Jewish Bible Study, for Beginners: Part One

 

Image: Open Torah scroll. Photo by Susan Krauss, all rights reserved.

“I keep trying to read the Bible, but I get bogged down…”

If you are trying to read the Bible cover to cover and it’s just too much, or not much fun, stop now!

The Jewish Bible is an anthology – a library, really – of books in the canon, the official list of scriptures recognized by the Jewish People. We don’t read it “cover to cover” – we read some parts of it daily, some weekly, some once a year, and a few parts, rarely. If you want to get to know your Bible better, there are a number of common approaches. These readings are done publicly in synagogue but you can also read them yourself at home or with a study group:

WEEKLY PORTION – Every week throughout the year Jews read a section of the Torah according to the calendar. We call that the parashah or portion. To find out about this week’s portion, go to http://hebcal.com. A the top of the page, there will be the words “Parashat —–” with a link. Click on the link. That link will give you the portion for the week, and if you click on the page it takes you to, you can read the portion, or even hear it chanted in Hebrew. Over the course of a year, the weekly portions will take you through the entire Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.)

HAFTARAH – The Haftarah is the reading from the Prophets for every week. You can find it on hebcal.com also. Unlike the Torah, where we read it all and we read it in order, the Haftarah readings skip around in the books. Usually those readings are related to the Torah reading for the week, although sometimes it is quite a puzzle to find the connection.

MEGILLOT – The five megillot, or five scrolls, are shorter books of the Bible read on particular holidays during the year. We read Ecclesiastes during Sukkot, Esther on Purim, Song of Songs on Passover, Ruth on Shavuot, and Lamentations on Tisha B’Av. You can find the dates for all these holidays in the current year at hebcal.com.

Other parts of the Bible are embedded in our worship. The daily prayer cycle includes many readings from the Psalms, particularly. Psalms is also good for personal reading because it comes in relatively short chapters, each expressing an individual or communal set of emotions and needs.

Some books, like Job, Esther and Ruth, are short novels. Parts of some other books are very readable as units, also: the Joseph story from chapters 37 to 50 in Genesis is a good example, as are the stories in the book of Judges. Other books are tougher going: the long detailed instructions for sacrifices in Leviticus are not everyone’s cup of tea.

Reading, however, is only the beginning! Tomorrow I’ll write about the ways Jews approach these books to get the most out of them.

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Which Bible is Best, Rabbi?

Bibles
Bibles (Photo credit: Mr. Ducke)

“Which Bible is best, Rabbi?” That’s usually how the question is phrased. Rather than talk about which is “best,” let me give you a quick lesson on which Bible is which, and you can decide for yourself.

The JEWISH BIBLE is different from the Christian Bible. The obvious difference is that there is no New Testament. Then if you compare tables of contents, you will also see that the two are arranged differently and that many Christian Bibles have more books, even after you take away the NT. Those books were included in an early translation of the Jewish Bible, but were not included when the Jewish Bible was finally set at 24 books in roughly the 2nd century of the common era.

For Jewish study and prayer, I strongly recommend a Jewish Bible.  It will be easier to use with the group, if only because the books will be in the same order and have the same names. The Jewish Bible is often called the TANAKH. That is an acronym of the words Torah [Teaching], Nevi’im [Prophets] and Ketuvim [Writings], the three divisions of the Bible.

Unless you read Hebrew, you will read the Bible in TRANSLATION.  The Jewish Bible is written in Hebrew, with a few short passages in Aramaic. No translation is perfect; every translation reflects choices by the translator.  If you want a really good idea of what the text says, you will have to learn Hebrew. Next best thing is to check a couple of different translations when you are wondering about translation.  Here are some of the most common ones:

New Jewish Publication Society Version (NJPS or NJV) – This is the translation you will encounter in most liberal (Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist) synagogues. It was begun in 1955 and completed in 1984.

Old Jewish Publication Society Version (1917). Similar to the NJPS, but the English of the translation is evocative of the King James Bible. It is available online.

The Living Torah (1981). A user-friendly but still scholarly translation by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, an American Orthodox Rabbi. It is noted for its detailed index, footnotes, and cross-references.

Koren Jerusalem Bible – This is the first Israeli translation of the Bible into English. (It should not be confused with the Catholic Jerusalem Bible, which is a completely different thing.) The Koren Bible is distinctive in that proper nouns, names and places are transliterated and not Anglicized.

