What is Tzom Tammuz?

Image: “The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans Under the Command of Titus, A.D. 70” by David Roberts. Public Domain, via Wikimedia.

If you have a Jewish calendar – or if you use the excellent online calendar at hebcal.com – you may have noticed something called “Tzom Tammuz.”  That translates to “Fast of Tammuz” which isn’t terribly enlightening, so I thought you might like to have a bit more info.

Next month we will observe the somber day known as Tisha B’Av, [“Ninth of Av”] when we remember the destruction of the Second Temple along with other disasters in Jewish history. Tzom Tammuz is part of the preparation for that day. It is a dawn-to-dusk fast to recall the day the Romans breached the city wall of Jerusalem before the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. It falls exactly three weeks before Tisha B’Av, and that three week period is a time of special mourning and attention. (Tammuz and Av are months in the Jewish year, both of which fall in the late summer.)

A “minor fast” like Tzom Tammuz is one that is kept only from sunrise to sunset. It applies only to eating and drinking, unlike the major fasts of Tisha B’Av and Yom Kippur, on which we refrain not only from eating and drinking, but also from washing and anointing our bodies, wearing leather, and having sex. Major fasts last 25 hours, from sunset one day until three stars appear in the sky on the next.

The destruction of the Temple was one of the watershed moments in Jewish history, the end of one age and the beginning of another. Biblical Judaism effectively ended then, because the sacrificial cult and everything that went with it was no longer possible. Rabbinic Judaism – the dominant form of Judaism in the world today – had not yet been born. That would happen in the following months, as Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai moved his students to the academy at Yavneh.

While there are some who look forward to rebuilding the Temple someday, Reform Jews believe that the time for it is past. God moved us into a new period of history, one in which our sacrifices would be made of prayers and song, rather than of animal gore.

I personally do not fast on Tzom Tammuz, but I keep it as a quiet day of reflection and study. The Three Weeks from the fast until Tisha B’Av are a time to reflect on Sinat Chinam, baseless hatred, a topic that is sadly pertinent today.

In 2016 Tzom Tammuz begins at dawn on Sunday, July 24.

 

 

Pause: A Meditation

Sometimes when the news is horrible, I have to step back and redirect my attention. I took this photo about a mile from my home. The East Bay part of the San Francisco Bay Area is blessed with beautiful parks. This is a view of Lake Chabot Park. You can’t see the lake, but it’s down there. 
In our part of California, nothing is green in July unless it has a water source. The hills are golden, the grass all burnt up by the sun, and down in the valleys, lakes and creeks keep animals and plants alive. Lake Chabot is a human-made lake. They dammed up the San Leandro Creek in the late 19th century, and it’s a reservoir for our drinking water. I imagine some folks at the time mourned the creek, but I have to admit I am just grateful for the water and the life that surrounds it.

Water. We are mostly water, as are most living creatures. The green growth is also water – water and cellulose. Water is our common denominator. The deer, and the various other critters in the park all get thirsty, just as the people do. We are more alike than we are different.

God is like the lake, the source of life and the source of that which we all have in common. It’s up to me to see the divine image in every person I encounter, no matter if we disagree, or if I am afraid of them. We see differences, but in reality, we are not so different.

As a deer pants for flowing streams,
so pants my soul for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. — Psalm 42

Another Eulogy for Miriam

Reblogged on CoffeeShopRabbi.com. Thank you, Rabbi Fuchs, for the insight that the Sages included so many midrashim on Miriam because they recognized that she was shortchanged in the text!

Finding Ourselves In Biblical Narratives

When the Children of Israel complain—yet again—because they have no water, Moses loses it completely (Numbers 20). Many think he lost control because he was grieving the loss of his sister Miriam.

Miriam had saved his life when he was a baby (Exodus 2) and was his confidante throughout his life.

