Image: A person washing hands with soap in a white sink. (Shutterstock 2604171440)
A reader asked: “I was recently at the home of friends for Shabbat dinner, and they all trooped into the kitchen to wash their hands before the blessing for bread. They washed with a funny two-handled cup in the sink, and mumbled a blessing as they did it. What was going on?”
Reader, what you saw was netilat yadayim, the washing of hands. There are specific moments in Jewish life when we wash our hands. In Reform households that observe this mitzvah, you’ll most often see it as handwashing before the blessing for bread (motzi) with a meal.
The blessing you heard was as follows:
Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu, Melech ha-olam, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav, vitzivanu al netilat yadayim.
Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of All-that-Is, who sanctifies us with commandments, and has commanded us concerning the washing of hands.
The procedure is to remove rings, then pour the water over each hand with the cup. A natlah, or two-handled cup may be used for this purpose. Then the person dries their hands and they may refill the cup for the next person coming. Some individuals simply use the tap for washing.
Jews practice ritual handwashing at the following times:
- Before breaking and blessing bread made with the five grains (wheat, barley, spelt, oats and rye) (with the blessing netilat yadayim above)
- Upon rising from sleep (with the blessing netilat yadayim above)
- When leaving a cemetery
- When leaving the bathroom
- After touching the private parts
- Before prayer
- Before the the Kohanim (priests) bless the people in synagogue
Why the ritual handwashing? The Torah verse usually cited as the source is in Leviticus:
Anyone whom the one with the discharge touches without having rinsed his hands in water shall wash his clothes and bathe himself in water and be unclean until the evening. – Leviticus 15:11
It is part of a passage about the treatment of persons who have discharges from their bodies, and the verse is taken as an asmachta, a hint, that rinsing one’s hands is a mitzvah. Centuries later, with the advent of germ theory, we learned that regular handwashing is indeed a very good idea.
Taking time to wash my hands thoroughly and mindfully was required when I was a chaplain, so that I would not spread disease from one patient to another. I soon learned that it gave me an opportunity to pause and clear my mind between encounters with people.
It is another Jewish practice that can enrich my life by slowing me down a bit. Now I wash with soap and water and scrubbing (more effective than a ritual pour) but it is a spiritual discipline with measurable effects in the real world, a mitzvah because it prevents the spread of dirt and disease.
This video, from the Jewish Living Series of the Perelman Jewish Day School, demonstrates the traditional ritual of handwashing before the blessing over bread.
Image: Old machzorim (High Holy Day prayerbooks) being buried. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Joshua Franklin, Jewish Center of the Hamptons.
Jews have great respect for our seforim, our holy books. Those include everything from the Torah scroll itself, to the Bible, to the volumes of Talmud, to the prayer books we use every week in services. We handle them reverently. If we make notes in them, we do so neatly. If we mark a spot, instead of turning down a corner, we use a bookmark or a Post-it.
Holy books are our companions in study and worship. They are also repositories of the lashon kadosh, the “holy tongue,” the Hebrew language, and especially the written Name of God which we do not ever say aloud.
We have a long history of our holy books being mistreated by anti-Semites. The Romans burnt a rabbi alive, wrapped in a Torah scroll (Avodah Zarah 18a.) In 1242, 24 wagon loads of Jewish books were burned in Paris. In 1933, German university students burnt Jewish books as well as books by Jews at the behest of the Nazis.
We treat our holy books gently and with respect, and when they are finally worn out, or have no more useful life, we bury them gently as we would beloved friends. Sometimes they are temporarily stored in a genizah (safe storage place) until there are enough of them to bury.
Here are some photographs from the Jewish Center of the Hamptons. Rabbi Franklin tried to find a home for the old machzorim (High Holy Day prayer books) but he was unable to find a synagogue who needed them. The Jewish Center no longer uses this machzor, so the proper thing to do with the books was to bury them where they could not be defaced.
Some might say, “Why not recycle them?” If they can be recycled for use in another place, that is appropriate. But recycling them by sending them to a paper recycler would not be respectful – they could end up as tissue, or something else disposable and bound for the garbage pail. Better to put them respectfully in the ground to decompose.
