, a multi-tool knife, a bottle of detergent, a whistle, my ham radios, spare eyeglasses and a spare bottle of propane.

There are also things I don’t keep around, because they decrease the safety of anyone in my house: guns and cans of gasoline top that list.

I hope that we’ll never need this stuff. I hope you will never need your emergency supplies, either. But if you need a push to update your kit, now you’ve got it: it’s a mitzvah!



Meditation on a Tallit

Image: A young boy puts on a tallit. He is wearing tefillin as well. Image by 777jew.

One of my teachers, Rabbi Dr. Rachel Adler, wrote to me after I published the post Why a Prayer Shawl?, suggesting in her very gentle way that there is also a poetic side to the tradition of wearing a tallit, a prayer shawl, for morning prayers.  A tallit is much more than a holder for the ritual fringes, the tzitzit.

I knew this, but I was so busy giving the basic facts that I forgot the poetic side, which is just as important, perhaps more important. So here I offer to you a poem I wrote and gave as a bar mitzvah gift some years back. For its imagery, it draws upon the psalms and prayers one traditionally says before donning the garment. If you are curious about those connections, click the links within the poem.

Meditation on a tallit

In honor of Jesse Benjamin Snyder, Bar Mitzvah, 20 Cheshvan, 5764

 The psalmist tells us that before God made the world
God wrapped Godself in a robe of light, a bright tallit:
Light before the dawn of the world, light before the making
Of the first day, the first ray to split the darkness forever.

Like a mother wrapping a newborn, the wings of Shechinah
Envelop us: soft as silk, warm as wool,
All colors, all together, white light. We will wrap the mitzvot
Around our frail shoulders, against the winds of the world.

Touch the tzitzit: Notice the cord
that winds around, binding the fringe together.
Finger the knots. So may we wrap ourselves and our lives
Together in wholeness, together in holiness, strengthened in covenant:
Touch the tzitzit.

Arrayed in the majesty of the Holy, we are robed like royalty:
Tasseled front and back, in folds of rich fabric. We are commanded
To wear tzitzit, so that we will remember and we will act:
We are a nation of priests, working to mend the world.

The psalmist tells us that before God made the world
God wrapped Godself in a robe of light, a bright tallit.
God has woven me a tallit, to match:
I will wrap myself in mitzvot, to do God’s work.

Why a Prayer Shawl?

Image: Air Force Jewish Chaplain (Capt.) Sarah Schechter leads Jewish Services, wearing traditional Jewish prayer shawl at 332 AEW Jt. Base Balad, Iraq. Public Domain.

If you read the Torah all the way through, nowhere will you see mention of a tallit, or prayer shawl. And yet that is one of the most ubiquitous symbols of Judaism, so much so that it was the basis for the design of the Israeli flag! What’s the story?

Tzitzit fringe. Public domain.

The first thing to know about the tallit is that it is primarily a holder for a mitzvah. The “business end” of a prayer shawl are the long fringes hanging from its corners. They are called tzitzit (tzeet-TZEET). There may be other, smaller fringes, but those don’t count; only the multi-knotted fringes affixed to the corners of the garment are important. Those fringes are commanded in two places in the Torah:

Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them that they make for themselves throughout their generations fringes for the corners of their garments, and that they put with the fringe of each corner a thread of blue.  And it will be to you a fringe, that you may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Eternal, and do them; and that you will not go about after your own heart and your own eyes, which may lead you astray. [Do this so] that you may remember and do all My commandments, and be holy unto your God.– Numbers 15:38-40


Make yourself twisted cords upon the four corners of your clothing, [the clothing] that you [use to] cover yourself.– Deuteronomy 22:12

There was a time, in the distant past, when all Jewish men wore tzitzit on any four-cornered item of clothing. Nowadays our clothing is more complex, so it is necessary to fashion clothing that has just four corners.

Man wearing tallit-katan (see fringes.) Photo by Gilabrand at English Wikipedia.

Most Jews fulfill this commandment by wearing a special four-cornered garment, the tallit, for morning prayers. Some Jews choose additionally to observe the mitzvah at all times by wearing a four-cornered undergarment, a tallit-katan, with fringes that they may choose to leave hanging out or may choose to tuck in privately. A tallit-katan is usually made of knitted or woven cotton fabric, much like a tee shirt. It looks like a little poncho, with the fringes falling from the four corners. (See photo to the right; alternatively, search for “tallit-katan” and you can see photos of the garment alone for sale.)

Historically both the tallit and the tallit-katan have been garments worn by men. In the latter half of the 20th century, more and more women have adopted the tallit, since they, too, understand themselves to be obligated to remember all the commandments. Very few women (so far) have adopted the practice of wearing tallit-katan.

The tallit itself may be made of any fabric, provided it is not shatnez (a mixture of wool and linen.) The tzitzit may be made of wool, or of the same material as the tallit.  Most people use specially-spun woolen yarn for the tzitzit.

To sum up:

  1. A tallit [prayer shawl] is a holder for its ritual fringes [tzitzit.]
  2. We are commanded to wear tzitzit to remind us of all 613 commandments.
  3. The commandment to wear tzitzit appears twice in the Torah.
  4. Historically the tallit was seen as a male garment.
  5. Today many Jewish women express their understanding of commandedness by wearing a tallit with tzitzit.
  6. A tallit may be made of any permitted fabric, and the tzitzit must be wool, or the same fiber as the tallit.

Do you wear a tallit? A tallit-katan? What are your reasons for wearing or not wearing it? Do you identify as male, female, or other?

Do you have any other practice that reminds you of the commandments?

Organ Donation: A Jewish Take

Not every Jew is a reliable source of general information about Judaism. Not all of us have had extensive Torah education, for starters. Some Jews will say, “I don’t know, ask a rabbi” and others will tell you what their bubbe [grandma] told them on the subject. For them, that might be more authoritative than any rabbi.

One of the subjects where there are a lot of bubbe-meisers [grandma stories] going around is organ donation. The fable you might hear is, “NO! If you allow someone to harvest organs from a body, it can’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery!”

The question of organ donation is complex. If we are talking about a donation from a brain dead body, and it will almost certainly save the life of the recipient, then Reform, Conservative, and many Orthodox sources agree, this is not only a permitted donation, it is a mitzvah. The principle involved is pikuakh nefesh – saving a life.

Since the onset of the modern era of organ transplantation in the 1950s, leading rabbinic authorities from throughout the religious spectrum have seen in this new technology a new and effective means of fulfilling a divine mandate to save life – an obligation first expressed in the Torah itself: “You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” Organ donation is a new means to fulfill an ancient, eternal religious duty: a mitzvah of the highest order. – from Synopsis of Teshuvah on Organ Donation, by Rabbi Joseph H. Prouser (Conservative Movement)

However, that’s the big picture. What about the donation of corneas, which give vision to the blind but do not technically save a life? What about donations that will extend medical knowledge, but not immediately save a life? In such cases, I’m going to say this: talk to your rabbi. Not some random rabbi, not some rabbi on the Internet, but YOUR rabbi. Don’t have a rabbi? If you are serious enough about being Jewish to have such questions, then you are serious enough to need your own rabbi. Get one.

Know that the Internet is full of “authorities” who make all sorts of pronouncements. You can likely find someone who says anything you want to hear, whether that’s “anything is OK, don’t worry” to “no organ donations from a dead body ever, under any circumstances.” The Internet is the Wild West: anyone can call themselves “rabbi” but that doesn’t make them one, nor does it necessarily make them the right rabbi for you.

Questions like the ones above require conversations. You may say, “It’s a simple yes or no!” but no, it isn’t. A lot depends on how you understand Jewish law or tradition (and as much as some folks would like you to think there’s one proper way, no there is not – not even among Orthodox communities and rabbis) and a lot depends on the fine details of a situation. So you need to talk to a rabbi.

And now I hear it coming in the Comments: What do you think about the fine points, Rabbi Adar? What’s on your organ donation card? And here, because I so badly want you to get your own real live actual rabbi, I’m going to say,  “None of your business.”

Bottom line: Judaism does not have a blanket condemnation of organ donations. In some situations, organ donation is a big mitzvah. For more than that, talk to your rabbi.