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.

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Fringe Element in Judaism: The Tallit

English: Air Force Jewish Chaplain (Capt.) Sar...
English: Air Force Jewish Chaplain (Capt.) Sarah Schechter leads Jewish Services, wearing traditional Jewish prayer shawl (tallit), at 332 AEW Jt. Base Balad, Iraq, (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A tallit is a prayer shawl. It may be pronounced “ta-LEET” or “TA-lis” depending on the kind of Hebrew spoken.   (The plurals, respectively, are “ta-lee-TOTE” and “ta-LAY-seem.”) The shawl itself is just a shawl; the important parts of the tallit are the long knotted fringes or tzitzit (tzeet-TZEET). We wear them to remind us of the 613 mitzvot [commandments].

Jews wear a tallit for morning prayers. The person who leads prayers often wears a tallit no matter what time of day.  We get the commandment to wear the tallit from two places in the Torah: Numbers 15:37-40 and Deuteronomy 22:12.  You can learn more about the meaning and history of the tallit from this article by Rabbi Louis Jacobs.

A tallit is one of those things reserved for people who were born Jewish or who have been through the process of conversion.  The purpose of the tallit is to remind us of our 613 sacred duties (mitzvot). Only a person who is bound by those duties needs to be reminded of them.

Occasionally you may see a tallit with blue cords in the fringes. Blue is a difficult dye to find in nature. In ancient times, Jews fulfilled the direction for a blue cord by using something called techelet, a product from sea snails, knowledge of which was lost in the Middle Ages.  Recently, scholars have come to believe that techelet is a dye made from the murex, a sea snail, so some Jews have begun wearing techelet fringes again.

Tallit & Tefillin 6
Photo credit: AngerBoy via Flickr

 

Why Study Hebrew?

My first Hebrew Text

My first Hebrew text had the encouraging name Prayer Book Hebrew: The Easy Way.  My teacher had taught us the Aleph-Bet (Hebrew alphabet) using handouts and flash cards, and I was excited to get at the book.  After all, it said, “The Easy Way!” I had struggled to learn the letters, but now I was to the easy part, right?

It is a very good book, and I recommend it, but let me break it to you gently: there is no easy way to learn to read Hebrew, unless you are young enough for your brain to soak it up naturally. (If you are reading this and you are under 25 or so, you are Very Fortunate and should go find a Hebrew class pronto, before things begin to harden.)

So the question in the title is a serious one: why bother studying Hebrew, if it’s so hard?

1. Returns are high on even the smallest investment.  Every tiny bit of Hebrew you learn will enrich every aspect of your Jewish life. Let’s say you only learn the aleph bet. When you stand by an open Torah, you will recognize the letters you see. When you visit Israel, the language of your people will not be squiggles, it will be written in letters that you recognize.  Wherever you go in the Jewish world, you will be in on the secret: those are LETTERS. They mean something. If you keep on paying attention, you will begin to recognize words.

2. Hebrew connects us to every other Jew on the planet. If you can learn to say “B’vakashah” (Please) and “Todah rabbah!” (Thank you very much!) you will be able to be polite to Jews everywhere. The more Hebrew you learn, the more you can communicate with Jews who speak Spanish, Russian, French, Farsi, or Hungarian. It doesn’t matter where you come from, if you and I both speak a little Hebrew, we can have a good argument.

3. Hebrew connects us to other Jews across space and time. When I say “Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad” (Hear O Israel, the Eternal is our God, the Eternal is one) and I understand what I am saying, it enriches my prayer. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched at Selma, said that prayer in those words. Hannah Senesh, who wrote poetry and died fighting the Nazis, said that prayer in those words.  Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, also known as Maimonides, said that prayer in those words. Rabbi Hillel, who lived when the Temple was still standing, said them too, exactly that way. When I pray in Hebrew, my voice blends with theirs.

4. Hebrew is one key to feeling like an insider in this tribe. One does not need perfect fluency to feel a part of things in a Jewish community, but if you don’t know a resh from a dalet (clue: the dalet has a tushie) it is easy to feel left out.  That last sentence was an example: the people who know that resh is  ר and dalet is ד  are smiling at the tushie thing.  Now see?  You are smiling too.

5. You will make friends studying Hebrew. Research shows that people bond when they go through a challenge together. Want to make friends at synagogue? Take Beginning Hebrew. By the time you make it through the aleph-bet, you will have some friends.

Selichot: Seven Tips for Beginners

Spill
Spill (Photo credit: simpologist)

There are two weeks left before Rosh HaShanah, and you have heard about something called Selichot. Here are the basic facts:

1. WHAT IS SELICHOT? Loosely translated, it means “Please forgive.”  The word has two meanings at this time of year: (1) prayers asking God’s  forgiveness for misdeeds and (2) a service of such prayers, usually on the evening of the last Saturday before Rosh HaShanah. We’re going to deal with the service, since that is probably what you’ve been hearing about.

2. WHAT HAPPENS AT THE SERVICE? The Selichot service marks the beginning of the High Holy Day season. While individuals may have been observing Elul, this is the point at which we see big changes in the synagogue. Torah covers are changed from the regular covers to white ones. The clergy may begin wearing white, or white robes. The music and the tunes of the prayers change from the familiar tunes to the High Holy Day tunes.  We read lists of sins (vidui) that individuals or the whole community may have committed.

3. WHAT ARE HIGH HOLY DAY TUNES? For a taste of the High Holy Day nusach (tune), listen to this playlist of melodies assembled by Student Rabbi Ahuva Zaches. It’s particularly nice because it shows you the words while you learn the tunes, and because it is so simply done that you can really hear the melodies.

4. WHY READ LISTS OF SINS, ESPECIALLY IF THEY AREN’T MY SINS? First, we are fallible human beings, and it is easy to forget things, especially things we do not want to remember. Going over a list jogs the memory and the heart. Secondly, we approach the High Holy Days both as individuals and as a community, responsible for one another. While I am not responsible for the sins of my neighbor, he and I are responsible for each other’s well-being, and so his sins affect me. Finally, some sins are communal: for instance, we may talk about “the poor” and the need to “love the stranger” but what action have we as a community actually taken? Are we a community who fosters sinful behavior such as gossip? The lists bring up those questions as well.

5. WHY IS IT HELD SO LATE AT NIGHT? In some communities, Selichot may be a midnight or late night service.  Traditionally, the hours between nightfall and midnight are hours of din, of stern justice, but the hours after midnight are a time when the presence of God is gentler. We are asking for mercy in these prayers, so we say them late at night. (This has to do with the darkness, which will begin to lift towards morning.) In more modern terms, it gives a very solemn feel to the service, and breaks us out of our usual routine, which is a way of saying, “Look out! The High Holy Days are almost here!”

6. WHAT IF I DON’T BELIEVE IN GOD? Even if you don’t believe in God, you may need to deal with things you have done.  If you find the idea of a God who sits in judgment problematic or even ridiculous, that’s OK. When we sin — do things that damage relationships, do harm to the world or ourselves — our actions have consequences. When we pray for mercy, we are praying that those consequences will be light. However, wishing alone won’t do the job — we have to take responsibility for our deeds, and take action to minimize the damage we have done. That’s teshuvah, or repentance.  All the sins listed in the vidui (list of sins) are things that left unchecked will have bad consequences and hurt someone. If we have done any of those things, we need to take responsibility (ask forgiveness), and take action to fix and prevent in the future.

7. WHAT IF I USUALLY FIND SERVICES BORING? Selichot is a different kind of service, wherever it is held. You will get an introduction to High Holy Days music. It is usually not a long service. But more than anything else, it is a service with a very distinct purpose: to get us ready to change our ways for the better. This is not your usual synagogue service.  Also — added bonus! — if you are not going to be able to go to the High Holy Day services for some reason, this is a small taste of them that does not require tickets.

L’Shana Tova Umetuka!  I wish you a good and a sweet New Year!

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.

New to Jewish Prayer? 9 Tips for Beginners

Image: Rabbi carrying the Torah during a service. Photo by Linda Burnett.

So, you’ve been to Shabbat services once or twice, and found them mystifying. Or perhaps you have been invited to a bar mitzvah service and you have no idea what to do.

Some questions that may have crossed your mind: What are people getting out of this? Does everyone here understand the Hebrew? What’s with all the bowing and stuff? What if I do something wrong?  Here are  some ways to get something out of the experience as a beginner.  There is no wrong way to be in a service as long as you are respectful.  So turn off your cell phone and experiment with these. Some work for one person, some for another. Your experience will be unique to you.

1. RELAX.  You are not the only person:

  • Who doesn’t understand Hebrew.
  • Who wonders what the prayers mean.
  • Who feels funny about all the choreography (bowing, etc.)
  • Who doesn’t sing very well.
  • Who has feelings that make it difficult for you to relax in a strange prayer service.

Jewish communal prayer is not something Jews are born knowing how to do.  It’s a learned art.  You may or may not want to learn the classical approaches to it, but there are ways to have a very satisfying experience as a beginner.

2. ASK FOR HELP.  It is OK to ask for help.  The first thing you may want to ask for is a prayer book with translations in it, if the one you get is all in Hebrew. In a Reform synagogue, all of the books will have translations, and that is true for many Conservative synagogues, too.

If you get lost and don’t know what page you should be looking at, it’s OK to quietly ask a neighbor for help.

3. DON’T WORRY.  If there are English responses, and you are in the right place in the book, mazal tov!  But if you are lost, it is OK to let the rest of the congregation take care of responses. If you become a regular you will learn them, but remember, no one is born knowing this stuff.  One nice thing: if you say Amen [ah-MAYN] at the end of a blessing, you get credit for saying the whole blessing.

You may not know any of the music.  You may know some of it. Sing what you know, sit back and listen to the new things. Let the music wash over you. Sometimes the song-leader or cantor will teach a new tune. When that happens, you are in luck: no one knows what they are doing!  You get to begin with the congregation.

As for standing, sitting, bowing, etc., if you stand and sit with everyone else, you’ll be OK.  If you are disabled or injured, take care of yourself and do what works for you. To learn more about choreography, check out my earlier blog entry, Dancing with the Rabbis.

If an usher offers you an aliyah (a-li-AH or a-LEE-yah) say, “No, thank you.” (That means, “offer you a chance to go up and sing or say the Torah blessings all by yourself.” If you are truly a beginner, you almost certainly don’t want to do that. If you are not officially Jewish, you shouldn’t do it, out of respect. Either way, “no thank you” covers the subject. Don’t worry, they’ll find someone else.

4. LET THE PRAYERS AND MUSIC FLOW. Let the words and the music flow over you. If something is interesting or sticks in your mind, let your mind play with it. Words and music may bring up emotions for you: let those flow, also.  If the book is in your way, put it down (on the bench or in a rack or in your lap – do not put a prayer book on the floor.)

5. LISTEN TO THE MUSIC OF THE HEBREW LANGUAGE. When prayers are in Hebrew, often they are prayers that have been said in just that way for hundred or thousands of years. Some people are moved to listen to the Hebrew and simply reflect upon how many generations have said those prayers in that way. Think of the people who have listened to those sounds at some point in their lives: Maimonides, Jesus,  Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Albert Einstein, Hank Greenberg, Alan GreenspanAnn Landers

6. SIT QUIETLY AND LET YOUR OWN THOUGHTS FLOW. For some people, the prayers are a framework within which their minds are set free, almost a kind of meditation. It is fine to let that happen. Your mind may open in unexpected ways.

7. PRAY. If there is a way you are accustomed to praying, you are welcome to pray in your own mode: have a conversation with God, say familiar prayers quietly, etc.  However, kneeling or making the sign of the cross would be very distracting to others, and is disrespectful in this context even if that is not your intent.

The words of Jewish prayer may also lead you into a dialogue with or a meditation about the Holy.

Jewish prayer has fixed words, words we say every time, but they are there as a framework, so that our spirits can be free to find the Holy. Some of the prayers may even be troubling in their wording, but that’s part of it, too: those prayers push us into thinking deeply about what we believe and the choices we make.

8. LISTEN TO THE VOICES AROUND YOU. Jewish communal prayer happens in community, with a minimum of ten participants, a minyan. Some voices will be sweet and clear; others may be out of tune or mumbled. Some may be rather loud, some soft. Some clearly know all the responses; some stumble. This is what a Jewish community is: a group of disparate voices, all united by the activity of saying the prayers and singing the songs. Likely they will disagree if you do a poll about what they prayers mean, but they unite in Doing.

9. SIMPLY BE. If all of this is overwhelming, try simply being where you are. Feel the weight of your body sitting in the pew or chair. Feel your feet on the floor. Feel the air moving in and out of your lungs, feel your heart beating. Feel the emotions that come through, including boredom, if that is what you feel. Judaism teaches that all of creation is good, and that our bodies are good.  This, too, is legitimate Jewish prayer.