It’s Adar! Be Happy!

English: Har Adar, tulip patch
Har Adar, near Jerusalem, tulip patch (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Mishenichnas Adar marbin b’simchah” B.Ta’anit 29a

“When Adar enters, joy increases.”

Today is Rosh Chodesh Adar, the beginning of the month of Adar. Adar is the month of Purim, of good luck, of silly games and pranks. We are commanded to “increase joy” although we are not given any direction about how to go about it.

I have quoted the line above from Ta’anit many times, but I realized I’d never studied it and had no idea about the context. Today I went to take a look:

“Ta’anit” means “fasts.”  This masechet [book] of the Babylonian Talmud is a compilation of discussions about fast days (with, of course, digressions on those discussions.) Fast days are somber occasions: Yom Kippur [The Day of Atonement] and the Ninth of Av [the memorial of the destruction of the Temple] are the best-known fast days. They are not happy occasions. How did this line about Adar wind up in there?

Sure enough, when I looked it up, the rabbis are in the midst of a sobering discussion about the “curtailment of rejoicings” in the month of Av. There’s a heartbreaking story about the young priests going to the roof of the Temple as it was burning, reaching their arms up to throw the Temple keys into the hands of the angels.  Then the young priests, their duty done, fall into the fire. There is a sad quotation from Isaiah about people dying, and God weeping.

Then a new bit of Mishnah is quoted: “WITH THE BEGINNING OF AV REJOICINGS ARE CURTAILED.”

And the Gamara expounds upon it:

Rab Judah the son of R.Samuel b. Shilath said in the name of Rab:

Just as with the beginning of Ab rejoicings are curtailed, so with the beginning of Adar rejoicings are increased. 

R. Papa said: Therefore a Jew who has any litigation with Gentiles should avoid him in Ab because his luck is bad and should make himself available in Adar when his luck is good. 

To give you a future and a hope: 

Rab Judah the son of R. Samuel b. Shilath said in the name of Rab: By this is meant [an abundance of] palm trees and flaxen garments. 

And he said: See, the smell of my son is as the smell of a field which the Lord hath blessed: 

Rab Judah the son of R. Samuel b. Shilath said in the name of Rab: As the smell of an apple orchard.

… and then the text returns to the grave discussion of the “curtailment of rejoicings” of the month of Av.

There are many possible ways to read this, but what I take from it is that the sadnesses of life are simply facts. There is tzuris [trouble] in every life. But just as this discussion of Adar bursts in upon the discussion of tzuris for a moment, so does the month of Adar burst in upon us in the wettest, most bedraggled bit of winter.  Good surprises burst in upon tired routine: sometimes instead of bad luck, we have good luck. Sometimes a new baby is born, and he smells wonderful. The message: if we are truly devout, we will remain open to the possibilities of those moments.

Adar comes with a command to “increase joy.” To do that, we must stay attuned to the possibility of the sacred moment when laughter breaks through tears, sun through clouds, beauty through the gray winter. If we are paying attention, we will be awake for joy. Adar is the month to cultivate that sacred skill in ourselves. For indeed:

Days pass and the years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles.  Lord, fill our eyes with seeing and our minds with knowing; let there be moments when Your Presence, like lightning, illumines the darkness in which we walk.

Help us to see, wherever we gaze, that the bush burns unconsumed. 

And we, clay touched by God, will reach out for holiness, and exclaim in wonder:

How filled with awe is this place, and we did not know it!  Blessed is the Eternal One, the holy God!  [Gates of Prayer]

Happy Adar!  May your joy increase, and may you be awake to it!

May it give you “a future and a hope.”  Amen.

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Synagogue Etiquette for Bar & Bat Mitzvah Guests

English: House of the People is a multi-purpos...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, you’ve been invited to a bar mitzvah. You’ve answered the invitation promptly, you know to dress modestly, and you’ve decided what you are going to do about a gift. All those things were covered in an earlier post, Bar and Bat Mitzvah Etiquette for Beginners.  One kind reader pointed out to me that I hadn’t given enough detail about how to behave during the service, and I’ve decided to add more information. After all, if you are bothering to read this before you attend the service, you care! Thank you for caring about behaving well at a service that is, for a Jewish family, a major life event.

1. YOU ARE A GUEST. One important principle to keep in mind: you are not just a guest of the family at this event. You are the guest of the synagogue at which it occurs. A bar or bat mitzvah at a synagogue at a regular service  will include not only people who attend because it is Suzie Cohen’s bat mitzvah, but regular congregants who attend because it is Shabbat and they want to pray. The party that comes afterwards will be a private affair, but the service itself is for the congregation as well as for the family and their guests.

2. NO ELECTRONICS. It’s rude to play with your cell phone, or to allow it to make any noise at all. Turn it off, or make sure it is absolutely silent. Keep it out of sight. This is particularly important in a synagogue on the Sabbath, a day when Jews refrain from a number of activities in order to experience the holiness of the day. A “ding” (much less a ringtone made from your favorite pop song) will mar the day, no matter how quickly you squelch it.  So turn it off, and put it away. If you are a physician on call, set the thing to the least annoying possible setting and sit on an aisle near a door, so that you can easily move outside to deal with it.

3. NO PHOTOS. For the same reason as the electronics, photography during a Shabbat service is disrespectful. Depending on the family’s observance and the synagogue rules, there may be a videographer or a professional photographer present, but they have been given very strict boundaries for their work; you do not have that information. Don’t assume that because the videographer is there, it’s OK to whip out your iPhone and take a few shots. Do not take photos during the service, and ask before you take any photos before or after the service.

4. NO APPLAUSE. This is a religious service, not a performance. Applause is inappropriate and unwelcome. You can best express your appreciation for Bobby’s Torah chanting skills by sitting quietly and attentively and not dozing off.  The best appreciation you can give: remember some aspect of his drash (speech) to comment on it to him or his parents later.

5. YOUNG CHILDREN & INFANTS. If you have a very young child, it is fine to bring something to keep them quietly occupied. “Quietly” is the operative word: books are fine, but toys that inspire or require noise are not. Electronics are absolutely out (again, see #2 above.) If your child is going to be miserable in the service, you may want to consider getting a sitter for the occasion (if you let the family know ahead of time that you are considering getting a sitter, you may be able to share a sitter with another family in your situation.)  If you bring an infant, everyone understands that babies sometimes fuss. Everyone also expects that in that circumstance, a parent will immediately scoop up the baby and head for the nearest exit. Many synagogues have “crying rooms” that allow parents to see the service while dealing with a fussy infant – if you think you may need such a place, ask one of the ushers where it is when you enter.

For a Jewish family, a bar or bat mitzvah can be as significant a lifecycle event as a wedding. At such a time, we invite the people who are important to us to be with us. By inviting you to join them in their synagogue on their important day, your friends have told you that you are important to them. Thank you for honoring them by taking the trouble to educate yourself about how to behave in the service!

Why Bless?

English: A photo of a cup of coffee. Esperanto...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a regular blogger, I’m interested in seeing the statistics that wordpress supplies about my blog, especially how many people read the blog, and what brings them here. Today I noticed that one person reached the blog by googling: “blessings for people who make coffee.”

Sadly, I doubt they found what they were looking for here (but maybe they found something else useful – I hope so.)  But it set me to thinking: yes, a person who makes coffee for others is a blessing! And perhaps we should bless them.

Blessings in Judaism are curious.  We call them blessings because they begin with the word, “Baruch” (bless).  But the Object of our blessing is always God:  Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of Time&Space, who…[fill in the blank here.]  So a blessing for the person who makes coffee might run like this:

“Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of Time&Space, who gives strength and kindness to the person who makes coffee.”

Baruch Atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haOlam, sheh noteyn ko-ach v’hesed l’mi shehmechin cafeh.

“But!” you are thinking, “Why bless God, when Sally made the coffee?”

One answer to this is that Sally’s making coffee, but God made both Sally and the coffee. We bless God to sanctify the details of our lives – not because they weren’t holy before, but because by blessing, we are noticing the holiness already in them.

Another answer is that we bless God in those circumstances because we see a little bit of the Holy One in Sally, with her strength and kindness to make coffee for others in the morning.

Blessings don’t mean that we think there is an Old Man in the Sky who needs blessing.  Blessings mean that we notice holiness before us in the world, and know that holiness is a treasure worth celebrating.

I say “Shabbat,” You say “Shabbos…” But Let’s Not Call Anything Off!

Yarmulkes or Kippot? (photo: David Berkowitz)
Yarmulkes or Kippot? (photo: David Berkowitz)

Have you ever wondered why so many Hebrew words are pronounced differently, and why so many Jewish things have two names?