Image: Bimah of Temple Ner Tamid, Bloomfield, NJ. (Photo: http://www.nertamid.org)
This is a sermon by Rabbi Marc Katz, given on Rosh HaShanah 5779 at Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, NJ. He posted it on his Facebook page, and I asked for his permission to repost it here. – Rabbi Ruth Adar
In 1937, Walter Heilbronner climbed the steps of the bima at the Memmingen Synagogue as he prepared to become Bar Mitzvah. Looking out at the congregation, numbering around 150 members, Walter saw assembled a throng of textile manufactures and livestock merchants who for that day could forget about the hardships of Nazi boycotts and celebrate a new milestone in their community’s history. Walter’s father, the then president of the synagogue beamed with pride as he wore his signature top hat. Lit by a beautiful eight-pronged candelabra nearby, Walter began to read Torah.
Little did he know that in one year, his community would be destroyed. Kristallnacht would come, his beloved Temple would be raised, his Bar Mitzvah tutor, Emil Liffgens would be deported to Auchwitz, his uncle, Irwin and his father, Alfred to Dachau. And that lamp that lit up his day…it would wander beside him across time and country and eventually find its way to become our TNT chapel’s Ner Tamid, our eternal light.
In a way, there is no reminder of the Jewish people’s story more fitting than that lamp that shines down the hall. Its story is our story and this morning, I want to reflect a bit about what it symbolizes for each of us here.
It’s no accident that our congregation takes its name from the Ner Tamid, the eternal light that shines in every synagogue. I remember being a child and staring with wonder at mine. It was a lightbulb obscured by a plastic covering in the shape of a shell. Casting a crooked light on the wall above the ark, it swayed in my drafty congregation, housed in a converted schoolhouse. I remember being a young kid, a future Rabbi fascinated by all things Jewish and wondering how this light would stay on through power-outages. In fact, I distinctly recall asking my parents during Hurricane Bob in 1991 whether they thought the lamp was still shining.
In a world where most of the Bible speaks about long forgotten rituals of sacrifice, there are few ritual items as old as the Ner Tamid. Three thousand years ago, the Jewish people were commanded to keep a flame forever burning on the ancient Menorah or lamp. We don’t know why this command is given. I learned that the light remains lit to symbolize the fact that God is always around us. But we can just as easily say the Ner Tamid symbolizes the undying spirit of the Jewish people. Or perhaps the fact that when we do good in the world, a piece of our kindness manifests forever. (Shemot Rabbah 36:3)
What we do know, thanks to a close reading by the medieval commentator Don Isaac Abarbanel (Abarbanel on Exodus 27:20) is that God gave the commandment for the Ner Tamid before the Jewish people had finalized the design for the building it would go in, the Mishkan or Tabernacle, almost like picking a rug and then designing the room around it. (I’ve recently learned a lot about decorating a house…)
So when our forebearers, some of whom are sitting here, chose Ner Tamid as our name, we set for ourselves a goal: We would be a community where our lights always shine. Where the presence of the Divine would pervade all we did, where the Jewish spirit would forever burn, where our deeds would echo out of these wall and color the world for the better.
All we needed was a Ner Tamid to match our aspirations.
Memmingen, in Bavaria, Germany, has an interesting history. Though we have records of Jews there since the 13th century, for generations Jews were not welcome there, though many merchants passed through and engaged in business. Eventually some stayed and in 1862 the first Jew received citizenship in Memmingen. Then in 1909 the community finally got their synagogue hitting its peak in 1931 with 165 families.
No one knows exactly what purpose our lamp served. Perhaps it was simply for light or maybe it was the community’s Ner Tamid, but whatever the reason, at the very time that Alfred Heilbronner was being arrested and deported to Dachau and the synagogue was burning during Kristalnacht someone ran in and saved it. And when Alfred, a WW1 War hero used his standing to gain his freedom from the concentration camp, the lamp found its way into his possession and began to wander beside him.
