Beginner’s Guide to the High Holy Days

Shofar (by Alphonse Lévy) Caption says: "...
Shofar (by Alphonse Lévy) Caption says: “To a good year” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is another in a series of posts to make Jewish life a little more accessible. Click on “Especially for Beginners” in the menu on the right side of your screen to find more articles about the basics of Jewish living.

Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, begins at sundown on September 16, 2012. Here are the basic facts to know about the holiday season:

1. HAPPY NEW YEAR. Rosh HaShanah is the Jewish New Year. Observant Jews will go to synagogue that day, and are required to 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!”]

2. 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.

3. SIN AND 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 inadvertently, 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.”]

4. 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. Work is forbidden. 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 other human beings if we have gone through the process of teshuvah (taking responsibility, apologizing, and taking steps to prevent future problems.)

5. ATTENDING SYNAGOGUE. Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are the days of the year when the greatest number of Jews attend synagogue. However, they are not good days to attend synagogue for the first time: the services are longer than usual and much more solemn. For a first visit to a synagogue, a regular Shabbat service on Friday night or Saturday is much more typical of Jewish practice and belief.

6. TICKETS FOR PRAYER? 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 visitors (members pay their share via membership dues.) Note that while High Holy Day tickets are rarely discounted, 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 make a referral, and there are synagogues who offer free High Holy Day services as a form of outreach.  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.

7. GETTING THE MOST OUT OF IT. 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 things in synagogue start immediately after the holidays.

L’Shanah Tovah: I wish you a fruitful beginning to the New Year of 5773!

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A Reform Tisha B’Av

The destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem.

Tisha B’Av (ti-SHA beh-AHV) is a commemoration of disasters that the Jewish people have experienced over the centuries, starting with the destruction of the first Temple (586 BCE) and the destruction of the second Temple (70 CE). But if we recall these two destructions purely as “look what terrible things have happened to us” we have missed the point.

The point, as underlined by the readings from the Prophets over the past three weeks, is that the Temples were not destroyed by random chance or the whim of a jealous God. They fell because the Jews of their time lost track of Torah. The rabbis of the Talmud tell us that the first Temple fell because of idolatry, sexual immorality, and bloodshed. They believed the second Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinom, baseless hatred among Jews.

Now you may say, “Oh, I don’t think that God causes wars or punishes people by destroying cities,” and I would agree with you.  People make wars, and people destroy cities. And it is in the way that we Jews conducted ourselves before the fall of each Temple that the seeds of destruction were sown.

The first destruction was in 586 BCE (before the common era, similar to the Christian B.C.), and the only records we have of it are the records in the books of the Bible. What we know is that for a long time before the destruction, the prophets were warning the people of Judea that the way they were living would end in disaster. They were worshiping foreign gods, distracting themselves with sexual immorality and engaging in bloodshed. The leaders put their faith in foreign alliances, and their economic policies favored the already wealthy over the poor, especially anyone poor who was not likely to ever be rich (widows and orphans.) If you don’t believe me, read the first chapter of the book of Isaiah. History has shown again and again that bad alliances, fraud, economic injustice, and lawlessness are a recipe for disaster.

We know more about the second round of destruction, in 70 CE (corresponds to the Christian A.D.).  In that time, Jews divided into political and religious parties that hated and scorned one another. They could not work together on anything; they could barely occupy the same country. While they squabbled and called each other names, they started a war with Rome, and Rome destroyed the Temple. If you read the history of the time in the record by Josephus, it’s pretty clear that we  brought the rage of the Romans upon ourselves, and we did it mostly by mistreating one another.

The rabbis who survived described the attitude of the time as sinat chinom, baseless hatred, and they established a season of mourning to remind their descendants that all these activities (idolatry, immorality, murder, economic injustice, and baseless hatred) had been the road to ruin. So for three weeks every year, we read warnings from the prophets, and we finish by observing Tisha B’Av.

Now, I’m a Reform rabbi. I am not looking for the Temple to be rebuilt. I do not want to see sacrifices on the Temple Mount, ever again. But I do observe Tisha B’Av. I observe it by taking the day to ask myself some questions — and to take action on the answers:

1. Do I engage in acts of sinat chinom? That is, do I take part in conversations that speak hatefully about other people? I can (and often do) disagree with other people, but am I willing to listen to them and to have a civil conversation with them?  Or do I let myself off the hook by saying that they won’t be civil to me, so I can be as nasty as my yetzer harah (my evil inclination) wants to be?

2. Do I profit from bloodshed? From economic injustice? Do I profit in some way from hatred? (These are big questions, far bigger than a blog post. Explore at will.)

Isaiah warns that no prayers, no observances, no fasts, no pious activities will suffice. The only way to make things right is to  “Learn to do right. Seek justice. Defend the oppressed.”

Today, I will engage in a fast of the heart: What needs to change? How fast can I change it?

Nothing else matters.

——

An earlier version of this blog listed the date of the destruction as “386 BCE.” My thanks to the alert reader who caught  my typing error! I try to catch all of those before I publish, but things sometimes slip through. Thank you for telling me!

Asher Yatzar: The Prayer for the Body

This is me. Standing is not my best thing.
This is me. Standing is not my best thing.

So far, this has been a month for studying the Torah of the body. I have twice had accidents that hurt my back, and I am just now progressing to crackers and water after a bout of a mysterious virus.

I have been sustained over this time by a prayer that I have come to love. It’s the blessing Asher Yatzar that observant Jews say every morning, either as part of private morning prayers or as part of the morning service:

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, who formed the human body with wisdom and placed within it a miraculous combination of openings and organs. It is evident and known before Your honored throne, that if only one of them should be opened or blocked at the wrong time, it would be impossible to exist and stand before You. Blessed are You, Eternal One, the healer of all flesh and worker of wonders.

After a fortnight when standing is sometimes excruciatingly painful, and my “openings and organs” have been in an uproar, this prayer reminds me that I am not alone. I am one among a whole tribe of human beings made of flesh and blood, and sometimes our fragile, complex bodies are overcome by misfortune or tiny viruses.

I used to have a lot of trouble with this prayer. When we said it every morning in rabbinical school, I would sometimes get angry, because my body is often rather frustrating. I’ve had a very full life, and part of that fullness has included some adventures that left me with old injuries that never healed quite right. I was not always able to “stand before” God, in the words of the prayer. I was so frustrated that I wrote a new version that I felt I could say with a whole heart:

Thank God it all works!

No.

Thank God enough works.
For all our science, and all our technology,
These bodies You have made in Your wisdom are wrapped in mystery:
Rooms within rooms, openings and closings,
All work so wonderfully
That we only notice when they don’t.
We are able to stand or sit before You, our Creator,
Because enough works today.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God,
Ruler of Time and Space,
Who heals our flesh and continues doing wonders.

Age, illness, and injuries take their toll: bodies are fragile and complicated, and things don’t work sometimes. This takes a toll on the spirit, whether the illness is minor and miserable or major and life-changing. This is part of the human condition. Paradoxically, that is also where the spiritual element enters: it is the human condition. We are finite and fragile. This is what we are.

Nowadays I say the prayer sometimes in the traditional language, and sometimes in my rewritten form. It reminds me that my problems are not unique.  It reminds me that even a creaky, cranky fifty-something body is quite a miracle.

In the meantime, around us, the world continues to be full of wonders: the wonder of a friend calling on us, a spouse fixing the pillow, the beauty of sunshine. The world goes on: I hope to rejoin it soon.

Is there a prayer that doesn’t work for you? Have you ever rewritten a prayer to fit your need?

God or Godzilla?

English: 1954 Japanese movie poster for 1954 J...
English: 1954 Japanese movie poster for 1954 Japanese film Godzilla. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A friend recently reported on facebook that her phone autocorrects “God” to “Godzilla.”

A lot of people come to my classes worried that:

  • I am going to find out they don’t believe in “God.”
  • I am going to be mad that they don’t believe in “God.”
  • I am going to insist that they believe in “God.”
  • I am going to make a big deal out of any of the above.

The only thing I know for sure about That-Which-We-Call-God is that I agree with Maimonides: whatever I think God is, that is what God is not.

I don’t like to use pronouns for God. God is either beyond all gender or encompassing all genders, and I believe there are a lot more than two genders, so English pronouns are useless.

I find the word “God” increasingly useless because folks come to it with a lot of opinions ready at hand. Some people immediately think about the version of God that blasts people in the Bible. I agree, that person is scary and often immature. That limited image, taken alone, is not what I am talking about when I say, “Blessed are you, Adonai our God.” Remember, we are warned to be very careful about images.

Then there are people who refer to God as “Sky Daddy” or “Giant Sky Monster” or something similar. They’re trying to make the point that taking ancient metaphors literally is silly. I agree with them that taking an ancient metaphor literally is silly, but I don’t like to throw my metaphors out with the bathwater: some things are still useful even when I refuse to swallow them whole.