One Jew wears a yarmulke, and another a kippah.    [Little hat.]

One keeps Shabbos, another keeps Shabbat.  [Sabbath]

One reads from the TOYrah, another reveres the ToRAH. [Torah]

One prays to AdonOI and the other to AdoNYE. [Adonai, substitute for the Name we don’t speak, sometimes pronounced HaSHEM.]

One goes to synagogue at Bays SHOlom, the other at Bayt ShaLOM. [name of a synagogue, meaning “House of Peace”]

One celebrates the Yuntiff, the other a Yom Tov. [holiday]

What’s a newcomer to do?

  • Get used to it.  Just as there are many answers to most questions, there is more than one way to say many words.
  • Know that most of these come from the two pronunciations of Hebrew.  The first word in each pair above is pronounced according to the Ashkenazi or Yiddish form from Eastern Europe.  (Yarmulke is actually a Yiddish word.) The second word is pronounced according to the Sephardic pronunciation, as Hebrew is pronounced on the street in Israel today. Both are correct.
  • While both are correct, it is a little mishuggeh [Yiddish for crazy] to mix the two (although trust me, you’ll hear it.  “Shabbat Shalom! Will you be in town for the Yuntiff?” is mixed-up but you might hear it at synagogue.  However, it is good manners and somewhat less mishuggeh to pick one language form and stick with it.
  • In general, in the US you will hear the Ashkenazi pronunciation from older Jews.  The Sephardic pronunciation has been on the rise in America since the founding of the State of Israel in 1948.
  • For help with Jewish words new to you, check out the Jewish English Lexicon online.

Jewish culture and language are a rich amalgam of Torah plus three millennia of survival. Enjoy!

 

My Child Wants a Bar or Bat Mitzvah – Now What?

I’m writing this for the unaffiliated or secular Jewish parent whose child has just announced that he or she wants a bar or bat mitzvah. You were not dreaming of this, or planning for it. Perhaps your own bar mitzvah was a bad memory, or never happened at all.  Perhaps no girl in your family has ever had a bat mitzvah. I’m writing this to suggest some things to think about as you ponder your response.

1. BASIC INFO: For a basic article about modern b’nei mitzvah (that’s the plural) check out Bar and Bat Mitzvah 101 from MyJewishLearning.com. That site is generally a good source of info. They are friendly and respectful of all movements of Judaism (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, etc.)

2. WHY DOES YOUR KID WANT TO DO THIS? Your first response to your child might be to ask “Why?” The answer may surprise you. It might be that they want a party and presents, but it might also be that they want to explore their heritage.

“A Party and Presents!” – It’s reasonable, then, to say, “You realize there is a lot of work involved?” Typically, preparation for a bar mitzvah involves at least 2 years of study with a teacher.  Most kids are not willing to take on a two year project with a steep learning curve just for a lark.  If after learning what’s involved, they still want to do it, something more is going on, maybe:

“I want to learn more about Judaism.” or “I’m a Jew, I want to be Bar/Bat Mitzvah!” – Your child is asking you for a grounding in a key aspect of their identity. This is an opportunity, not only for them but also for the rest of the family. Learning is not a commitment to particular kinds of observance; it is simply gaining information so that you can make informed choices about observance. If you have always thought Judaism was bunk, or worse, what’s the harm in actually checking it out? If your experience with it was bad, think about exactly WHAT was bad, and then you can avoid those issues (more about that in a moment.)

3. BUT WHAT IF I AM NOT RAISING MY CHILD AS A JEW? If your child is being raised in another religion than Judaism, then Bar or Bat Mitzvah is not appropriate for them. Talk with your child about why you made the choice to raise them as (fill in the blank here). Share your values and your feelings with them honestly. Own your choices. Parents make many choices for children when they are little: religion, medical choices like vaccination, schools, bedtime, where we will live.

4. HOW DO WE EXPLORE THE POSSIBILITIES, IF WE WANT TO MOVE FORWARD? Your first step should be to call some local synagogues. If your child is ten or younger, most synagogues have regular programs that you can enter.  If your child is older than ten, still call the synagogues and talk to them about your options. If there is no local synagogue, then you need to find a rabbi or Jewish teacher to help you. For help locating a rabbi, read Seven Tips for Finding Your Rabbi. If your own experience with Jewish education was miserable, make an appointment to talk with your rabbi or the educator at the synagogue. Share your worst fears with them. Talk to them about how the two of you can partner to make sure this is a good experience for your child. (Keep in mind, though, that “good experience” is not necessarily “effortless” or “easy.” We value the things for which we make an effort.)

5. ISN’T IT EXPENSIVE? I can’t give you an exact figure. You may need to join a synagogue. Lessons of any kind cost money. However, a Bar Mitzvah party does not have to be a Hollywood blow-out. Again, what you are really buying is a learning opportunity for the whole family to explore your roots. You may be pleasantly surprised with what you discover along the way. If money is truly tight, then you should know that many synagogues provide “dues relief” for those who cannot afford a full membership. Membership in the right synagogue can actually be a wonderful deal. For more about why anyone might want to belong to a synagogue, read Why Join a Synagogue?

6. BUT I DON’T KNOW MUCH ABOUT JUDAISM! HOW WILL I KEEP UP WITH MY CHILD? Many people do the bulk of their Jewish learning as adults. When you are looking for a place for your child to learn, ask about the adult learning opportunities there.  Also, if you join a synagogue, you will meet lots of other families who are following their children on the learning curve.  One of our greatest sages, Rabbi Akiva, did not begin learning until he was an adult.  It’s OK to be an adult beginner! (And for more information on topics for adult beginners, you can click on “Especially for Beginners” to the right on your screen.  Teaching adult beginners is the heart of my own rabbinate.)

7. MY SPOUSE IS NOT JEWISH! WILL PEOPLE BE MEAN TO US? – Many American synagogues of all denominations reach out to interfaith couples and are ready and waiting for your family. Be honest about your concerns when you look for the right place for your child to learn. If you don’t like what you hear, call a different place. Your entire family deserves to be treated with respect when you are educating a Jewish child.

Parenting is one surprise after another. One of the life-enriching aspects of parenthood is that our children will lead us into learning experiences we never expected to have. My own sons have led me to learn about electronics, to improve my Spanish, to learn about mental illness, and to learn what it takes to survive as a working musician. Some of those things were fun. Others were hard.  I hope that if you decide to take your child up on this challenge to engage with Jewish life, that Torah enriches your life and that of your family beyond your wildest dreams.

How to Mourn as a Jew

Image: A Jewish cemetery with stones left on the markers.

Mourning is a time like no other.  Someone with whom we had a close connection has died, and our world is out of balance. We have spent years depending on that person, or supporting that person, and interacting with that person and suddenly they are … GONE. On top of that, there is much to do:  arrangements must be made, legal requirements fulfilled, and all while we are stunned by the news.

For American Jews, it is particularly confusing because as with many things, we are pulled in two directions.  American secular culture largely avoids mourning, and encourages us to be self-sufficient individuals, bravely getting on with life with as little disruption as possible. The dominant Christian religious culture teaches that loved ones have gone “to a better place.”

Jewish tradition takes a different path. It structures mourning as a staged process undertaken by those who are closely related to the deceased:  children, siblings, parent or spouse.  This definition of “mourner” can be updated to reflect the needs of all kinds of families, but the principle behind it is that we recognize some relationships as especially close. If you have lost someone whose absence will significantly alter your life, then consult with your rabbi for help in following the Jewish mourning process.

1. ANINUT is the time from the death itself until the burial is completed.  This is a time of concern for the body of the person who has died. Because it is so important in Judaism to treat the body with respect, the mourners have no responsibilities other than to make the funeral arrangements. They are relieved from other ritual requirements, and all social niceties. They are also assumed to be in deep shock and mourning, and friends should be available to assist if need be but should not intrude. Persons in aninut do not go to work, and are not responsible for other commitments.  They may tear an article of clothing and then wear it during shivah, or pin a torn ribbon to their clothing, to express their feelings of loss.

2. SHIVAH begins at the moment the body is safely laid to rest, and continues for a period after that, usually a week. (For calculations for the exact length of shivah when holidays are near, consult a rabbi.) Mourners in shivah remain at home, and friends help them with the necessities of life.  Friends visit to offer comfort.  (For more about the mitzvah of a shivah visit and what to say to a person in shiva, see Five Tips for Shivah.)

If you are the mourner, it is OK to ask for what you need, even if what you need is silence.  When you are sitting shivah, you are not entertaining. People may come to the house, but you do not have to look nice or have a neat house. It is OK for other people to do your dishes and to bring food to you.

Often American skimp on shivah, saying that they need to get back to work, or they don’t want to be any trouble.  If you possibly can, let shivah do its work. It can be boring and uncomfortable, but its purpose is to allow you time and space to mourn. You have suffered a loss.  It is OK to take time to acknowledge that loss.

3. SHELOSHIM is the 30 days after burial, including the seven days of shivah. At the close of shivah, mourners leave the house again.  Gradually, mourners will return to the routines of life.

4. MOURNING A PARENT goes on even longer, for eleven months or a full year, depending on local custom. One says Kaddish for the parent.

5. UNVEILING the tombstone (matzevah) is a ritual that became common in the 19th century, when close family gathers at the grave to unveil the marker and read Psalms and Kaddish. Timing of the unveiling depends on local custom: in some communities it is done at one year, in others at the end of sheloshim, and in others, at any convenient time at least a week after burial. It is traditional to visit the graves of loved ones, and to leave a stone on the tombstone as a sign that someone has visited.

6. YAHRZEIT is the observance of the anniversary of the person’s death.  (The first yahrzeit is observed at the anniversary of the burial; after that, it’s the anniversary of death.)  Mourners say Kaddish for the person and it is the custom in some places to burn a yahrzeit candle. It is an opportunity to remember the person, and if the feelings are still there, to grieve in the arms of one’s community. Many people visit the grave on the yahrzeit, and it is customary to leave a stone on the marker.

7. YIZKOR is a memorial service attached to the major Jewish holidays. It means “May [God] remember” but really, it is an opportunity for us to remember, and to have an opportunity to feel the feelings that may come up with memory. Yizkor takes place as part of services on Yom Kippur, on Shmini Atzeret, on the last day of Passover, and on Shavuot.

It takes time and effort to rebuild our lives after a significant loss. Jewish tradition allows us the time and space to fully mourn, then put away mourning for a return to life, all the while honoring the memory of the deceased.  Remember that if you have to deal with people who want you to “get over it” and get back to work or social obligations, Jewish mourning is a religious obligation as well as a psychologically healthy approach to dealing with loss.

If you are a mourner, may you be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

Tu B’Shevat for Beginners

Tu B'Shevat Tree Planting
Tu B’Shevat Tree Planting (Photo credit: Hillels of Georgia)

In a few days we will celebrate Tu B’Shevat (in 2013, it begins the evening of January 25).  Here are the basics:

1. THE NAME.  “Tu B’Shevat” means “15th of Shevat.” Tu is a way of pronouncing the letters that make up the number 15 in Hebrew. (For more about Hebrew numbers, check out this article in Wikipedia.) Shevat is the month in the Jewish calendar that includes the deep winter in Israel, generally January and a bit of February.

2. ORIGINAL MEANING. Tu B’Shevat is often referred to as the “New Year for Trees.” But didn’t we already celebrate a New Year at Rosh HaShanah?  This is the beginning of a fiscal year for agricultural accounting in the Land of Israel. Originally, it was a calendar date at which farmers began counting the year for trees, so that they’d know when trees were old enough to reap the fruit according to Jewish Law (Leviticus 19:23-25), and the point from which tithes could be calculated.  At this time of year, the trees are either dormant or just beginning to blossom.

3. MYSTICAL MEANINGS. After the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, some traveled east to the land of Israel. Most settled in and around the town of Safed, in the northern Galilee, which became a center for Jewish mysticism (kabbalah.)  These mystics began to mark the holiday with a seder (ritual meal eaten in a particular order) somewhat like the Passover seder. At a Tu B’Shevat seder, four cups of wine are drunk and seven different kinds of fruit.  The seder was a celebration of rededication to the Land of Israel and an appreciation of its trees.

4. ZIONIST MEANINGS. With the return to the Land of Israel in the 19th and 20th centuries, Jews revived the observance of Tu B’Shevat as a rededication to the land and a celebration of the relationship between Jews and this particular plot of earth. Many Jews worldwide observed the custom of planting trees in Israel, to replace trees that had been stripped from the land during the Ottoman period.

5. JEWISH EARTH DAY.  In the late 20th century, as concern for the environment has grown, Tu B’Shevat has taken on more meaning as a day for Jews to express their concern for ecological issues.  The Tu B’Shevat seder has been revived as not only a celebration of the Land of Israel and its trees, but as a celebration of the holiness of the earth and its creatures.