Shivah Minyan

Image: Mishkan Tefilah for a House of Mourning, CCAR Press.

There are days when I bless my lucky stars that I get to be a rabbi.

I spent the early evening tonight with a grieving family. They had come together to mourn the loss of a man in his fifties, dead of cancer. He was a gifted musician and human being, and everyone who knew him misses him terribly.

These days, many Reform families opt out of shivah or shorten it to one or two days. They give many reasons. I suspect that for many of them, the idea of a whole week of official mourning is a frightening prospect at a time when they are already disoriented and upset, and I can understand that. It’s a shame, though, because shivah can be wonderfully healing.

This family has chosen to embrace the process of mourning. They’ve opted for a real week of shivah: for seven days his widow is staying home, surrounded by family and friends. I am a rabbi temporarily serving at their synagogue, and I have been invited in to lead the evening prayers most nights.

Last Thursday evening after the funeral the entire group was in shock. They were in that deep place of mourning where there is no consolation, only grief. I steered them through the service, hearing voices in the group check in and out as they were able. This was clearly a family that had just suffered an unthinkable loss. When we reached the point in the service where I offer the option of sharing stories or sitting in silence, they opted for silence. We sat quietly for a good five minutes. Afterwards, someone mentioned that it was good to be quiet together; they were all exhausted.

Tonight the mood had shifted. The family was relaxed but no longer exhausted. They are beginning to absorb the loss. The dog greeted me, snuffling, and a few people chuckled at his obvious pleasure at the “messages” from my dogs.

Tonight we sat in a circle. I began the service with “Hinei ma tov,” a song about how good it is to be together. We used some of the alternate prayers in Mishkan Tefilah for a House of Mourning. Since we began shiva last Thursday they’d been looking through the book a bit and several had requests for readings that they liked. There were song requests, too, and we sang “Oseh Shalom” twice because someone remembered a favorite melody. I let the service take the shape they needed, then we finished traditionally, with Psalm 23, El Male Rachamim, and Kaddish.

I said my goodbyes and slipped out. As I left, family and friends gathered in the kitchen, getting plates of food. Life is returning to this house, slowly but surely.

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Jewish Bible Study, Part Two: Why Learners Need Community

A Jewish group studying text together
A Jewish group studying text together

In Part One of this series of posts, I talked about the traditional schedules upon which Jews read from the Bible.

If you are interested in reading the Bible as a Jew, then you need to find Jews with whom to study. Those Jews might be a real live study group, such as you can find in any synagogue, or they might be Jews in books, any of the many writers of commentaries on the Bible. We read the books of the Bible together in a Jewish framework. (Christians read in a Christian framework, atheists in an atheist framework, and so on.)

Sometimes I hear people say, “I don’t want interpretation. I just want to know what it says.” My point is that who you are is going to be a factor in “what it says” to you.  To pick a very famous example, Isaiah 7:14:

לָכֵן יִתֵּן אֲדֹנָי הוּא, לָכֶם–אוֹת:  הִנֵּה הָעַלְמָה, הָרָה וְיֹלֶדֶת בֵּן, וְקָרָאת שְׁמוֹ, עִמָּנוּ אֵל.

First, a Jewish translation:  “Therefore the Lord Himself shall give you a sign: behold, the young woman shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”

Then, from the King James Christian translation: “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”

The obvious difference is that they translate the word almah differently, Jews as “young woman” and Christians as “virgin.” But there is a subtler difference, too, which colors the choice of words for translation. Jews understand the Prophets, like Isaiah, to be called to speak for God to the Jews about events at the time of the prophet, who also warns about consequences in the near future. A Jew would say that this line refers to a time when Isaiah the prophet was talking to Ahaz the king of Judah. It foretells the birth of Hezekiah, Ahaz’s heir, who will throw off the Assyrians who are oppressing the Jews under King Ahaz. Many of the things about which the prophets warned the ancient Jews are still very much with us: injustice, inequity, the plight of the poor, hypocrisy, and so on. So even though the events they refer to are long ago, the words of the prophets stay fresh as this morning’s newsfeed.

The Christian reading is quite different. Traditionally, Christians read the Jewish prophets as foretelling the life of Jesus, centuries later. They translated almah as “a virgin” because of a side-trip in translation.  In Matthew 1: 18-25 the origins of Jesus are thus:

18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus,for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: 23 “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). 24 When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, 25 but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.”

“Virgin” in the Greek New Testament is parthenos.  The quotation is from Isaiah, filtered through the translation used by many Hellenized Jews and early Christians.  Almah (young woman in Hebrew) became parthenos (virgin in Greek, as in the title Athena Parthenos.) So a “young woman shall conceive” – nothing remarkable, really – became “a virgin shall conceive” – something entirely different.*

One line, two completely different readings of it! The two readings aren’t about the same person (Hezekiah or Jesus?) and the understanding of “prophecy” is completely different. Each tradition has its own point of view on the “correct” reading. This is only one example, one of the simplest to explain in a short article.

If you want to read the Bible as a Jew, find yourself a Jewish teacher or some Jews to learn with.

If you want to read the Bible as a Christian, the same logic follows: find yourself a Christian teacher or study partners.

Reading alone is a good preparation, but to participate in a tradition, you need to take the second step and learn with others.

* My thanks to @DovBear, who reminded me of the Septuagint connection. An earlier form of this article was in error.

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.

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