He brought it with him out of Germany to Switzerland, barely before Germany sealed their borders, and then to England where it was in his possession where he picked up his son Walter from the orphanage that had saved his life. Eventually they found their way to Detroit, where Walter got possession of it and held it until after his father’s death.
In those years of wandering, the lamp became a symbol for them of their very faith. Homeless and even hopeless at times, it became a grounding force. It was for them the essence of what living a Jewish life means.
I’ve always found the parable contained in Steve Stern’s magnificent book, the Frozen Rabbi to be troubling. In it a nineteenth-century rabbi from a small Polish town one day freezes in a block of ice. He gets dragged, begrudgingly from city to city until he ends up stored in a freezer in suburban Memphis.
But that’s not the case with our lamp. Where the Frozen Rabbi sees Judaism as a burden, lugged around because we are unable to part with it, I can’t imagine that was how Alfred Heilbronner felt. This lamp was his Jewish past, waiting for the right place to be mounted and to shine forth. It was a symbol of hope. His home was destroyed but in this lamp was the seeds of his future. Like it was for our Biblical ancestors his Judaism would be rebuilt around this lamp. When he found a home, he was ready to let it shine.
But when Heilbronner got to America no one wanted his lamp. He tried to donate it to his synagogue in Detroit and they turned him down. He attempted to give it the Jewish Museum in New York but they already had one like it. So, it ended up in a box, in his basement in Detroit, collecting dust.
And this is the true tragedy of Jewish living in the modern world. Our ancestors carried though history this rich and wonderful tradition. They passed it lovingly on through time and place in the hope that it would be alive and shine forth one day. But too often it feels that there is no place in our lives for it. So we put it away. We too box it up, until we can figure out where it goes.
The reason we can’t figure out what to do with our tradition is because we look at it and realize that as it stands it does not fit our needs. The problem with the lamp was that it was lit with oil, and honestly, who needs an oil lamp today? It’s cumbersome to refill it. It’s messy. It’s a fire hazard.
And likewise, Judaism is filled with many old rituals that too feel out of place in our modern world. Most of us pray in a language we don’t understand. We sing melodies that sound different than anything we would hear on the radio. Judaism can be mysterious and beautiful, or it can be out of touch and alienating. I remember talking to a conversion student who went to a Tisha B’av service a few summers ago, commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Temples. She told me that attending it felt like walking into a foreign country and being forced to sit through a funeral for someone she’d never met.
But that doesn’t mean that with a little work we can’t modify it and make it work for us. No one wanted Heilbronner’s lamp, until someone had the insight to update it for the 21st century. Alfred had passed away and bequeathed it to his son Walter. Like it did before, the lamp made a cross country trip to his home in Upper Montclair and after his death, his wife Florence offered it to Temple Ner Tamid in 2004.
For a minute it looked like it too might languish again in a basement box. Our past president Harvey Morginstin first took it to a lamp repair shop to refused to touch it. It was too old, and they didn’t feel that they had the expertise to make modifications. But Harvey persevered. Eventually, Harvey had the idea to the modify the lamp. He carefully snaked a thin wire down the chain so it would remain hidden and he replaced the oil with LED lights. Now the lamp could work with our existing circuitry and perhaps more importantly, the lamp would last. Since LED lights burn for about 100,000 hours before they need to be replaced he could be confident that the lamp would remain shining for at least the next thirty years. He polished the lamp, famously quipping that he was disappointed that no genie appeared, and it was dedicated on March 19, 2004.
When I was first hired, Harvey took me aside and told me the history of the lamp and since then I’ve been wondering how we might take this religion, shepherded so carefully by so many of our ancestors and make it vibrant and shining in our day as well. For too many of us, we remain Jewish simply because it has been handed down to us. We keep it because we should. I often ask couples that I’m about to marry why it is important to them that they their children are Jewish. More often than not, they answer some derivative of “Because I don’t want to be the generation that kills it…”
If that’s the case, we should throw it out. It’s taking up too much space in the basement. Just because it has been passed down to us, does not make it of value.