Art Scroll Tanach – Mesorah Publishing issued the Art Scroll Tanach in 1993. The English translation is amended with explanations from Rashi and other commentators. It is a less literal but more traditional interpretation of the text.

There are also some notable modern translations of Torah (1st five books of the Bible)  and a few more books:

Everett Fox – This is possibly the most literal translation of the words in the Torah. To stay close to the Hebrew, Fox sometimes mangles the English. It can be a useful aid but I would not want this to be the only copy of the Torah in my possession.

Robert Alter – Alter’s translation, like Fox’s, hews close to the Hebrew, but with a more poetic ear.

Richard Elliot Friedman – published his translation of the Torah in the volume Commentary on the Torah, 2001.

If I had to answer the question above with a single title, I would say, “the Hebrew Bible.” (Then we could argue about which manuscripts, but I know that’s not what you mean.) If you are looking for a good Jewish translation of the Bible, each of the titles above have its advantages and disadvantages.  My advice is, get yourself a Bible, whichever one appeals to you, and then do your best to wear it out. The best Bible is the one you actually read.

Synagogue Hebrew 103

Birthday cake written "Mazal Tov" in...
Birthday cake written “Mazal Tov” in Hebrew on it (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For other quick and easy Hebrew lessons in this series, check out Jewish Greetings 101 and Synagogue Hebrew 102.

B’vakeshah – [beh-VAH-keh-SHAH] Please, also “you’re welcome.”

Todah – [toh-DAH] Thank you.

Todah rabbah – [toh-DAH rah-BAH] – Thank you very much.

B’seder – [beh-SAY-der] OK, in order.

B’vakeshah – [beh-VAH-keh-SHAH] Please, also “you’re welcome.”

Todah – [toh-DAH] Thank you.

Todah rabbah – [toh-DAH rah-BAH] – Thank you very much.

B’seder – [beh-SAY-der] OK, in order.

B’hatzlacha – [beh-HATZ-lah-CHA] Good luck! (Remember “ch” is a gutteral, somewhat like the German “ch” in Bach. If you can’t make that sound just go with a spitty “H” sound.)

Slichah – [slee-CHA] Sorry! or Excuse me!

Yom huledet sameach – [Yohm hu-LEH-det sah-MAY-ach] Happy Birthday

B’teavon – [Buh-TAY-ah-VOHN] Bon appetit!

Ta’im! – [Tah-EEM] Tasty! Delicious!

L’hitraot – [Leh-HEE- tra- OHT] Goodbye!

Traditional Jewish Weddings 101

A traditional illustrated ketubah (Jewish marr...
A traditional illustrated ketubah (Jewish marriage contract). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Invited to a Jewish wedding? Not sure what to expect? Here are some Jewish wedding traditions you may encounter.

HEBREW IN THE INVITATION – One wedding custom is to have everything on the invitation in both Hebrew and in English. Don’t worry, the translation is right there in front of you. No one will expect you to speak Hebrew at the wedding, except perhaps for Mazal Tov [Congratulations].

WHAT SHOULD I WEAR? – The invitation will probably tell you what you need to know (“formal,” “black-tie,” etc.) If the wedding is Orthodox, there may be expectations about modesty for women (no miniskirts, décolletage, etc.) If you have any questions about what to wear, call well ahead of time to ask.

WHAT CUSTOMS ARE DIFFERENT FROM A CHRISTIAN WEDDING? There are a number of distinct Jewish wedding customs. You may see some or all of these:

