A Fence Around the Torah?

Image: Fence protects a tree trunk from a horse. (MichaelGaida/Pixabay)

There’s an expression rabbis sometimes use, “We build a fence around the Torah” to explain some rules for Jewish living.

There are two kinds of mitzvot (commandments) in Jewish practice: those derived directly from the Torah, which we call d’oraita (day-oh-RITE-ah) and those which come from the sages, which we call d’rabbanan (deh-rahb-bah-NAN.)

An example of a d’oraita commandment:

Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the LORD your God has commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your ox or your ass, or any of your cattle, or the stranger in your settlements, so that your male and female slave may rest as you do. .

Deuteronomy 12:1`4

This commandment is explicitly written in Torah. We may still have to discuss exactly what it means, but there it is, in the document.

D’rabbanan mitzvot do not appear in the Torah. One kind of d’rabbanan mitzvah is set to keep us from accidentally breaking a Torah commandment. For example, The Torah commands us not to work on Shabbat. The rabbis extended that idea to include not holding a tool on Shabbat, so that we do not accidentally forget and use the tool, and thereby break the Sabbath.

Even for those who are not halakhic Jews, who don’t observe Shabbat in the traditional way, this idea can be very useful. Determined that you will focus on family and not do business on Shabbat? You may decide to turn off your smartphone, or even put it in a drawer for the day.

Another example: at Passover, Ashkenazi Jews do not eat rice. Nowhere does it say in the Torah that rice is forbidden on Passover. In Ashkenazi tradition, rice, corn, and beans are not chametz but they might be mistaken for chametz (because cornmeal, for instance, looks similar to flour.) In that tradition, foods which might be mistaken for chametz that are therefore also forbidden, and they are classified as kitniyot. Kitniyot means “stuff that might be confused with chametz” and not eating it is a d‘rabbanan rule for Ashkenazi Jews. Recently, some Conservative authorities have questioned the idea: of course we can tell the difference – so is this fence a silly fence that limits our diets but do not make us better Jews?

A fence around the Torah is a rule intended to keep us from accidentally wandering off the path of Jewish practice.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that phrase this week, “Fence around the Torah.” There is an assumption in it that we build the fence to protect ourselves, to keep ourselves safely within the bounds of Torah. That’s a good, safe thing, reminiscent of baby-latches on kitchen cabinets and the fence that keeps my little dogs safely in my back yard.

But we live in world in which fences mean other things, as well. The security fence in Israel has put an end to the sort of bombings we suffered in 2000-2004, but at a very high cost: not only does it keep violence out, it is a form of violence itself. President Trump is insistent that the United States needs a fence to keep people from Latin America out. Some of us are old enough to remember the Berlin Wall, which kept East and West Germany separated, and kept people from escaping their East German government.

I want to examine the fences I build in my life. Am I protecting something valuable in a good and useful way? Or am I constructing a barrier that will only make matters worse? Do I build out of protection and strength, or in fear and weakness? What fences do I build to help myself be a better human being, a better Jew? Are any of my fences silly?

Good questions, all. What fences do you keep around the Torah in your life? What fences would you like to tear down?

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Selfie with Rabbi Wise!

We Reform Rabbis look up to the Great Organizer, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise. He founded Hebrew Union College, organised the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and pushed for the establishment of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (Union for Reform Judaism.) All that, and he was a pulpit rabbi and a prolific writer! This year is the 200th anniversary of his birth.

Continue reading Selfie with Rabbi Wise!

Greetings from Cincinnati!

Image: The opening meeting of the 130th annual meeting of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (Photo Ruth Adar)

I’m writing this message from a hotel room in Cincinnati, OH, where I am meeting with the rabbis of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) the association of Reform Rabbis in North America.

It’s a combination old-home-week, school reunion, continuing education and prayer festival. The elevators are full of people seeing dear friends they haven’t seen in years. The meeting rooms are full of discussions about everything from social justice, Israel, making worship better, dealing with anti-Semitic incidents, and nonprofit business practices. In the lobby there are pairs of rabbis putting their heads together, having conversations about everything from family to ethics.

I’m looking forward to posting thoughts inspired by the conference. Watch this space!