Our goal, to use the words of the first chief Rabbi of the State of Israel, Avraham Isaac haKohen Cook, should be to make the “old, new…and the new, holy.”
Harvey made the old new when he turned the oil lamp into a modern electrical one. Did we lose something in the process? Of course! Change always necessitates a loss. The lamp was now usable but not as exotic and foreign as it once was.
Yet, what we got was better. Once we can mourn what was, we can open our eyes to the possibilities of the future.
I’m sure everyone here is thinking about change. How can you not with a new Rabbi. But this community is extraordinary at change and will continue to be in the future. We let go of the traditional reading of the Megilah and created our own tradition – the most produced, professional, and rehersed Purim Sheipell in the histroy of the Reform Movement. We let go of many of our treasured melodies and embraced the spiritual, learning to chant and to let the drum guide our heartbeats. This past summer, we took our pre-High Holy Day reflections out of the walls of TNT and came together on Facebook to discussion our hopes, regrets, brokenness, and aspirations.
We are experts and making the “old, new…and the new, holy” and I hope to only continue the process.
There is an old joke about the sacred cows of Jewish life, those things passed down through the ages that seem untouchable:
A new rabbi comes to town and notices that every time someone walked up to the Bima, they ducked low, shuffling a few steps until they got to the ark. When he inquired why they did that, no one could answer him. So he went to the Rabbi Emeratus and asked but he had an answer. The older rabbi had heard that once upon a time, there were a number of Jews from Persia who joined the community enmass, so maybe it was one of those rituals? Unable to confidently answer him, he directed him to the founding Rabbi who was in a nursing home about an hour away. The young Rabbi show up expectantly and asked, “so why do people shuffle low coming up to the ark? What’s the reasoning?”
The old Rabbi smiled and exclaimed, “They finally moved the chandelier!”
Our chapel is better because we moved our chandelier and now our lamp, our eternal light, our Ner Tamid shines forth. If something doesn’t work, I promise you, we will change it. Often, like the lamp in the joke, the reason it’s there is not what it we think.
And the same, I hope, will be true of your own Jewish practice. Take any Jewish ritual. Shabbat, for example, may not work for your family. You might be too busy, or it might not seem meaningful. But does that mean the candlestick should stay in the cabinet? Allow yourself to change your practice and make it work for you. If you can’t seem to find the time to buy a Challah for Friday, order in Pizza and bless that bread. Go out to dinner and order wine. Plenty of people toast at their table. Make Kiddush into that moment. If saying the Hebrew is hard, play the prayer from YouTube and try to sing along…you’ll learn it before you know it.
It’s 1937 again and Walter Heilbronner is walking up to the Torah. Little does he know that in his lifetime he will see the decimation of European Jewry, the birth of the State of Israel, the rise of the iron curtain and the campaign for Russian Jewry. He would never imagine that Western Wall in the old city of Jerusalem that he now faces will have a twenty-four-hour camera broadcasting it and a website to which that we can email our prayers. He would be shocked to learn that on September 5, 1977 a spacecraft named voyager would be launched that would leave our solar system with a golden record containing among another things a sample of Hebrew in case it were to encounter intelligent life.
But I think he would be proud of what has become of his synagogue’s lamp.
None of us knows what the future will hold for our people, our community, or our family. But what I do know is that when we build our future atop our past, our future shines much brighter. Open your hearts and let change in. Add your own adornments, your own trimmings to the holy legacy that your ancestors have given you. There is little that cannot work in our world, if we only allow ourselves to wonder “What old can be made new? And how can I make what is new, holy?”
More of Rabbi Katz’ writing may be found here.
Image: Woman reading Torah while wearing tefillin. (1/22/13, by Michal Patelle, some rights reserved.
וּקְשַׁרְתָּם לְאוֹת, עַל-יָדֶךָ; וְהָיוּ לְטֹטָפֹת, בֵּין עֵינֶיךָ
And you shall bind [these words] as a sign upon your arm, and they shall be as totafot between your eyes. — Deuteronomy 6:8
What are tefillin?: Our ancestors decided that the way to observe this commandment was to take it literally: write down these words, bind them to our arms, and put them to be totafot (usually translated “frontlets” although no one knows how to translate that either) between our eyes. The words (Exodus 13:1-16, Deut. 6:4-9, and Deut. 11:13:21) are written on tiny parchment scrolls by a sofer, a scribe. Then the sofer rolls them up and puts them into small leather boxes. One box is affixed to the head with leather straps that go around the head. The other box is bound to the inside of the non-dominant arm, and the straps are wound 7 times around that arm, finishing in a special knot on the hand.
Who can wear tefillin?: An adult Jew can wear tefillin. They are not for non-Jews and not for children too young to understand what they are. In some circles, women are not allowed to wear tefillin.
When to wear tefillin?: Observant Jews wear them for morning prayers on weekdays.
What are tefillin made of?: They are made of leather from a kosher animal. As a result of the source and the craftsmanship involved in making them, new tefillin tend to be rather expensive.
Why wear tefillin?: For many Jews, the answer is simply that we are commanded to wear them. Going a bit deeper, though, it is a way of expressing our willingness to bind our hearts and minds to God. In my own experience, it is a very comforting sensation and helps me focus on my prayers.
Phrases to know: Putting on tefillin is “laying tefillin” or “wrapping tefillin.” The other word you will hear for tefillin, “phylacteries,” is a Greek word meaning “amulets.”
For more about tefillin, and a demonstration of how to put them on, here is a YouTube video on the subject. However it is best, if you are interested in learning how to do it, to ask someone who knows how for help.
A ketubah is a Jewish marriage contract. Signing it and witnessing it is an essential part of a Jewish wedding. In its traditional formulation, it is a one-way contract listing the responsibilities of a Jewish husband to his wife. The husband commits to providing food, clothing, and conjugal relations to his wife, and should he at some future time divorce her, he commits to paying her a specified amount of cash. There have to be at least two qualified witnesses.
Originally, the ketubah was an effort to protect both groom and bride. There is no ketubah mentioned in the Torah. In Biblical Judaism, the groom had to pay a mohar, a dowry, for the wife; this money was to be held for her security in case of death or divorce. The rabbis saw that young men delayed marrying, because it took time to raise the mohar funds, so they devised the ketubah, which committed the groom to future payments in the event of divorce but no payment at the time of marriage. That way, a young man could marry before he got old.
It was even more a protection for the bride. A Jewish divorce must be initiated by the husband, and to carry it out, he has to give his wife a get, a bill of divorce. That activates her claim for support in the ketubah, so he know that if he divorces her, he would owe her support. In ancient times, a woman who had been married and cast aside had no rights to her children and very few options other than starving. With the ketubah, the woman had enforceable rights.
(Problems have arisen in modern times about husbands getting a civil divorce and then refusing to grant a get to the wife, but that’s a separate subject for another time. See agunot.)
For the text of the traditional Aramaic ketubah, and an explanation of its details, see The Ketubah Text at MyJewishLearning.com.
The traditional text does not meet the needs of some modern Jews. Rabbi Rachel Adler, in her book Engendering Judaism, proposed a new text for the ketubah. Instead of the traditional text, which outlines the obligations of the husband only, her new document was modeled on a business partnership between equals. She calls this document a brit ahuvim, a lovers’ covenant. A copy of that text is available on ritualwell.org.
Many couples choose alternate texts, and for some couples, the process of writing their own ketubah, their own marriage agreement, is a helpful prelude to the very serious step of marriage.
Ketubot (the plural form) are often embellished with artwork, and have become a major vehicle for Jewish artistic expression. The ketubah in the picture is that belonging to me and my wife.
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:
- You can listen for page number announcements.
- You can quietly ask a neighbor for help.
- You can close the book and let the language of the service wash over you.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
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.
Sometimes books are stored in racks in the pews or under the chairs. Photo by Rabbi Ruth Adar.