Rabbi Tarfon’s Guide to Elul

Image: A tangle of cables on a power line. Image copyright by Ian Beeby on Freeimages.com.

Rabbi Tarfon said: The day is short and the work is much, and the workers are lazy and the reward is great, and the Master of the house is pressing. He used to say: It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it. If you have learned much Torah, your reward will be much; and the Master of your work is trustworthy to pay you the wage for your activity. And know, the giving of reward to the righteous is in the future to come. – Pirkei Avot 2:15-16

One thing I have learned about myself is that if a task is too large, I simply freeze. I’m like a mouse under the gaze of a cobra: I cannot move. I go into “OVERWHELM” mode and stay there. And I like to think that Rabbi Tarfon knew something about this state, because of his wonderful piled-on sentence in the  quote that opened this post:

The day is short and the work is much and the workers are lazy and the reward is great and the Master of the house is pressing.

See? He can’t even distinguish between the scary parts and the good things. He is describing the way I feel when I begin this month of Elul:

Oh my goodness there is so much garbage in my soul and I don’t know where to begin and there’s only a month and I can’t even think and two days are gone already and I’m very distractible and gee this is very uncomfortable and have i looked at my email yet today?

No kidding. That’s the inside of my head. Fortunately for those of us who are overwhelmed, Rabbi Tarfon also gives very good advice: We don’t have to finish, we just have to do the work one step at a time.

Thanks to Rabbi Tarfon, I walk into my living room. I take out one of several good books and I start taking stock of my life. (This year I’m rereading This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared by Rabbi Alan Lew, z”l.) Step by step, I will do the work of Elul, first taking stock, then figuring out what actions I need to take. One by one, I will do those things. And a month from now, I may not be “finished” but I will have gotten a lot of work done.

You can do this too, no matter how overwhelmed you feel. Begin the task, and trust that whatever you accomplish, that is what you need to do this year.

And if you’d like to know more about Rabbi Tarfon, read Meet Rabbi Tarfon elsewhere on this blog. He’s one of my favorite rabbis and I hope you’ll like him too.

5777: Jewish Years Explained

Image: Street sign in Jerusalem “Happy New Year St.” Photo Mt Scopus Radio  Some rights reserved

We’re about to begin the year 5777 and sooner or later, someone will wonder, “5777 years from WHAT?”

The simple answer: 5777 years from the creation of the world, as determined by counting back years in the Bible. The setting of this date is credited to Maimonides, who mentions it in his book, Mishneh Torah: Sanctification of the Moon, 11:6, written about 1178 CE, but it may have been in use for some time before that. This kind of numbering is called Anno Mundi meaning “Year of the World.”

You and I both know that human beings weren’t created on the sixth day after the Big Bang. We could get into a very interesting discussion about “days” in the context of creation (literal days? or something more metaphorical? or is the Creation story not really about time at all?). And then we could look at some of those times listed in the Bible – (Noah lived how long?) We could stomp off harumphing about how the Bible and science are completely incompatible.

The truth is that religion and science had a battle long ago, and many of us decided that scientific method was better at addressing the “how” of the world, so we quit looking to the Bible for science. Torah explores the meaning of creation, a question that science can’t and won’t address.

BUT – long before we abandoned the notion of a six day Creation a few thousand years ago, we Jews began numbering the years by a certain pattern. We remember many things in terms of their placement in Jewish time. Also we are “a stiff-necked people” and we cling to some things just to be stubborn. So even though it is a bit anachronistic, we still number our years by the old system. On Rosh Hashanah morning, the shaliach [service leader] will announce the arrival of the year Five Thousand Seven Hundred and Seventy Seven.

So the more complex answer to the question, “Why 5777?” is “Tradition!”

 

High Holy Days for Beginners, 5777

Image: Rabbi Michal Loving of Temple Beth Orr in Coral Springs, FL blows the shofar to announce the new year. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Loving.

Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, begins at sundown on October 3, 2016. It will begin the Jewish Year 5777. Here are some basic facts to know about the holiday season:

Happy Jewish New Year!

Rosh HaShanah is the Jewish New Year. Observant Jews will go to synagogue that day, and will do no work. Many other Jews may take the day off for reflection and celebration. The mitzvah [commandment] for the day of Rosh HaShanah is to hear the sound of the shofar [ram’s horn.] The basic greeting for the New Year is “Shanah Tovah” [literally, “Good Year!”] For other greetings, see A Guide to High Holy Day Greetings.

First, Prepare!

Preparation for the High Holy Day Season began at sundown on Friday September 2, 2016 with Rosh Chodesh Elul. Jews worldwide take the month of Elul to examine their lives in the light of Torah, looking for things about ourselves that need to change. For more about preparation, look at Books to Prepare for the High Holy Days and Teshuvah 101. Both are short entries on this blog.

Days of Awe

Rosh HaShanah begins a very serious time in the Jewish year called the Days of Awe. Unlike the secular New Year, which is mostly a time for celebration, the Days of Awe are an annual period for reflection and for mending relationships and behavior. Synagogue services use solemn music and urge Jews, individually and collectively, to mend what is broken in their lives, and to apologize for misdeeds.

Teshuvah: Sin & Repentance

The Jewish understanding of sin is that all human beings fall short of their best selves from time to time. When we do wrong, even inadvertently, we are required to acknowledge what we have done, take responsibility for it, and take steps to assure it will not happen again. This process is called teshuvah [literally, “turning.”] Teshuvah 101 explains this concept in more detail – it isn’t about beating ourselves up, it’s about change for the better.

Yom Kippur

The Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, is the culmination of the process of teshuvah. Observant Jews fast for 24 hours and spend the day in synagogue, praying and reflecting on their lives. Other Jews may take the day off for reflection as well. Yom Kippur is a day for atonement for sins against God and/or Jewish law; it only atones for sins against other human beings if we have gone through the process of teshuvah (taking responsibility, apologizing, and taking steps to prevent a recurrence.) If you have a health problem that requires regulation of food and/or liquids, do not fast – there are other ways to observe.

Tickets for Prayer?

Very important: Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are the days of the year when the greatest number of Jews attend synagogue. Because of the high attendance, many synagogues do not have seats for visitors for their main services. If they have a few extra seats, they sell tickets for those seats to offset the extra expense of the holiday (members pay their share via membership dues.) Note that synagogues often make arrangements for reduced rates for membership for those who wish to participate in synagogue life but who cannot afford full dues. Consider joining a synagogue – they offer much more than High Holy Day services.

There are several options for attending High Holy Day services for low or no cost. You can always call the synagogue and ask; they may be able to direct you to a synagogue which offers free High Holy Day services.  Some synagogues offer free High Holy Day tickets for college students or members of the military. If you are in a city in the USA, call the Jewish Federation or other local Jewish agency for information about locations for free or low-cost services.

Get the Most out of Your High Holy Days

To get the most out of the High Holy Days, observe the month of preparation that leads up to them. Attend services at a local synagogue (guests are welcome at regular services). Ask yourself “What about my life and behavior needs to change?” and make those changes. Mend relationships that can be mended, and do your part even in those relationships that cannot be mended at this time. Consider reading a book about the High Holy Days, or keeping a journal. Like everything else in life, the more you invest in this experience, the more you will get out of it.

There is much more to know about the High Holy Days; this is just a beginning. If you are curious about Judaism, this is a great time of year to contact a synagogue about adult education classes, since many classes in synagogues start immediately after the holidays. If you are interested in an online basic introduction to judaism, check out Learn About Judaism Online.

L’Shanah Tovah: I wish you a fruitful beginning to the New Year of 5777!

Books to Prepare for the High Holy Days

Image: Man blowing a shofar. Photo by jonathunder via wikimedia. Some rights reserved.

Do you hear the sound of that distant horn?

The High Holy Days are on their way sooner than we realize. This year they begin with Rosh Hashanah at sundown on October 2, 2016. Yom Kippur will begin at sundown on October 11.

In other words, school begins in the Northern Hemisphere and then “bam!” it will be time to welcome 5777.

Are you reading anything to prepare for the season this year? Doing anything else to prepare?

Here are some books I’ve found useful for High Holy Days preparation. Don’t try to read them all! Spending quality time with one good book can be an excellent help.

The official start date for preparation is the first of Elul. This year (2016) that will fall on Friday, Sept 2 at sundown. I’m publishing this list now so that you can have a bit of lead time to visit your local Jewish bookshop!

The Jewish Holiday of Love

Image: Israeli Folk Dancing. Photo via Israeli PikiWiki, some rights reserved.

Tu B’Av is a minor but fun Jewish holiday. After the mourning of Tisha B’Av, this is a lovely little day to be happy and to celebrate love.  Today in Israel, it’s called Chag HaAhavah, the Holiday of Love, and it’s a favored day for weddings. Think of it as Jewish Valentine’s Day.

  • Tu B’Av = Fifteenth of the Month of Av. In Hebrew, the letters that form the number 15 can also be pronounced “Tu.”
  • In Temple times, in Jerusalem, the grape harvest began on the fifteenth of Av and ended on the tenth of Tishrei, Yom Kippur. On both those days, single girls dressed in white and went to dance in the vineyards in the afternoon. It was a traditional time for courtship.
  • There are no big religious observances for the day. However, it’s a good day to get married, a good day to fall in love, and a great day to tell your loved ones “I love you.”

In 2016, Tu B’Av falls on August 18-19 (begins at sundown, runs until sundown.) For future years, check the online Hebrew calendar.

Tales from the Fast

Image: The word pictured is Eicha,the name of the Book of Lamentations. Artwork by Rabbi Ruth Adar.

Perhaps you fasted. Perhaps you chose not to fast.

But if you are a regular reader of this blog, you know that the annual observance of Tisha B’Av ran from sundown Saturday to sundown Sunday, August 13-14, 2016. (We couldn’t fast the day before, because it was Shabbat.)

How was the day for you? What did you do or not do? I’m writing this before the fast and uploading it automatically, so I cannot yet tell you how it went for me but I can tell you my plan. I will leave a comment after sunset at my home to let you know how it went for me.

My plan: I cannot fast from food this year, due to some health problems. Therefore I will eat and drink what is needed for health. I will fast from social media.

I will listen to the Scroll of Lamentations via a recording, because I can’t go to shul (again, a health issue.)

I will study the scroll tonight.

And now the light is fading, and social media is part of my fast, so I must go.

Tzom kal! That means, I wish you an easy fast. I also wish you insight and reflection – I hope that you will share some of those in the comments!

What is Tzom Tammuz?

Image: “The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans Under the Command of Titus, A.D. 70” by David Roberts. Public Domain, via Wikimedia.

If you have a Jewish calendar – or if you use the excellent online calendar at hebcal.com – you may have noticed something called “Tzom Tammuz.”  That translates to “Fast of Tammuz” which isn’t terribly enlightening, so I thought you might like to have a bit more info.

Next month we will observe the somber day known as Tisha B’Av, [“Ninth of Av”] when we remember the destruction of the Second Temple along with other disasters in Jewish history. Tzom Tammuz is part of the preparation for that day. It is a dawn-to-dusk fast to recall the day the Romans breached the city wall of Jerusalem before the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. It falls exactly three weeks before Tisha B’Av, and that three week period is a time of special mourning and attention. (Tammuz and Av are months in the Jewish year, both of which fall in the late summer.)

A “minor fast” like Tzom Tammuz is one that is kept only from sunrise to sunset. It applies only to eating and drinking, unlike the major fasts of Tisha B’Av and Yom Kippur, on which we refrain not only from eating and drinking, but also from washing and anointing our bodies, wearing leather, and having sex. Major fasts last 25 hours, from sunset one day until three stars appear in the sky on the next.

The destruction of the Temple was one of the watershed moments in Jewish history, the end of one age and the beginning of another. Biblical Judaism effectively ended then, because the sacrificial cult and everything that went with it was no longer possible. Rabbinic Judaism – the dominant form of Judaism in the world today – had not yet been born. That would happen in the following months, as Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai moved his students to the academy at Yavneh.

While there are some who look forward to rebuilding the Temple someday, Reform Jews believe that the time for it is past. God moved us into a new period of history, one in which our sacrifices would be made of prayers and song, rather than of animal gore.

I personally do not fast on Tzom Tammuz, but I keep it as a quiet day of reflection and study. The Three Weeks from the fast until Tisha B’Av are a time to reflect on Sinat Chinam, baseless hatred, a topic that is sadly pertinent today.

In 2016 Tzom Tammuz begins at dawn on Sunday, July 24.