The Sages taught (based on Numbers 21.17-18) that because of Miriam, a well accompanied Israel that disappeared when Miriam died. (Shir Ha-Shirim Rabbah 4 :12, section 3). Another Midrash suggests that Miriam’s well was one of ten sacred things  God created at twilight, just before the first Shabbat (Pirke Avot 5 :8). Rav Hiyya taught that Miriam’s well became an eternal memorial to her, embedded in the sea of Galilee and visible from the top of Mt. Carmel. (B. Shabbat 3a ; Yerushalmi, Kilaim 9 :4, p. 32C)

These midrashim represent the Sages’ desire to give Miriam the credit…

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Shabbat Shalom! – Chukat

This week’s Torah portion, Chukat (khoo-KAHT) contains several difficult passages of Torah: the ritual of the “red heifer,” a special purification rite, the deaths of Aaron and Miriam, and a terrible mistake by Moses. These are also stories about the difficult relations between the Israelites and the desert peoples.

As one of the rabbis below points out, the shadow of death hangs over Parashat Chukat. Two important figures die; another learns something about his own death. The news has been very difficult this week: deaths by violence, terrorism, horrors. Torah does not avoid difficult topics, rather it can help us center ourselves to cope with difficult times.

Read these divrei Torah to learn more:

Use Your Words by Rabbi Eve Posen (VIDEO)

Chukat by Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Leadership Lessons from Charleston, SCOTUS, and Chukat by Rabbi Marci Bellows

On Being Effective by Rabbi Peter J. Rubenstein

The Smith Speaks by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat (poem)

That Which Heals, Hurts by Rabbi Seth Goldstein

The Fully Lived Life… by Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

 

The Industry of Evil Speech

Image: Assorted tabloid headlines

Jennifer Aniston is fed up. She is not pregnant, and she’s tired of telling people that she isn’t pregnant. This week the Huffington Post published her article, For the Record, in which she writes about what it is like to be fodder for the tabloids.

Gossip is a huge industry. It masquerades as “news” and in the U.S. the people who profit from it talk righteously about the First Amendment and the public’s “right to know.” It is enormously profitable: in 2011, industry revenues topped three billion dollars.

In Hebrew, the word for gossip is rechilut (reh-khee-LOOT) and it is one of the kinds of speech that are strictly forbidden in Jewish tradition.

You shall not go up and down as a talebearer among your people; neither shalt you stand idly by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Holy One. – Leviticus 19:16.

We often cite the second half of that verse but it bears noticing that the two concepts (talebearing and blood) are mentioned together. Gossip has consequences, even when the reports are true, as Ms. Aniston illustrates in her article. Paparazzi make people’s lives miserable; they engage in unsafe practices like car chases and ambushes. They harass not only the celebrity but children and employees and bystanders. They do this because tabloids and magazines like People pay a huge premium for “gotcha” pictures which appear to tell a salacious story or which paint the celebrity in an unfavorable light.

Rechilut, gossip, is a serious matter for Jews. Maimonides explains that it is even worse to spread reports about someone if those reports may damage their reputation. This is what is known as the sin of lashon harah, “evil speech.”

Who is a gossiper? One who collects information and [then] goes from person to person, saying: “This is what so-and-so said;” “This is what I heard about so-and-so.” Even if the statements are true, they bring about the destruction of the world.

There is a much more serious sin than [gossip], which is also included in this prohibition: lashon harah, that is, relating deprecating facts about a colleague, even if they are true. – Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot De’ot

And this is in fact what the gossip mongers sell under the guise of “entertainment news.” The headlines are always the same: speculation about marital infidelity, weight gain, weight loss, pregnancy (and who’s the father?) and so on.

Some may argue that when someone goes into public life, they sign up for this treatment. But the fact is that other human beings do not exist for our entertainment. They do not owe us anything except the time and expertise for which we pay them. It is fine to watch Jennifer Aniston’s work as an actress on TV, but it is not acceptable to read gossipy speculation about her in People or the National Enquirer.

Because you see, we are the other half of the equation: this evil industry would not exist if we did not provide a market for it. When we click on a gossipy item, we provide a market. When we buy the Inquirer or People or Us, we provide a market. When we watch TMZ or similar shows, we provide a market.

When I see a tempting item on the screen or the cover of a magazine, I remind myself, “Is it really my business?” The answer is usually “no.”

Let’s step off the lashon harah assembly line. Life is too precious to waste it on trash.

 

Obama in Dallas

Image: President Barack Obama (pixabay.com)

President Obama gave a remarkable speech in Dallas yesterday. If you did not have a chance to listen to it, you can find the text of the speech here.

Usually when U.S. presidents give speeches at memorial services, the content is fairly innocuous. They seek to comfort, and avoid controversy at all costs. That was what I expected today when I flipped on the radio to listen.

Instead, I heard my President speak to many different constituencies, seeking to draw them together despite a week in which events have driven us apart. He spoke respectfully and very personally of each of the fallen police officers in Dallas. He acknowledged that they were killed as they watched over a peace march, a march that called the nation to witness the deaths of two men at the hands of police. He spoke to their families and fellow officers, but not only to them. He spoke as well to all those who marched peacefully under the #BlackLivesMatter banner, acknowledging that all is not well and that we all need to do more.

I am sure that there were some who heard that speech for whom it was “too much” or “not enough.” I can only imagine the care that went into crafting those words, walking the tightrope of agonies, but it was clear to me that he was trying to bridge that gap and bring us all together again.

So if you didn’t hear the speech, read it. Don’t settle for soundbites on the evening news; the whole thing ran to 40 minutes. It’s all worth hearing.

“We do not persevere alone. Our character is not found in isolation. Hope does not arise by putting our fellow man down, it is found by lifting others up. – Barack Obama, 7/12/16

What Food Do You Choose?

What’s your food practice, and why?

Traditionally, Jews are The People Who Don’t Eat Pork. The Philistines, who were of Greek origin, commented upon it. Antiochus, a Greek king, thought it bizarre. The Romans thought it just one more bit of evidence that we were crazy. And after the Expulsion from Spain in 1492, a refusal to eat pork became the hallmark of “Judaizing” and became grounds for torture and execution.

Not Eating Pork became the hallmark Jewish food practice, even for Jews who did not embrace the full practice of kashrut. Kashrut is a complex topic but the short version is that only certain animals may be eaten, those animals must be slaughtered and cooked in an approved fashion, and meat and milk must be kept strictly separated. Observing kashrut is often referred to as “keeping kosher.”

Many 21st century Jews keep kosher. Some observe those commandments more stringently, some less. Some choose not to observe the traditional laws at all. Some choose to eat pork. Some do not. Some Jews only practice traditional dietary laws to some extent during Passover or holidays.

For many 21st century Jews, another pressing issue is food ethics:

  • Will I consume animal products?
  • If so, what are the minimum standards for how those animals are treated?
  • How do my food choices affect the human beings who produce food?
  • How do my food choices affect the ecosystems in which they grow and are processed?
  • What about food scarcity for others in my area?
  • What about food waste?
  • How do my choices about consumption affect my health and that of my family?

Any time we address a question of food ethics, we must recognize that much of our decision making is about trade-offs. For instance, food that is ethically sourced and ethically produced (and fresh, nutritious, etc.) is more expensive. So then we add to the questions:

  • What can I afford?
  • What am I willing to do for those who cannot afford this food?

A person might decide to forego the free-range eggs in order to donate those funds to the food bank. That’s their choice, and their way of addressing the trade-off. Someone with a lot of discretionary income may choose to do both. And someone who is trying to feed their family on very low income may get eggs from caged hens and that’s how it is. No one with more income has any right to pass judgment on the person for whom worry about ethical food choices is an unaffordable luxury.

There are a number of Jewish organizations exploring these issues and looking at ways to move towards a more ethical practice of Jewish eating. My Jewish Learning has provided a great article on the subject by Shmuly Yanklowitz.

Finally, what else am I willing to do to address ethical issues and food? Learn about the issues? Lobby elected officials for better regulations? Volunteer at the food bank? Join a Jewish group (maybe a congregation’s social action committee) to study up on these issues?

So, what are your food practices, and how to they stem from your reading of Torah? Do you keep some level of kashrut? Do you fast on Yom Kippur? What do you choose to eat, or not eat, out of ethical or ecological concerns? And most importantly: why???