There is Something about the Universe that calls out for amazement.  That is my God: the aspect of the world that is far beyond me, that leaves me with my jaw hanging open.* I witness it in the power of a terrible storm, and in the smell of a newborn baby. I witness it in acts of selflessness, and acts of courage.

Torah is the record of human beings trying to wrap their minds around it: a dance between The Amazed People and the Object of Amazement. The best way they could come up with to relate to it was to personify it, to construct a metaphor that would allow them a way to explore it. They cooked up the idea that they had a Covenant with it, that they were given commandments (mitzvot) to make them holy, that is, more in tune with the Amazingness of the Universe.

Torah is unfinished and in process.  There is always work – human work – to be done to align the commandments with the ideal that they are intended to pursue. In this week’s Torah portion, the daughters of Zelophehad point out to Moses that the way Torah law was set up, it created an unjust situation. Moses is not sure. He confers with God, who immediately rectifies the situation. That is a model I can follow: when traditional interpretations of the law are unjust and unkind, then it’s time to come up with something better.

And yes, lots of bad stuff has been done and continues to be done in the name of someone’s deity. That’s God as an excuse, and after hearing about my friend’s phone, I am going to refer to that “God” as “Godzilla.” The “God” that people cite as their authority for bad behavior is no more than a monster. One might even argue that it is an Idol, but that’s another post entirely.

*If you want to read better writing about this idea of God, check out the writings of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. He says it all much better than do I.

Bar and Bat Mitzvah Etiquette for Beginners

Image: Bat mitzvah in the United States. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is another in a series of posts to make Jewish life a little more accessible. Click on “Especially for Beginners” in the menu on the right side of your screen to find more articles about the basics of Jewish living.

You or your child have been invited to attend a bar (or bat) mitzvah. The only problem is, you’ve never been to one. The closest you’ve come was a bit of one on TV, perhaps Freddie Crane’s bar mitzvah, where his dad blessed him in Klingon. Now what?

Despite the fact that the service is often given a humorous treatment in movies and on TV, the bar or bat mitzvah is a major event in the life of a Jewish family. The young person works for years to prepare for it, and the family saves and plans for just as long. A bar mitzvah (for a boy) or bat mitzvah (for a girl) falls sometime around the 13th birthday, and it marks the beginning of ritual adulthood.  That is, once a Jew has reached that age, they are responsible for themselves in keeping the commandments and participating in Jewish life.

There are a few things to know about attending a bar or bat mitzvah.  Here are some basic tips:

1. RESPOND PROMPTLY. As with a wedding, these are complicated affairs and numbers matter. Respond to the invitation as soon as possible. Do not ask to bring extra people.

2. DRESS MODESTLY. Dress will depend on the synagogue, but do not depend on your 13 year old for the dress code. The service will be fairly formal: a bar mitzvah boy will wear a suit and tie. Dress for girls should be tidy, clean, and modest: outfits cut “up to here” or “down to there” are inappropriate.  A party dress with bare shoulders can be supplemented with a shawl for the service.

3. PRESENTS. Gift-giving is traditional at a bar or bat mitzvah. One may give money to the bat mitzvah, or make a charitable donation (tzedakah) in her name. The number 18 and its multiples are considered good luck, so a check for $18 or $36 is a nice present. Bar mitzvah money often is put towards college or study in Israel. However, no present is required.

4. THE SERVICE. Arrive on time for the service. The bat mitzvah may lead the service, and she will read from the Torah Scroll in Hebrew. She’s been studying for years for this moment. Just follow the rest of the congregation in sitting and standing. If you have never been to a Jewish service before, you may find another article on this site “New to Jewish Prayer?” useful. It’s OK to look around you, or to look through the prayer book. However, fiddling with a cell phone (much less talking or texting on one!) is not appropriate. Electronics should be turned off and put away, if they are carried at all. (In a Conservative or Orthodox synagogue, the use of such devices is forbidden to Jews on the Sabbath. Using one will immediately inform everyone that you are an outsider and a bad-mannered one, at that.)  For more about the service, check out More Etiquette for Bar and Bat Mitzvah Guests. Also for some disability tips, read Help: The Prayer Book is Too Heavy for Me!

5. THE PARTY. The party afterwards may be very simple or very elaborate. For dress and other specifics, check your invitation. Again, do not bring uninvited guests!  Usually there will be speeches at the party, and it is polite to listen. There will also be dancing, which is optional but lots of fun. Even if you aren’t much of a dancer, circle dancing for the horah is fun. There will be food.