  • KETUBAH – A wedding contract, signed before the wedding begins or as it starts.
  • BEDECKENBedecken, “veiling” is a formal visit to the bride by the groom and his party just before the wedding (she and her attendants are in a separate room) and the groom sees her before she is veiled. This goes back to a Biblical story in which Jacob married the wrong woman when his fiance’s family deceived him.
  • CHUPPAH – The chuppah is a wedding canopy that symbolizes the new household that comes into being with this wedding. The bride and groom and their parents stand beneath it.
  • CIRCLING – The bride may walk seven circles around the groom during the ceremony, or in an egalitarian service, the couple may circle one another. Their lives will revolve around each other from now on.
  • PLAIN RING – For Jewish law, only one ring is required, given by the groom to the bride. It is a plain ring made of precious metal. The origin of this custom is that the groom is giving the bride an object of verifiable value as part of the wedding contract. Some couples use a plain ring that is in the groom’s family for this purpose, but the ring that the bride will wear after the ceremony is a ring with stones.
  • HEBREW VOW – The vow is usually in Hebrew, with the giving of the ring(s). The translation of the vow is “Behold, you are consecrated to me with this ring, according to the law of Moses and Israel.”
  • SHEVA BRACHOT – “Seven blessings” – These blessings are sung in Hebrew for the bride and groom. They celebrate not only this wedding, but the addition of a new household to the Jewish People.
  • BREAKING THE GLASS – The rabbi wraps a glass in cloth; the groom crushes it with his foot and everyone cries “Mazal tov!” There are many different stories about this custom.
  • DANCE THE HORA – At the reception, you may be invited to dance the hora – it’s a big circle dance, and if you “go with the flow” you won’t get in much trouble.

HOW CAN I BE A GOOD GUEST? Mostly, do the same things you’d do at any wedding: be happy for the couple, be pleasant to other guests, don’t drink too much, and so on. When in doubt, copy other guests who are near your age and gender.

 

The descriptions above deal with a traditional Jewish wedding between a bride and a groom. I’ll write about same-sex ceremonies and egalitarian practices in future posts.

A Jewish wedding is a time of great rejoicing, not only for the bride and groom, but for their families and for the greater Jewish community. Have a great time at the wedding!

More About Hebrew Names: What if I Have One Jewish Parent?

A while back I wrote A Beginner’s Guide to Hebrew Names. A thoughtful reader of this blog commented over on twitter that I neglected to talk about the Hebrew name of children of interfaith marriages. Excellent question!

If you haven’t read the earlier piece, it explains that Hebrew names include a given name and the names of the people through whom one has a claim to Judaism. So for children of two Jewish parents, their name follows the pattern Firstname  ben/bat  JewishFather’sName v’ JewishMother’sName. For a convert to Judaism, their name is Firstname-of-their-choosing ben/bat Avraham v’Sarah. (If that doesn’t make sense, you might want to click on the link and take a look at the other article before reading further.)

I did an informal survey of Reform rabbis about this very question a few months ago.

Out of eight rabbis who replied, three said they included the name of the Gentile parent, transliterated to Hebrew.  So Ruthie, whose parents are David (a Jew) and Susan (a Catholic) would have the Hebrew name Rut bat Da-veed v’Su-san.  Or Joe, son of Steve (Hebrew name Shlomo) and Jane (a Methodist) would have the name Yosef ben Shlomo v’Jane.

The other five rabbis said, no, they only use the name of the Jewish parent, so the children above would be Rut bat Da-veed and Yosef ben Shlomo. Almost all rabbis mentioned that they would be very careful to mention both parents’ names in English at an event like a bar mitzvah or naming. This is a more traditional answer.

It’s a delicate subject, because names and family relationships are close to the heart. The latter approach is more in line with strict Jewish legal terms, but given that we are commanded to “Honor father and mother,” naming the non-Jewish parent also has its logic.

What do I think? I think that as a general rule, the traditional answer makes sense. I love my parents, but I did not receive the Torah from them; I receive it through the merit of Abraham and Sarah. My biological parents are not in my Hebrew name because it is my “ID” when I am called to the Torah, and it has to do with my credentials as a Jew, without any rejection or disrespect to them. However, in a case where the non-Jewish parent has been instrumental in raising a child as a Jew, I can see the logic of including their name. As with many things in Jewish life, there is a theoretical answer, but in real life I would make the call on a case by case basis.

Again, if that was gibberish, take a look at A Beginner’s Guide to Hebrew Names. I invite your comments!

— HaRav Root bat Avraham v’Sarah

Why Pray for Healing?

Photograph,early 1900's,by one of the American...
Photograph,early 1900’s,by one of the American Colony Photographers,of the Kotel in Jerusalem. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At the beginning of Numbers chapter 12 we have a famous story. Aaron and Miriam gossip about Moses. God calls all three – Moses, Aaron and Miriam – to the Tent of Meeting and makes it clear that Aaron and Miriam are out of line.  When the Presence of God departs, they see that Miriam is covered with scales. She has been stricken with tzara’at disease: her skin has turned white and is flaking everywhere. As such she must be banished to live outside the camp until the disease clears, if it clears.

Aaron is overcome with guilt and speaks to Moses as if his brother were God himself: “Master, please do not hold this sin against us: we were foolish, and we sinned. Let her not be left like this!” Moses turns to God, and voices a simple prayer, El na rafah na la – “Please, God, please heal her.”  God answers that she will have the tzara’at for seven days and may then return to camp.

Often when we tell this story we focus on the part where Moses prays and God responds to the prayer.  Many of us pray this same prayer for our loved ones who are sick. Indeed, it is part of Jewish tradition to pray for the sick.

However, the story as written is not a story about miraculous cures. Aaron, who has seen Moses “work miracles” many times, turns to Moses for magic:  “Please, Master, let her not be left like this!” Moses does not stop to argue with Aaron about magic or miracles. He turns away from Aaron, to God, and prays for his sister, “Please, God, please heal her.”

God’s answer is not the answer either brother wants. Miriam will not be healed immediately; her illness will run its course.  What God gives them is some relief from uncertainty: eventually she will be able to return to the camp.

When we pray for healing for our loved ones, we may feel like Aaron, panicked and wishing for a magic cure.  Or we may be like Moses, hoping for God to work a miracle. Usually, though, as with Moses, our prayers are not answered with miracles. Disease runs its normal course and chronic illness is chronic. The refuah shleimah (“complete healing”) we pray for is perhaps more properly translated “a restoration to wholeness.” Prayers for the sick are not magic. What they can do is turn our hearts to the sick people in our community so that they are not stuck indefinitely “outside the camp,” isolated and ill.  Sometimes a refuah shleimah means a cure, and sometimes it means something more subtle but no less miraculous: an arrival at a place of peace with circumstance and life.

May all those who are suffering in body or spirit find a true healing, a state of wholeness, and may we all reach out to them with love and shalom.

If God is Not a Vending Machine, Why Pray?

English: This vending machine was made by Nati...

“Keep us in your prayers.”

Oklahoma Lieutenant Governor Todd Lamb said these words last night to TV anchor Rachel Maddow, when she asked what concerned viewers could do for the victims of the tornadoes that ripped through Moore, OK yesterday. According to his official biography, Mr. Lamb attends a Baptist church. I don’t know anything about Ms. Maddow’s religious affiliations. And yet I know in my gut what Mr. Lamb was saying to Ms. Maddow, and her serious nod in reply made sense, because we’re all Americans and we say these things when things are so bad that there isn’t a whole lot anyone can do.

What is it we are asking for, when we ask for prayers? My guess, from Mr. Lamb’s affiliation, is that he hopes that viewers will direct words or thoughts to God that will influence or inform God’s choices over the next hours and days. I do not want to make light of Mr. Lamb’s faith, any more than I’d want him to make light of mine. My faith works differently, however. (I feel odd calling it “faith,” but again, we’re Americans and that’s the lingo.)

When I tell people that I will keep them in my prayers, I am absolutely serious about that statement. I call their names to mind or may even mention their names aloud when I say my daily prayers. However, I do not expect the prayers to influence God. For starters, the one thing I know for sure about God is that I know bubkes [nothing] about God. God is beyond my little brain. I take my directions for my behavior from Torah, which suggests that even if my brain is too limited for God, it is good to pray daily, and it is good to use that time to pray for things that concern me.

So why pray, if I think that God is beyond my imagination? I pray because I am a limited being. I pray words that have been said for generations, that have shaped the thoughts and attitudes of Jews through the centuries. When I pray for people, I grow my compassion for them. I meditate on their sorrows, and my heart grows bigger. Will my prayers affect the fate of people in Oklahoma? I don’t know for sure. What I am sure of is that it is good for me to have compassion for them, it is good for me to think of them as part of my circle of concern. It will be good for me, should I ever be so unfortunate as to be in a disaster, to know that other people far away care about me. But it will also be good for me to have learned, from prayer, that I am not the only person in the world with troubles.

God is not a vending machine. I cannot put a prayer in and get what I want. God is not even a bad vending machine, that takes my prayer and gives me what it wants. God is beyond me. But in praying for those in trouble, I strengthen the bonds of humanity. When I pray, I remind myself that I am not God.

When I pray, I remind myself that I am my brother’s keeper, no matter how different our politics, no matter how different our ideas about things like “God.”