The Jewish Calendar: Why 5779?

Image: Symbols of the Jewish New Year: A shofar (ram’s horn), apple, honey, and pomegranate (tomertu/Shutterstock)

At sundown on September 9, 2018 Jewish year 5779 will be proclaimed in synagogues around the world.  Sooner or later, someone will wonder, “5779 WHAT?”

The simple answer: 5779 years from the creation of the world, as calculated by counting back years in the Hebrew Bible. The calculation of this date is credited to Maimonides, who mentions it in his tome, Mishneh Torah: Sanctification of the Moon, 11:6, written about 1178 CE, but it was likely in use for some time before that. This kind of numbering is called Anno Mundi meaning “Year of the World.”

Liberal Jews believe that scientific method is better at addressing the “how” of the world, so we long ago quit looking to the Bible for science. Torah explores the meaning of creation, a question that science can’t and won’t address.

The Biblical text cannot be read literally about scientific matters. Human beings weren’t created on the sixth day after God said “Yehi Or!” [Let There Be Light!] (Genesis 1:3)

BUT – long ago we Jews began numbering the years by this ancient calendar. 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 number our years by the old system. On Rosh Hashanah, the shaliach [service leader] will announce the arrival of the year Five Thousand Seven Hundred and Seventy Nine.

So the more complex answer to the question, “Why 5778?” is “Tradition!”


Watch Those Poppy Seed Bagels!

Image: A poppy seed bagel with cream cheese, tomato, and mushrooms. (yossigee/pixabay

Poppy seed bagels are among my favorite Jewish food treats. The chewy, nutty black seeds are so delicious on a bagel that it is worth the trouble of dealing with tiny orbs. Then add a bit of cream cheese, some lox, onion and cucumber, and it’s a chewy bit of heaven! Poppy seeds are healthy, too, as they are good sources for oleic acid, dietary fiber, B vitamins and several minerals.

However: if your life includes even occasional drug tests, you should know that the stories about positive drug tests from eating poppy seeds are not urban legend.  The Washington Post recently reported that a woman faced monitoring for drug abuse after she was admitted to a Maryland hospital in labor, and a routine drug screen showed traces of opiates in her bloodstream.

The positive test result meant that her daughter had to stay in the hospital and be monitored for five days. Afterward, Eden was assigned a case worker who closed her file after determining that she was a “legitimate case of the poppy seed defense,” WBAL-TV reported. – The Washington Post, 8/8/18

So, enjoy your bagels, but if there’s a chance you will be subjected to tests for opiates, choose plain or sesame seed instead!

What’s your favorite bagel? Where do you find the best bagels in your area?

What is Teshuvah?

Image:  An archer takes aim with a bow and arrow. (skeeze/pixabay)

Teshuvah means “turning.” When we “make teshuvah:”

  1. We notice what we’ve done wrong,
  2. We acknowledge that it is wrong,
  3. We take responsibility for it,
  4. We apologize and make amends, and then
  5. We make a plan for not doing it again.

SIN in Judaism is a slightly different concept than in Christianity. The Hebrew word chet (sounds like “hate” only with a spitty sound on the front) is an archery term. It means that I aimed at something and I missed.  In Judaism, the focus is not on what a terrible person I am for doing something, the focus is to aim more carefully when I am next in that situation.

Very Important:  The point of the teshuvah is not to beat ourselves up, it’s to make ourselves better.  Taking responsibility and expressing sorrow are important but the act of teshuvah [repentance] is not complete until I do better.  According to Maimonides, until I am in that situation again and behave differently, I cannot be certain that my teshuvah is complete.

In Judaism, the focus is on doing, not so much on one’s state of mind. It does not matter how lousy I feel about what I did, it matters that I address what I have done with the people I’ve hurt and do what I can to make sure there are no repeats.

Follow-through is important: it is not enough to be sorry for things I have done or failed to do. What is my plan for the future? How exactly am I going to do better in the coming year?  Sometimes this means asking for help, calling a rabbi or a therapist to talk about strategies for change.  Sometimes it means getting into treatment, or joining a 12 step group. A fresh pair of eyes and ears may see options that I don’t.

As I said above, the point of all this is not to beat myself up, it’s to make the world better by making my behavior better. Do not wallow in guilt, just note what needs to change and make a plan for change. When I feel embarrassed at what I have done, that’s part of the process. Making teshuvah will help with the shame.

Each day of our lives is an opportunity to do better, to rise above the past. As Rabbi Tarfon used to say, “It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task. Yet you are not free to desist from it.” No one does any of this perfectly. The point is to improve.

What is Cheshbon Hanefesh?

Image: An accounting ledger filled out in blue ink.  (cpastrick/pixabay)

Cheshbon hanefesh is usually translated, “the accounting of the soul.” We do cheshbon nefesh every year during the month of Elul, the month leading up to the High Holy Days, because without taking inventory, how can we know what we need to change?

Hebrew is an interesting language in that it has both a “holy” life and a “secular” life. I put thise words in scare quotes because I think those are often artificial categories – in fact, for a Jew, the interaction of the holy and the ordinary is often the place where Torah comes to life.

Cheshbon has many meanings, but the one you will most often hear on the street in Israel today is “the bill.” I ask for a cheshbon when I am done with my meal. It lists what my party has ordered, the cost of each item, and a total.

Nefesh is another word with sacred and secular meanings. (The ha in front of nefesh means “the.”) In the prayer book, nefesh is usually translated as “soul,” although in the Bible it is often more correctly translated “life” as in:

וַיִּבְרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֔ים אֶת־הַתַּנִּינִ֖ם הַגְּדֹלִ֑ים וְאֵ֣ת כָּל־נֶ֣פֶשׁ הַֽחַיָּ֣ה ׀ הָֽרֹמֶ֡שֶׂת אֲשֶׁר֩ שָׁרְצ֨וּ הַמַּ֜יִם לְמִֽינֵהֶ֗ם וְאֵ֨ת כָּל־ע֤וֹף כָּנָף֙ לְמִינֵ֔הוּ וַיַּ֥רְא אֱלֹהִ֖ים כִּי־טֽוֹב׃

God created the great sea monsters, and all the living creatures of every kind that creep, which the waters brought forth in swarms, and all the winged birds of every kind. And God saw that this was good. – Genesis 1:21

This version translates v’et kol-nefesh hakhayah as “all the living creatures.” It is not usually understood to imply that the swarming things of the deep have souls like human souls, rather, it indicates that they are alive – many of them, for just a brief time.

So perhaps when we talk about the month of Elul as a time for heshbon nefesh, we can expand a bit from the perhaps precious notion of “an accounting of soul” – and ask, “What does my life add up to right now?”

  • In what ways have I made the world better? In what ways have I made it worse?
  • How do I affect the lives of others? Are their lives easier or harder because of my behavior?

The questions themselves take us out of the realm of self. We ask not “who or what has been good for me?” but “for whom or what have I been good?”

Cheshbon hanefesh is not for beating ourselves up. Jewish tradition ascribes to each human being an infinite, unmeasurable worth. There is no such thing as a “worthless” human being in Judaism. This is not about our worth as individuals; it is about the worth of our behavior as individuals. What are we doing with our lives?

Cheshbon hanefesh is the essential prelude to meaningful change. If we approach the process humbly and sincerely, it can provide us with a map for more worthy living.







High Holy Days for Beginners – 5779 / 2018

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.

The High Holy Days are coming!

Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, begins at sundown on September 9, 2018. It will begin the Jewish Year 5779. 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 will begin at sundown on August 10 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.

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 accidentally, 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 God. We atone for sins against other human beings 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. Many non-orthodox synagogues stream services on the Internet.

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.

In October I shall offer an online class, Introduction to the Jewish Experience, through Lehrhaus Judaica. The class meets on Sundays but is also available via recordings. (Full disclosure: I am the instructor.) I will post information about registration as soon as the new catalog is up.

L’Shanah Tovah: I wish you a fruitful beginning to the New Year of 5779!

Sometimes Silence is a Mitzvah

Image:  A woman sits silently, arms folded. (ivanovgood/pixabay)

And Rabbi Ile’a said in the name of Rabbi Elazar, son of Rabbi Shimon: Just as it is a mitzvah for a person to say that which will be heeded, so is it a mitzvah for a person not to say that which will not be heeded. Rabbi Abba says: It is obligatory for him to refrain from speaking, as it is stated: “Do not reprove a scorner lest he hate you; reprove a wise man and he will love you” (Proverbs 9:8). — Yevamot 65b

In the midst of a discussion of the command to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth,” (Genesis 1:28) the Talmud goes on a little side trip. The wording is a bit awkward in this translation (from the excellent website).  I shall rephrase:

Rabbi Ile’a said, according to Rabbi Elazar ben Rabbi Shimon, “It is a mitzvah to rebuke another person when the rebuke will be heeded. It is similarly a mitzvah for a person to refrain from rebuking another when they know their words will not be heeded.” Rabbi Abba agreed: “That one is obliged to refrain from speaking, as Proverbs 9:8 says, ‘Do not reprove a scorner lest he hate you; reprove a wise man and he will love you.'”

This passage reminds me of times when I have engaged in arguments with online trolls – people who enjoy starting quarrels and upsetting people for the fun of it. A fictional example:


COFFEESHOPRABBI: Please don’t use words that stigmatize people with disabilities.

TRUEBELIEVER: Stupid libtard! Stupid libtard! #StupidLibtard!

COFFEESHOPRABBI: I’m not calling you names. Why are you calling me names?


As Maureen points out in the comments, the “Block” function on most online systems is the best option at such times. When I’m thinking clearly, I answer the first line – namecalling – with a block. No conversation, no second chances, just silence.

My time is better spent encouraging voters to get to the polls, or calling my representatives. So is yours.

Rabbi Ile’a was right.

How Can A Regular Person Afford a Jewish Life? 8 Tips

Image: A small purse with a few coins spilled from it. (Croisy/Pixabay)

The end of summer approaches. Many of us can feel the approach of the High Holy Days just over the horizon. For those who are synagogue members, it’s dues-paying time. For those who are not, it’s how-do-I-find-services-I-can-afford time.

Anyone who lives a Jewish life for more than 10 minutes will notice that living Jewishly costs. Keeping Shabbat, for instance, can involve lost income, candles, and food. Keeping kosher can very expensive, since it can involve special food and extra dishes. Keeping Passover – oy gevalt! Have you seen what they charge for matzah? High Holy Day tickets, synagogue membership, bar or bat mitzvah, religous school for the kiddies, Jewish camp for the teens, travel to Israel – it is overwhelming.

Here are some ideas about coping with the cost of a Jewish life:

  1. Synagogue membership: Most synagogues do their best to balance the cost of keeping the doors open with the reality that most Jews aren’t wealthy. First, ask about the dues: how much? If that amount is impossible, consider it the beginning of a conversation. Ask about dues relief, aka financial aid. Different synagogues have various ways of making these decisions, but a good synagogue will have a dignified mechanism for helping you as much as they can. (It should go without saying that if we can give more than the bare-bones dues, we should do so precisely because others need help.)
  2. High Holy Day tickets: There is a large demand for seats in the synagogue for High Holy Days, far beyond the demand any other day of the year. Most synagogues have a limited number of seats, most of which are already occupied by members. Again, it’s worth asking about financial aid. But also, give the federation or other Jewish institutions a call, because it is likely that someone in town is offering services without a charge.
  3. Shabbat: Shabbat can be very simple; the most important ingredient is the sense that the day is different from all the others. Make it a day to connect with the people you love. Everything else follows from that. If you have to work, know that many Jews before you had to work on Shabbat, and worked toward a day when they would be free to take Shabbos off. Read the weekly parashahIf you are reading this article, you have access to the Torah portion through Hebcal or Sefaria. Also, many liberal synagogues stream services online every Shabbat, a boon for those of us who are not able to travel to services sometimes, and usually there is no paid gateway to those streams.
  4. Your Jewish Education: A Jewish educaton isn’t cheap. However, the Internet has brought about an explosion of Jewish learning opportunities for free. 10 Great Jewish Websites will point you to some of them. A word of warning: be picky. There’s a lot of good stuff out there and if what you read doesn’t fit your life, then try another site. My original purpose in starting this blog was to provide short accessible articles on Jewish topics for my Intro to Judaism students. You can use the search box on the left side of the screen to search for any topic.
  5. Your Child’s Jewish Education: It is a mitzvah (commandment) to educate our children. The same strategy for synagogues applies to religious school: have a conversation with the director about what may be available in financial aid. It is a community value to educate all our children. If it’s still out of reach, consider pairing with another Jewish family to celebrate holidays and observe Shabbat.
  6. Kashrut: Again, traditional kashrut (keeping kosher) is expensive. However, fruits and vegetables are naturally kosher unless they’ve been processed. Stay away from processed foods (a good idea anyway) which require big bucks for rabbinic supervision. The more dairy and meat, the more it will cost. But another thought: if at this stage of your life it isn’t possible to keep kosher, then don’t keep kosher yet. The day may come when you can. There are many good Jews who don’t keep kosher yet.
  7. Passover: The price of “kosher for passover” goods is a pet peeve of mine. The prices are outrageous. I recommend avoiding most processed Passover foods because they taste awful and aren’t good for any of us. Springtime is a time to celebrate fruits and vegetables, anyway. The commandment for the seder is to eat matzah, greens, bitter herbs, and to drink 4 cups of wine or grape juice. Some years I buy exactly that: a box of matzah, greens, herbs, and a bottle of grape juice. You don’t have to throw out your chametz (grain products.) Many people seal them up in a box, tape it shut, and open it at the end of the week. It isn’t “perfect observance” but since when do we all have to be perfect?
  8. Gather with Others: Many synagogues began as a small group of Jews who wanted to celebrate Jewish life. Rabbis are required for conversion to Judaism, but services can be led by any knowledgeable Jew. If you don’t have any knowledgable Jews, put together a book group or a reading group. Meet regularly to share what you are learning. Or get a siddur (prayer book) and take turns reading aloud out of it.

I hope you find something you can use in this list. If you have other ideas for making a Jewish life more possible on a limited budget, please share it in the Comments!