6. GREETINGS. If the service falls on Saturday (or in some congregations, on Friday night) you may be greeted at the door with “Shabbat shalom!”  This literally means, “Sabbath of Peace!” and it is the traditional greeting for the day. You can reply “Shabbat shalom!” or simply “Shalom!”  If you wish to congratulate the parents or the young person, you can say “Mazal tov!” 

7. ENJOY! This is a moment of great joy for a Jewish family, a milestone in a young Jew’s life. It will involve good music, a beautiful service, good food, dancing, and new friends. Open yourself to the experience, and enjoy.

For more information on the service, check out More Etiquette for Bar/Bat Mitzvah Guests

If you have other questions about Judaism, try using the Search Bar on this page, to your left.

It’s a Mitzvah: Save a Life!

Blood donation drive
Blood donation drive (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Lo ta’amod al dam re’echa.”  — “Do not stand by while your neighbor bleeds.”  Leviticus 19:16

If someone is in dire danger, this commandment in the Torah insists that we must act. The ancient rabbis took this commandment so seriously that they teach us that even if it means breaking the Sabbath, even if it means breaking almost any other law, we must not stand by while someone is in danger of death.  (The exceptions? We may not engage in murder, incest, or idolatry, even to save a life.)

 Right now, in the United States, we are in the midst of a critical blood shortage. Last week, the American Red Cross reported that the nation’s blood banks were down by 50,000 pints.  That is not a typo: FIFTY THOUSAND PINTS of blood — blood upon which people’s lives depend! — are simply not there.  Each of those pints could make the difference between life and death for someone injured in the storms in the East, for a firefighter injured in Colorado, or for a mother with a complicated childbirth. Cancer patients sometimes need many pints of blood and blood products to continue fighting the disease.

Today I stopped by my local Red Cross Blood Donation center, and when the nurse looked at my record, she said, “Oh! Your blood type is negative! We really need those!” I asked her about the shortage and she shook her head: “Yes, it’s really, really bad.  Now let’s get your blood pressure.”

Now I have a bandaid in the crook of my left elbow, and a sticker on my shirt. I don’t know where my pint of A negative will go, but I’m told it may save as many as three lives.

Some people can’t donate: my partner, a cancer survivor, is barred from ever performing this mitzvah ever again. A person with a fresh tattoo or piercing may not donate until 12 months have passed. A person who may have been exposed to any of several diseases may not donate. People who have taken certain drugs cannot. If you wonder if you are eligible, or you have other questions, you can find the answers on the Red Cross Blood Donation website.  That site can also direct you to the nearest place to donate, and in many areas, you can make your appointment online.

Rabbi Simon Glustrom writes in an article on pikuach nefesh, preservation of life:

The preservation of human life takes precedence over all the other commandments in Judaism. The Talmud emphasizes this principle by citing the verse from Leviticus [18:5]: “You shall therefore keep my statutes…which if a man do, he shall live by them.” The rabbis add: “That he shall live by them, and not that he shall die by them.” (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 85b)

In Deuteronomy 30, Moses speaks to Israel with a message from the Divine, and near the end he says:

I call heaven and earth to witness you this day, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life, that you may live, you and your descendants.

For those of us able to donate blood, we have a the opportunity to choose life in a very literal way. The choice before us is indeed a choice between life and death, blessing and curse.

Choose life and blessing, that you and others may live.

Afterwards, cookies.

 

10 Tips for Attending a Jewish Funeral

Image: A Jewish cemetery. Note the pebbles left on monuments. Photo by Darelle, via pixabay.com.

This is another post with which I hope to make Jewish life a little more accessible. Click on “Especially for Beginners” in the menu on the right side of your screen to find more articles about the basics of Jewish living.

The sages tell us that there is no greater mitzvah than to help bury someone, because it is a favor that cannot be returned. It is also a mitzvah people tend to avoid: death is scary, graves are scary, and loss is painful.  Jewish funeral etiquette is slightly different from secular or Christian American customs. Here are my beginners’ tips for attending Jewish funerals:

1. DON’T STAY AWAY. It may be tempting to “have a prior commitment” when there is a death on the outskirts of our circle of friends, but it is a good thing to go to funerals even when you knew the person but “not very well.”  The person who died won’t know you are there, but to the mourners it is a comfort to be surrounded by their community, especially by their friends.