Passover Prep: We Begin in Egypt

Seven years ago I wrote a piece about Passover preparation titled “Begin in Egypt.” It addressed the situation of beginners when preparing for Passover. I repost it today, because it is my best shot on a subject that rolls around every year.

Rabbi Tarfon taught: It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but you are not free to desist from it either.  [


Pirkei Avot 2:16

It is very tempting to take an “all or nothing” approach to mitzvot.   Some of us are overachievers, and we want an “A” in everything we do.  Some of us are worried about the opinions of others.  Some worry that if a commandment is not fulfilled properly, there was no point in bothering.  But to any beginner in Jewish observance, my first word of advice about almost everything is: Start Small.

The journey of the Exodus began in Egypt.  The Hebrews could not keep the commandments; they had not yet received the commandments.  Anyway, they were slaves:  they were not free to keep the commandments.

So if this is your first time cleaning for Passover, do not think, “I must do all of this perfectly,” because you are in Egypt.  You are only beginning the journey! If this is your first time cleaning for Passover, think:  What can I reasonably do this year to observe Passover in my home?  Here are some ideas for beginning your journey to Passover, one step at a time.  Even if you do only the first step, or the first two this year you will have made a good beginning.

If, on the other hand, you are looking for official standards on how to prepare a proper kosher-for-Passover home, and you are already an old hand at this, you will be much better served by thePesah Guide published by the Rabbinical Assembly (Conservative Movement.)  This post is for those who are new to the mitzvah of preparing for Passover.

1.  LEARN ABOUT CHOMETZ.  Chometz / Chametz / Hametz (all spellings are transliterations, all are the same thing) is a product that is made from one of five types of grain (wheat, rye, spelt, oats, or barley) that have been combined with water and left to stand raw for longer than eighteen minutes.  Chometz is sometimes defined as “leavened products” which is confusing, since that makes modern people think of leavening agents like baking powder and yeast.  But no, chometz is basically wet grain,  or grain that may have been wet at one time.

In short, anything in your home that contains one of those grains (wheat, rye, spelt, oats, barley) and may have had any moisture get to it (on purpose or by accident, no matter) is chometz.  Ideally, a Jew will find and get rid of all the chometz in the places under his or her control before Passover begins.

You can learn more about chometz and Passover observance in an article at My Jewish Learning.  There you will also learn that Ashkenazic Jews also dispose of rice, millet, corn and legumes like beans and soy [kitniyot] because those things often behave like the forbidden grains. Sephardic Jews do not get rid of those things; Ashkenazim do.

If you are not sure which standard you follow, ask your community (the Jews with whom you spend the most time) what they do, and do that. The point is that you want to be able to eat in each other’s homes.

If this is all you can do this year, that’s OK.   

2.  CHECK YOUR CHOMETZ.  The Hebrew name of the process of looking for chometz is bedikat chometz, literally “checking for chometz.”  The first step is to figure out where the chometz is.  You can’t get rid of it if you don’t take stock of it, right?

Go into the kitchen, open the cabinets, and make note of all the chometz products you normally own and use.  There may be bread, and flour, and mixes, and cereals.  There may also be processed foods that contain grain products.  Notice what they are, how many they are, how basic to your cooking and consumption these products are.  Notice, also, all the beer and spirits and other grain-based fermented products you may have: those, too, are chometz.  Then close the cabinets, and move on.

Go into the rest of your home, and think about all the places that crumbs can hide:  sofa cushions, carpets, pockets, shoes.

Contemplate the ubiquity of chometz:   It’s really everywhere.

If this is all you can do this year, that’s OK. 

3.  GET RID OF BIG CHOMETZ.  I said “start small” but at this stage of the journey, we’ll just get rid of what I call “big chometz.”  Set aside all thechometz in your kitchen and say, “what can my household consume before Passover?”  All the rest of the chometz will need to go for you to complete this third step.  Eat it up, give it away, or throw it out:  those are the chometz choices between Purim and Passover.  Locate a donation dropoff for your local food bank, and use it.

If you have gotten to this stage, you will also need to think about “What will my household eat during Passover?”  This does not mean that you must buy many specialized products for Passover.  Maybe you will choose to buy matzah, and otherwise stick to unprocessed non-grain foods for the week of Passover:  salads, fruit, meat, fish, etc. If you live with other people, you need to include them in the menu-planning for Passover week.  The average child (or adult, for that matter) will not feel loved if you simply announce that we are out of Cheerios and will be out of Cheerios until next week, tough luck!  If you have animals, you will need to plan for them as well.  However, keep in mind that an animal that eats grain needs proper nourishment:  consult your rabbi if you have questions about how to meet the needs of pets during the holiday.

If this is all you can do this year, that’s OK.   

4.  DISHES AND UTENSILS  If you are even more serious about keeping a kosher for Passover home, you will want to seal up or pack up all your usual utensils and dishes, and use either “Passover dishes” that you keep boxed up the rest of the year or use disposables.  This is more or less expensive depending on how you go about it.  My everyday Passover dishes are not particularly nice (they were on sale at Target)  and I only have a few of them, since other than the seder, I don’t entertain during Pesach.  However, I only look at them for one week a year, so I wasn’t picky.

Another possibility is to buy a package of paper plates. This is less wasteful if you compost them instead of putting them in the landfill after use. During Passover, I use more disposable products than at other times of the year, but I try to use them responsibly, and seek out those which are already made of recycled products if possible.

If this is all you do this year, it is more than OK. 

5.  FIND AND DESTROY HIDDEN CHOMETZ.  This brings us to something that looks suspiciously like “spring cleaning.”  Remember the chometz you thought about back at #1:  the crumbs in the carpet, your pockets, the car, the back of cabinets?  At this level of cleaning for Passover, you will get rid of as many of those as you can.  Take a moment to think a grateful thought for all the clever inventors of the vacuum cleaner.  Most observant Jews will get their carpets cleaned in the week before Passover. Wipe surfaces down. Dust everywhere. Vacuum out the shoes in the closets.

If this is all you do this year, it is more than OK. 

6.  RECONSIDER “CHOMETZThere are Jews who observe Passover by refraining from eating chometz, and who may or may not be meticulous about cleaning out their houses, but who take other understandings ofchometz very seriously.  To learn more, consider these articles on the web:

7.  REMEMBER, LIFE, LIKE EXODUS,  IS A JOURNEY.  In the beginning, start small.  Don’t tear your home up and then collapse in despair.  Pay attention to the mitzvah that you are doing, to whatever degree you can perform it.  Remember that at different stages of life, our abilities are different:  a beginner, starting out, will not approach Passover in the same way that a person who has grown up in a kosher observant household will approach it.  In a year with illness, or money troubles, or other challenges, our ability to observe the mitzvah will change.Instead of judging ourselves for what we cannot do, and comparing to others who “do more,” we accomplish the most when we approach the task with kavanah [intention] and do what we can to the best of our ability.   Remember the words of Rabbi Tarfon that opened this post:  

It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but you are not free to desist from it either.

Pirkei Avot 2:16

Jewish Values and Money

Image: Three stacks of coins, with seedlings growing on top. (nattanan23/pixabay)

Jewish tradition has always regarded economic activity as a normal and legitimate pursuit. Just as with any other normal human activity, Judaism established a framework for economic activity to keep it within the boundaries of Torah.

The Jewish businessperson, the Jewish consumer, and the Jewish investor have sacred boundaries for behavior in our tradition. Jewish values apply in the economic sphere. Some examples:

  • Every adult is responsible for their own words and behavior.
  • Every adult is responsible for the maintenance of the community.
  • The strong may not exploit the weak or the ignorant.
  • Powerful individuals may not use their power to the detriment of society.
  • Workers are protected from exploitation, but they also have responsibilities.
  • Truth in marketing, advertising and speech are key values.

These values hold true for Jews whether they are capitalists or socialists, conservatives or liberals, owners, stockholders or workers.

I am not suggesting that we substitute halakhah (Jewish Law) for the laws of the state. There is a principle in Jewish law, “Dina d’malkhuta dina” (in Aramaic, דִּינָא דְּמַלְכוּתָא דִּינָא ) “the law of the land is the law.” That means that the law of the state is binding upon the Jews who live there. However, when Jewish tradition holds us to a higher standard than the civil law, the observant Jew should adhere to that higher standard.

Has there ever been a time when you felt a conflict between your Jewish values and your economic interests? Did you feel you had the tools to make the right decision?

What is a Jew?

Image: A person holding a question mark in front of their face. (anemone123/pixabay)

What is a Jew? Today I assisted with the rituals associated with conversion to Judaism (beit din and mikveh). It set me to thinking about the process and these are some admittedly disjointed thoughts that I’ve been juggling. I thought writing might help, which is has, somewhat.

The usual question is “Who is a Jew?” which has come to be the standard opener for a discussion about qualifications for Jewishness. People often say, “Oh that’s simple!” and say “Jewish mother, or converted” but it isn’t that simple. There are differences among various denominations of Jews, plus arguments about what constitutes a valid conversion, and then you add in all the 21st century options for childbearing and we’re off to the races.

And anyway, that’s not what I’m talking about right now. What is a Jew?

We could look at the process of conversion as magic: someone is not-a-Jew then splish-splash in the mikveh and whoo! She’s a Jew! Presto-change-o! Except that it doesn’t work that way at all.

It isn’t magic. It’s a slow process that ideally takes time, because an adult identity has to make some significant shifts to move from “not-a-Jew” to “Jew.” The halakhic ritual markers are part of that, but by themselves they do not transform someone from one state to another.

So I repeat: What is a Jew?

A Jew stands in relationship with all the other Jews on earth. We stand together in something I will call the Jewish circle, meaning that everyone inside of it is a Jew and everyone outside isn’t a Jew. That circle also includes three to four thousand years of ancestors, depending upon whom you ask. Sometimes it feels crowded.

A Jew has some awareness of being a Jew. The person who suddenly discovers Jewish ancestry is not necessarily a Jew: first of all, that ancestry may not qualify them under the “Who’s a Jew” discussion, but secondly they may already feel connected elsewhere. A person who understands themself to be in relationship with Jesus Christ is not a Jew.

A Jew feels connected to other Jews. That may be a warm fuzzy feeling but it may also be a feeling of intense irritation, or of a terrifying threat. Jews notice other Jews in the news. Some Jews scour everything Jew-ish out of their lives, because being associated with Jews is anything from a nuisance to a source of terror.

A Jew is not described by belief. Some Jews have very definite ideas about God, which differ from other Jews with equally definite ideas about God. Other Jews are not so sure, and prefer to “do Jewish” than to spend time speculating on theology. Still other Jews are atheists or agnostics. All are Jews.

As a rabbi, I have learned definite criteria for “Who is a Jew?” I have also encountered people who are quite sure they are Jews, and who do not meet the criteria I learned. After watching them and listening to them for a while, I am inclined to agree with them, but I confess I would be more comfortable if they availed themselves of the ritual process of gerut (conversion.) Rabbis are trained to be uncomfortable with fuzzy boundaries. That is partly because many Jews don’t like fuzzy boundaries, either, especially when it comes to questions like, “Is this person a Jew or not?”

A Jew is a person apart. We are not alone, because we are with other Jews in the Jewish circle. But the perception of both the world and the Jews is that Jews are different, apart. Words such as “chosen” or “special” are sometimes used to denote that quality, but most of us learn to be wary of those words, because they are loaded.

When I first became a Jew, a quarter-century ago, a wise friend said to me, “Mazal tov! The good news is, you will never be alone again. The bad news is, you will never be alone again. Welcome to the family.” That may be the best answer I will ever find to my question, “What’s a Jew?”

Meditation on the Morning Blessings

Image: Sunrise in space. (Qimono/Pixabay)

I am very fond of a section of the morning service known as Nisim B’chol Yom [“For Daily Miracles.”] Often when I chant it, I am half-awake, clinging to the melody in an effort to keep my eyes open. It is a laundry list of blessings, things for which I ought to be thankful. As I wake up to the new day, these prayers wake me up to my life.

Each blessing begins with the same opening phrase: “Praise to You, YHVH our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who…” Each concludes with the good thing that I might otherwise forget to notice. (I normally say or sing them in Hebrew, but it is fine to use English.)

As I chant each line, I wake up a bit, because the mention of all these good things is itself a stimulation of the senses:

…who has given the mind the ability to distinguish day from night.

Yes, the brain is working! I may not know much, but I know it is morning. It’s wonderful to have a brain that can do that.

…who opens the eyes of the blind.

My eyes are open, maybe bleary, but they are open. I can see things. How wonderful is that? And it also brings up the question: are there things that I am refusing to see?

…who frees the captive.

I was taught that the ancient rabbis put this in because when we were asleep, we were captive to it, locked in our beds. But it also reminds me that freeing the captive is an important mitzvah. To what or whom am I captive? Whom might I have the power to free, if I opened my eyes?

…who lifts up the fallen.

I was taught that this has to do with the gesture of getting out of bed. I don’t just lift myself, I am lifted! As a person with arthritis, sometimes I wish a Divine Hand would lift me and get me past those first excruciating moments walking. However, so far I’m still getting up and I should appreciate that. I guess you could say this one is still a work in progress.

… who stretches the earth over the waters.

This one is a favorite. Just as the God in Genesis created the world, I am beginning my day by stretching… stretching… stretching. It’s the only way to get these joints to move, but it works! Another miracle.

…who strengthens our steps.

Whatever I face in the day to come, I trust that I can handle it, that I will be given or I will find the strength to do what has to be done. I do not walk forward alone; I will be surprised by the strength that finds me.

…who clothes the naked.

This blessing corresponds to the process of getting dressed, but it also points to the fact that I need to be God’s hands in my little corner of the world. Who’s going without something they desperately need? How can I help? Who might suffer embarrassment (nakedness) unless I am present to their need?

…who gives strength to the weary.

I love this one. The year I learned it was my year in Israel, and many mornings I would hear Chazzan Eli Schliefer chant these blessings at the morning service. He always did this one with special emphasis on “Koach” – strength – and I always chant it that way, too. Some of it is the love for my teacher, and some of it is that I have learned that if I boom out that word, I often will feel stronger!

…who removes sleep from the eyes, and slumber from the eyelids.

Some mornings I scrub my face with a washcloth, trying to get my eyes to wake up and work. Sleep can be such a powerful need that when I allow myself to run short of it, nothing will lift that heaviness. This blessing is a subtle and poetic reminder that God brings the morning, but it is up to me to get enough sleep!

…who made me in the image of God.

This blessing replaces an older pair of blessings in which men give thanks for not being women, and women give thanks that God made them the way they are. I like it because it reminds me to be grateful that I live in a time when I am not regarded as chattel by most of the people I encounter. I still need to stand up for myself and for other women, and for other people who are mistakenly seen as “less than” but I am grateful for the progress I continue to see in my own lifetime.

…who has made me free.

Occasionally this one stops me in my tracks. There are many people who are not as free as I am: people who are literally in prison, people who are in prisons of their own making, people who are held captive literally or figuratively by employers, people who are trapped in impossible situations. The first step in helping them is the simple act of appreciating my own freedom.

… who has made me a Jew.

I confess this blessing always gives me a thrill. I am delighted to be a Jew, even on occasions when that is not easy. I was not born a Jew, and I will never, ever take it for granted. Thank you God for making me a Jew – and buckets of gratitude to all the people who guided me to this day.

…who girds Israel with strength.

This blessing can mean so many things. It can be a celebration of the deep core strength of Am Yisrael, the Jewish People, who have managed to hang onto the covenant and to out identity through millenia of challenges. It can be a prayer for the survival of the State of Israel, when those millions of Jews are under threat. It can be a prayer for strength for any Jewish community in danger: it reminds me that we have endured for a long, long time. It also reminds me that we have to be responsible for whatever strength we have, to use it justly and wisely.

…who crowns Israel with splendor.

Suddenly, just before the end, the blessings take a turn for the mystical. I do not yet see the “splendor of Israel” – I do not yet quite know what that means. There’s something there about being an ohr l’goyim – a light to the nations – or perhaps it is about someday seeing the Holy One panim al panim, face to face. I don’t know. I count it as a blessing that I do not yet know everything.

Then finally, inevitably, because we are Jews, we conclude:

…who sanctifies us with mitzvot, commanding us to engage with the words of Torah.

When the sage Hillel was asked to summarize the Torah on one foot, he said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to any person. That is the whole Torah: go and study.”

And then the day can begin.

Note: This version of the Nisim B’chol Yom is from Mishkan Tefilah, A Reform Siddur. The blessings will differ slightly in other prayer books.

To hear these blessings chanted to the daily nusach (tune) try this link to the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue.