What’s a Chumash? What’s a Siddur?

Image:  Service books are stored by the door in most synagogues. These books are at Congregation Beth El in Berkeley, CA. Photo by Rabbi Ruth Adar.

If you attend services for the first time on a Saturday morning, odds are that an usher will hand you two big books, and maybe a service sheet of some sort to go with them. If you are like many of us at our first service, this will be both terribly exciting and totally intimidating. What’s with these huge books which appear to be filled with (oh dear) Hebrew?

One of the books is a siddur (si-DURE or SID-der.)  It’s the book with the service in it, and you will need to listen for page numbers, because no matter which edition of which service book it is, it will not be intuitive. If you are attending an Orthodox synagogue, and the book has no English in it, go back to the usher and ask for one with translations. Most Conservative, Reform, and other synagogues will offer a siddur with translations. If there is no usher, ask for help – most synagogue bookshelves have all sorts of books and you will have trouble finding what you need without a guide.

Do not use the siddur to beat yourself up. The service is a bit mysterious if this is your first time. If you are on the right page, mazal tov! If you are not sure which is the right page, you have some choices as the service progresses:

  1. You can listen for page number announcements.
  2. You can quietly ask a neighbor for help.
  3. You can close the book and let the language of the service wash over you.
  4. You can read wherever you like in the book. No one will mind, although some kind soul may try to help you get to the right page.

You are free to say responses, or to be quiet. Either is perfectly fine on a first trip to synagogue.

The other big book is a chumash (khu-MAHSH or KHUM-mush.) It has the readings for the portion of the service with the Torah and Haftarah readings. You’ll know when you get to that part because they will get out the Torah scroll, march around with it (hakafah), and then announce pages. The chumash is a little easier to use. Begin on the announced page and read the translation as the person up front chants first the Torah portion and then the Haftarah (reading from the prophets.) It is actually against the rules for us to read from the Torah without a translation into the vernacular; the chumash is usually the way that we cover that requirement. Alternatively, there may be an oral translation.

How do you tell which is which? Look around you. Most people will set the chumash down until the Torah portion of the service. First they will use the siddur.

After the Torah service, everyone will go back to using the siddur for the final portions of the service.

Some other things to know:

  1. Do not put either book on the floor or sit on them. Jews treasure our holy books, and we treat them with great respect. If you are confused as what to do with the book, look at the people around you for clues.
  2. Siddurim vary from synagogue to synagogue. Don’t bother to bring your own; you want to use the one that they use in this particular synagogue.
  3. Chumashim are not just “Bibles.” They have specific readings, labeled week by week. Some of them also contain brief commentaries, either by a contemporary editor or by the medieval commentator Rashi.
  4. There are “apps” for both siddurim and chumashim, but in many synagogues you should not try to use them on Shabbat. Two reasons: first, electronics are not OK for Shabbat and second, someone will think you are bored and checking your email.  (Yes, the rabbi can see you and does notice.) IF it is a Reform synagogue, IF it is the custom at that synagogue, you may see people using electronics but don’t assume until you see the regulars doing it.
  5. Most people will carry the siddurim and chumashim back to the rack by the entrance when the service has ended. If you see an elderly person or someone juggling small children, it is nice to offer to put their book away for them.
  6. I should not have to say this, but I will: do not write in these holy books. Do not tear a page out. Do not dog-ear pages. Do not do anything to them but handle them reverently and enjoy using them.

For more about the synagogue service and how to get the most out of a service without understanding any Hebrew, check out these articles:

What Goes On in a Jewish Service? (Especially for Beginners) 

Lost in the Service? How to get the most out of a service even if you don’t understand Hebrew.

Dancing with the Rabbis An article about the movements you see people make in the service.

What Vestments Do Rabbis Wear? You will see unusual clothing on some people. Here’s a guide to that.

What is a Machzor? It’s the prayer book for High Holy Days. Read this if your first service will be a High Holy Day service.

Kissing the Torah: Idolatry? The procession with the Torah involves people kissing and touching the Torah scroll as it passes. If you are curious about that practice, this article explores it.

Still have questions? I love questions. Please ask me questions in the comments, and I will enjoy writing articles in reply.

ChairsBooksBethElSometimes books are stored in racks in the pews or under the chairs. Photo by Rabbi Ruth Adar.

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12 Facts about the Torah Scroll

Image: A Sefer Torah belonging to Temple Sinai, Oakland, CA. Photo by Susan Krauss.

1. The proper Hebrew name for a Torah scroll is Sefer Torah. It’s pronounced “SAY-fehr toe-RAH,” or in the Yiddish/Ashkenazic pronunciation, “SAY-fehr TOE-rah.” It means “book of Torah.”

2. A sefer Torah contains exactly 304,805 Hebrew letters in a special script. There are no vowels and no punctuation. One must study in order to be able to read or chant from the sefer Torah.

English: Hebrew Bible text as written in a Jew...
Numbers 10:35 in a sefer Torah. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

3. It takes a sofer (SOH-fehr) (specially trained scribe) approximately 18 months to produce a sefer Torah. It takes so long because every letter is written by hand, every detail has to be checked and rechecked, and there are special rules for writing the name of God. As a result of this care, the text has been preserved accurately over the centuries.

4. The sofer writes the text with a special ink on parchment produced from the skin of a kosher animal. If they makes a mistake on an ordinary word, they scrape the word off the parchment with a knife and continue. If they make a mistake writing the name of God, that entire panel must be cut from the scroll and a new panel sewn in in its place.

5. A typical sefer Torah weighs 20-25 pounds, although some are as heavy as 50 pounds. A sefer Torah is both massive and fragile.

6. A sefer Torah is sewn together with a special thread made from the sinews of a kosher animal. (For more about this process, read How is a Sefer Torah like a Space Shuttle?)

7. Reading from a sefer Torah is a public act, normally performed on Monday mornings, Thursday mornings, Shabbat and holidays. The text may be read or chanted to a traditional melody called trop. It is always translated, or a translation is provided, for all who do not understand the Biblical Hebrew.

8. Most Jewish communities only read from the Torah during daylight hours. This practice dates back to the time when there was no technology that provided sufficient light for doing it at night.

9. We carry the sefer Torah around during the Torah reading service in a ceremony called Hakafah, (hah-kah-FAH). You may see people reaching out to touch the torah with the fringes on their prayer shawls, or with their prayer books, and then kissing the object that touched the Torah. We do this out of reverence for what the Torah represents, thousands of years of tradition, learning, and revelation. We do not worship the Torah scroll.

10. During the Torah service, and at other times, we stand when the sefer Torah is out of its cabinet, often referred to as the Ark or the Aron. We always face the sefer Torah if possible, so during Hakafah we turn to follow its path around the room.

11. On Simchat Torah, (“Joy of the Torah”) a fall holiday, we celebrate finishing and restarting the yearly reading of the Torah with singing and dancing, often with the sefer Torah itself.

12. Every synagogue has customs and rules about who may handle a sefer Torah. Generally speaking, only a person who qualifies as a member of a minyan may hold a sefer Torah. When in doubt about the custom of a particular synagogue, ask the rabbi.

How is a Sefer Torah like a Space Shuttle?

 

Image: The new Torah scroll dedicated Temple Sinai of Oakland, CA on January 29, 2016. Photo by Susan Krauss, who retains all rights.

Last week I had the opportunity to participate in a once-in-a-lifetime event: my congregation dedicated a new Torah scroll. The congregation commissioned the scroll a while back because our existing Torahs were worn with constant use.  The lightest and most manageable one was frayed and aging fast.

A Sefer Torah is like a Space Shuttle: it is full of remarkable technology, simultaneously strong and fragile. Used properly it can last for a long time, but rough handling will age it sharply and an accident can destroy it in a moment.

A proper Sefer Torah is made of the skins of kosher animals. It takes at least a year to make a scroll, since most soferim  copy at most one column (amud) of writing a day. There are 247 amudim. If you assume 1 amud per day, plus no writing on Shabbat or chagim [holy days], the total varies according to the Jewish year but will come close to a year.

(For more details about the making of a Torah scroll, plus other interesting information about the work of a sofer, check out YK’s Sofer Blog.)

After our Torah scroll was scribed by Sofer Moshe Weiss of B’nei B’rak in Israel, it was carried to the U.S. and eventually to California. Sofer Neil Yerman traveled from New York to help us assemble the Torah, attaching it to the etzim [rollers] using thread made of sinew from a kosher animal. A local artist, Sheri Tharp, designed and made a yad [pointer] for the new Torah from oak in a design that suggests both the oaks of Oakland and the Etz Chaim, the Tree of Life. The tip of our pointer is carved from tagua nut, also known as “vegetable ivory.”

IMG_4841
Photo by Linda Burnett.

On the night before the dedication, some of us gathered to help Sofer Yurman attach the etzim to the scrolls. This photo was taken as I helped to attach the etz [roller] to the the Bereshit [Genesis] end. The gid [tendon thread] is tied onto a big sewing needle, rather like a carpet needle. Sticking that needle through the klaf [parchment] is a bit of a shock.

There’s a very homely quality to this technology. There we were, threading needles with tendon-fiber, poking the needle through the scroll as if it were a quilt at a bee. Of the four rabbis in attendance, not one of us had ever seen this done, much less participated in doing it. It was awe-inspiring, thinking that this work would benefit the congregation at Temple Sinai for perhaps a century and a half, or even two centuries into the future.

A Sefer Torah is better than a Space Shuttle in that with care, it is usable for 150 years or even more. It can take you – and your entire community! – to places beyond your wildest dreams.

RollingTorah
Senior Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin looks on as Ritual Committee member Fred Isaac assists Sofer Yerman. Photo by Rabbi Ruth Adar

 

GeekingOutTorah
Ritual Committee member Fred Isaac and I look over one of the older sifrei Torah. The sofer estimated that this scroll is at least 150 years old and may be older. Since the record of its acquisition has not survived, all we can do is guess. Photo by Linda Burnett, all rights reserved.

 

 

 

What’s that Hat?

Image: A kippah or yarmulke with the logo of the Oakland Athletics baseball team, including “Athletics” transliterated in Hebrew letters. Photo by Linda Burnett.

You can call it a kippah (in Hebrew) or a yarmulke (in Yiddish) but a Jew will seldom refer to it as a “skullcap” or a “beanie.” It signifies respect: respect for the One who is greater, or respect for the community in which it is a custom.

For some, it may also be a fashion statement or a small personal billboard on which to express one’s passions.