2. YOUR PRESENCE IS IMPORTANT. You do not need to say much to mourners; in fact, the less said, the better. Nothing you say is going to fix it. What will help most is your presence at the funeral or at shiva (more about that in a minute.) Take their hand. Say “I am so sorry” if you must, but in Jewish tradition, there is no need to say anything at all unless the mourner starts the conversation. Mostly what will help is for you to let them know that they have friends who will not disappear.

3. WEAR COMFORTABLE SHOES. Dress nicely, but wear sensible shoes if you are going to the graveside. Cemetery grounds are often extremely plushy grass. If it would be difficult to walk in sand in the those shoes, they will be miserable in a cemetery. All of this goes triple if it has been raining. You do not want to be the woman I once saw trapped in the mud by her very expensive (and ruined) stiletto heels.

4. LOW KEY IS THE KEY. If you find friends there, just remember that this IS a funeral: talk quietly. Once the service begins, be quiet. Turn OFF the cell phone for the service, and do not fiddle with it.

5. MOSTLY, JUST LISTEN. There is very little required of the congregation at a funeral. Your job is to be there. There will be a few prayers, some psalms, a hesped (eulogy), and the traditional prayers  El Maleh Rachamim [God Full of Mercy] and the Mourner’s Kaddish. Say “Amen” [Ah-MAYN] when the congregation says it, if you wish. The payoff for listening is that you will learn things about this person that you did not know. You may hear some wonderful stories.

6. FOLLOW DIRECTIONS. The funeral director will give directions before and after the service. Do whatever he or she tells you to do: park here, sit there, stand, don’t walk there.  Complying with directions is one way to support the mourners and give respect to the dead.

7. AT GRAVESIDE. Some funerals move from a chapel to graveside, some are held at graveside. If you do not know the family well, it is OK to attend the chapel service and then skip the graveside service; it’s assumed to be more private. There will likely be chairs under an awning facing the open grave. Those chairs are for mourners; you do not want to sit in them unless you are a member of the family or disabled. There will be a few prayers, the casket will be lowered, and the officiant may assist the family in the ancient custom of shoveling earth into the grave. One or three shovelfuls is typical, and after the family, other attendees may assist. It is a symbolic way of participating in caring for the body by putting it safely in the earth. Again, follow directions; this is an extremely sensitive time for the family and you don’t want to disrupt the flow of the service.

8. SHIVA. There may be an announcement about shiva, the gathering at the home for (traditionally) seven days after the burial. If the family announces specific times, go only at those times. At the shiva house, remember that your presence is what matters. You cannot make their pain go away with words. Mourners need time and space to mourn, and it is an act of kindness to give them the opportunity to do so. Usually there is a short service at the shiva house in the morning and evening. You can linger, but do not overstay: when people start leaving, go. Keep in mind that this is not a party, the mourners are not “entertaining.” Sending or bringing prepared food is a very nice thing to do; when in doubt, send kosher food.

9. DONATIONS.  Most families will designate a charity to which donations (tzedakah) may be made in memory of the dead, and most non-profits are happy to send a card to the mourners telling them about your gift. This is not required, but it is a very nice thing to do. Which brings us to:

10. THINGS YOU WILL NOT SEE OR HEAR AT A TRADITIONAL JEWISH FUNERAL: 

  • Flowers – instead, Jews give donations to a memorial fund. (See #9 above)
  • An open casket – We don’t look at a dead person unnecessarily, since they cannot look back at us.
  • A fancy casket – Traditionally, Jewish caskets are plain, unfinished wood.
  • Talk about the afterlife – Most Jews focus on doing good in this life. We don’t know for sure what happens after death, and we tend not to worry about it much. Some think there is an afterlife, some don’t.
At a somewhat less traditional Jewish funeral, there may be a fancy casket, or there may have been a cremation. Do not comment about anything that seems unusual. The mourners may be honoring a request of the deceased, or something may have been the topic of a disagreement in the family.  These people are already in pain: this is not the time to appoint yourself the Jewish Tradition Cop! If you have questions, call or email a rabbi later (or leave a question in the comments here!)
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In my work as a rabbi, I find few things more spiritually enriching than a funeral. It is a sobering thing to stand by an open grave. Many silly things that seemed terribly important shrink to an appropriate size in the face of death. Being with a family and friendship circle as they comfort each other is a reminder that love is indeed “stronger than death.” (Song of Songs 8:6) The whole experience puts me back in touch with the beauty of life.
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Of course, there is much more to learn about Jewish funerals and mourning practice, but this is intended to be a guide for those who are about to attend a Jewish funeral for the first time. I hope that it is helpful as you perform this mitzvah.
More articles about Jewish Mourning customs: