Saturday, March 11, 2006

Purim 5766

As Purim approaches, I have come to a major life decision. I have formed an exploratory committee, which consists of Peanut, my cat, and at least of three kids in The Olga and Bob Strauss Center for Early Childhood Education. As per their recommendation, aside from Timmy’s request for more grape juice, I am proud to finally make that big announcement you have all been waiting for. I am declaring my candidacy for the Presidency of these United States.
But Rabbi, you do not have any experience in public office.
“Pshaw,” I say. I have been running Temple Emanu-El for over two whole months, what other experience could I possibly need? I’ve got both Moxie and Chutzpah, my goldfish. Besides you have not even heard my platforms yet.
As your Rabbi … err … President, I promise to work very hard for you 24/7, twenty-four minutes / seven hours a week. I plan to institute a pie-throwing contest to eliminate our national debt. Any team from the University of Texas will be declared unilateral National Champions. Yiddush will be the mandatory language for all technical service operators, which will make them infinitely more understandable than they are now. I will not rest until I see the absolute elimination of low-flow toilets; pardon the pun. And you will all be invited to the Seder at the White House. Though I think we will make my Vice President hunt for the afikoman, which ya’ll all welcome to come hide anywhere in the Oval Office.
Besides that I also have tremendous foreign experience. I have personally tasted Chinese, Japanese, Ethiopian, French, Italian, Moroccan, Transylvanian, Cajun, Texan, Israeli, and Greek food, all in one sitting. Though I must admit that I did not feel too well afterward. I have also traveled extensively. I even left the State of Texas once, before moving to Arizona, but that is a whole other story.
So as you see, I am the perfect candidate, aside from being underage, grossly under qualified and completely inexperienced, but other than that, how hard could it possibly be? So with your permission, blessing, and economic support I ask, dare I say beg, you to please vote for me as the next President of your United States. Besides I have already been elected King of Shushan by unanimous decision. Ok so I am directing the Purim Spiel and gave the part to myself, but it is still going to go on my resume!
And when I win, we can all unite together and say with pride those words so famously uttered by JFK, “Ask not for whom your country can kvell, but for whom it can shed some nakhes.”

Thursday, January 5, 2006

Kiddush


Kiddush, which means “sanctification,” dates back to at least mishnaic times. It is the tradition of consecrating particularly holy days in Jewish tradition. The custom of using wine for Kiddush is based on the rabbinic reading of Exodus 20:8 “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy (le-kaddesho).”
Our tradition asks how do we remember the Shabbat to keep it holy? The answer according to the rabbis is “with wine” (BT Pesachim 106a). The reason for this may be because there is connection between Psalm 104:15 “wine gladdens the heart” and Shabbat which begins a time of great celebration, or it may be that by Talmudic times Jews were already celebrating Shabbat with wine. In either case, we have been sanctifying Shabbat and holy days with wine for at least the past two thousand years if not longer.
Wine is also enjoyed at many ceremonies including circumcisions, weddings, and it was even customary for a while to give mourners ten cups of wine while they were sitting shiva. However it should be noted that though our tradition encourages the consumption of wine, it greatly discourages over-imbibing alcohol of any type.
So what makes a wine kosher? I used to think a wine was kosher if it had the name Manischewitz written on it. The answer actually has to do with several elements in wine production. Firstly, there are certain additives from animals like gelatin used for clarifying wines. Thus for a wine to be kosher, it should not contain any of these additives at least in the final product.
Secondly there is the issue of who produces and handles the wine as well as when it is produced. Many wineries now have forms of rabbinic supervision, and will certify wines as kosher. This goes back to Mishnaic times and the concern about certain wines being used for idolatrous practices. Categories include yaiin nesech, wine poured on an idol and stam yainom, wine handled by those who believe in idolatry. There is also yaiin mevushal, cooked or boiled wine, but the process tremendously alters the flavor, aroma, and look of the wine.

Nowadays there are many varieties of wonderful kosher wine from regions and grapes throughout the world. Whether you crave Rieslings or Merlots, there is just about every type of kosher wine to fit your palate.

Sunday, January 1, 2006

Challah


In biblical tradition, challah was a portion of dough set aside for the priests as described in Numbers 15:18-21. The amount of challah to be set aside was never specified in the Torah. According to rabbinic tradition it was either1/48th or 1/24th part of the dough. Nowadays, since we no longer have the priestly offerings, when one makes challah, one is now supposed to set a portion of the challah aside and throw it into the fire.
There is even a bracha recited when casting aside the dough which ends with, “Who commanded us to separate hallah from the dough.” The mitzvah of separating challah is traditionally regarded as one of the three positive mitzvot incumbent upon women (the others include the lighting the Shabbat candles and niddah, the laws of family purity).
Challah also has a second traditional meaning as described in Exodus 29:23, Lev. 24:5, and II Sam. 6:19 as a loaf or “cake” of baked bread. From these readings, challah now is primarily associated with the special loaves made for holidays and Shabbat, usually from white flour that is twisted or braided. That being said, there is no law in Jewish tradition specifying the shape or style of a challah, or even its particular ingredients.
Traditional challah recipes usually use a large number of eggs, white flour, and sugar. There are also that use fewer eggs or are even eggless and replace white flour with whole wheat, oat, or even spelt. Sometimes honey or molasses is substituted for the sugar as a sweetener. The dough is then rolled into rope-shaped pieces which are braided with an egg-wash brushed on right before baking to add a golden sheen. Raisins can be added as well especially during Rosh Hashana as a symbol of a sweet New Year.
There are several interesting traditions associated with challah. For example Shabbat begins with the blessing of two challah loaves as a reminder of the double portion of manna the Israelites received from God while wandering in the wilderness. In some communities the challah is not even a braided loaf. Instead it is flat bread which most closely resembles pita as can be found in various Mizrahi Jewish communities.
Whatever your tradition is whether it involves lovingly handcrafted, frozen, or store-bought challahs, please make sure to add them to your Shabbat table. For even in our carb-conscious society, there is just something special about baked bread that adds extra significance to the meal. Plus it makes for great French toast on Shabbat morning.

Shabbat Candles

Some of my earliest and best memories are of celebrating Shabbat together with my family. We would gather together around our table and light the candles, bless the wine, and enjoy challah. It was one of those rituals of childhood that I will always cherish, and continue my family here in Tucson as well. Many of us observe these same customs in our own homes. We sing the melodies and taste the fruit of the vine, but before we do all that, we gather to light the Shabbat candles.
The tradition of lighting the candles for Shabbat is part of what we do each week in our homes and our synagogue. It seems simple enough, light the candles and then recite the blessing. But there are many questions to this timeless ritual. So as part of an ongoing series, we will endeavor to answer some of your questions about home and synagogue rituals.
For instance why do we light the candles before reciting the bracha, when in almost every other instance we say the blessing first? Lighting fire is one of the thirty-nine forbidden categories of work on Shabbat, therefore we light the candles first, because once we say the blessing, it officially becomes Shabbat.
When should we light the candles? According to Moses Maimonides, the great twelfth century Jewish thinker, the candles should be lit no more than eighteen minutes before sunset.
Why do women traditionally light the candles? The mitzvah for lighting the candles applies both to men and women, but tradition states that the obligation falls more upon the shoulders of women because they are viewed as the center of Jewish life in the home. (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 31b).
Why do we light two candles? Some follow the tradition that in the fourth commandment of the Ten Commandments there are two terms used with regards to how one is to observe Shabbat. The first is Zachor which means “remember” is in Exodus 20:8. Where as in the second rendition the term Shamor in Deuteronomy 5:12 is used, which means keep or guard. However two is not the only number for candles. Some light seven candles, a favorite number in Judaism, which has to do with the seven days of creation. Another option is some families start with two and add a candle for each new member of the family.
Why do we wave our hands three times and close our eyes when we recite the blessing? The waving of hands and the closing of eyes are related to inviting in the spirit of Shabbat to dwell in our midst. Closed eyes also symbolize an intense concentration or kavanah, focusing the body and mind on the wonderful experience that is Shabbat.

Chevrei Kaddisha

When Jews first moved to America, they had few ties to the “Old Country.” They were free to begin to explore Judaism in new and interesting ways. Yet almost without fail the first institution they would establish in a community was not a Synagogue nor even a deli, but rather they would create a Chevrei Kaddisha also known as a burial society.
The Chevrei Kaddisha is a voluntary organization that attends the needs of the deceased. The mitzvot performed by members of a Chevrei Kaddisha are so important that they even take precedence over the study of Torah. Part of the reason why these mitzvot are so significant is because our tradition views this as the last righteous deed one can do for a person. Therefore when preparing a person for burial, it is to be done with diligence and care.
Burial societies in Judaism date as far back as Talmudic times, and are mentioned often in our literature. An example of this is in Ketubot 8b, which talks about how the community took care of one of its own because the ordeal was more than the family could bear.
We are now living in a society where death all to often is something we shy away from. It happens in hospitals and nursing homes and is spoken about in whispers and hushed tones. But our tradition has never viewed death in this way. Rather, death is viewed as an integral part of life, and by participating in the mitzvot done by the Chevrei Kaddisha, we acknowledge the sacredness and holiness of life.
The most important ritual done by the Chevrei Kaddisha involves the act of tahorah, or the ritual washing of the body. This is then followed by the ritual dressing of the body. These rituals are done with a sense of tzeniut or modesty, as it is performed by Jews of the same gender of the deceased.
Before entering the area where this is to be done, often times the members of the Chevrei Kaddisha will recite a prayer in Hebrew to remind them that they commanded to act with loving-kindness and righteousness towards the dead. They then wash their hands and begin the process. Once this is done the participants engage in several tasks including laying out the tachrichim, the linen burial shrouds; preparing the aron, the coffin; setting out the kittel, jacket; as well as arranging the remainder of the supplies as well. They then wash the body, prepare it for burial, and in some communities watch over it throughout then night. Through this all, the deceased is treated with respect and dignity. For in the end, a community achieves greatness not through the tasks that are easy, but instead in the ways it takes care of those at the fringes: the poor, the widow, the stranger, the orphan, and those who have died.

Shiva

“Sara died in Kiriat-arba – now Hebron – in the land of Canaan; And Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and bewail her.” (Genesis 23:2)
The Jewish custom of burying our loved ones who have died dates back to the very beginning of our tradition. Abraham buried Sarah. Aaron grieved over the loss of his sons Nadav and Avihu. David mourned for Jonathan and Saul, and Job rent his clothes in grieving for his children.
Funerals and burials we know well, but what may be less familiar to us is that in Judaism, mourning is viewed as a process that begins with death and does not really conclude until the following year. Upon learning of the death of a loved one it is customary to say, “Baruch Dayan Ha-Emet, Blessed be the true Judge.” This statement does not prevent us from anger or hurt, but helps the mourning process by acknowledging the death of a loved one.
Those who feel the loss most keenly are in a period of aninut, the stage between death and burial. Traditionally they are not obligated to fulfill a majority of mitzvot as they are to instead focus on all the details involved in burying a loved one.
The transition occurs immediately after the funeral where those most close to the deceased sit shiva. Shiva comes from the Hebrew word sheva, or seven. According to the Shulchan Aruch, the major compilation of halacha, one then sits shiva for seven days (Yoreh Deah 375:1). There are many customs associated with sitting shiva, which includes simple meals, covering the mirrors, sitting on low stools, and lighting a shiva candle, as Proverbs suggests, “The soul of the person is in the lamp of the Lord” (20:27).
Shiva reflects the time when the feelings of loss are the most intense. Therefore it is perfectly appropriate to spend that time in reflection, as one will encounter a variety of emotions. It is also the time when the community comes to those in mourning providing food for them and allowing them to say Mourner’s Kaddish at a shiva minyan.
During this time mourners should not attend go to work or attend to business concerns, or even attend to such tasks as cleaning the house. Instead it is a time to mourn with the hope of going through a healthy grieving process. To this end, shiva is followed by sheloshim where those grieving say kaddish at services for thirty days following the death of their loved one. Then at the end of the year it is customary to consecrate the marker of their loved one around the time of the first yartzeit, Jewish anniversary of their death.
There are many intricate practices associated with Jewish mourning, and each one is done with the utmost sense of respect and compassion both for those who have died as well as for those who are grieving. We encourage all of our members to attend shiva minyans to comfort those who are bereaved, and we encourage those who have lost loved ones to sit shiva for the full seven days. Because ultimately spending time in the presence of blessed memory will allow us to keep those memories alive and strive to be the people our loved ones would have wanted us to be.

Mikveh

Judaism contains an ever-evolving set of traditions and customs. One of the more ancient and yet modern traditions is that of the mikveh. We find the first mention of mikveh in the Tanaach. “Only a spring, cistern, or collection (mikveh) of waters shall be cleansing” (Lev. 11:36). In this particular passage, mikveh has to do with the issue of when a person becomes ritually impure by coming into contact with unclean animals or foodstuffs. In order to become ritually pure again, the Israelites are to use the water from this mikveh in order to purify themselves.
An Israelite could become ritually impure for a variety of reasons. Whether it was because of childbirth, menstruation, coming into contact with the dead, or coming into contact with certain bodily fluids, the ritual immersion of a person in a body of water would serve as the means for their return ritual purity. Ritual purity in the Biblical context had to do with certain worship and communal rites. Some recent theories argue that mikveh was more about hygiene than ritual, which is an argument sometimes also made about Kashrut. However, the mikveh was always designed as a way to help the Israelites to achieve a level of holiness, when certain everyday acts, might distance them from God.
Since the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70 CE, the mikveh has served as the means for those converting to Judaism. Brides and grooms also go to the mikveh, as well as families who are seeking to purify certain cooking and eating utensils.
However the mikveh is most commonly associated with niddah (family purity) since a wife, traditionally speaking, goes to the mikveh after her menstrual period before engaging in conjugal relations with her spouse. Because of this, the mikveh is most often associated with women in the Jewish community.
That being said, in a more modern context, the mikveh serves as a means for Jews, and those becoming Jews, to wipe their slate spiritually clean before beginning in a new endeavor such as conversion or marriage. The mikveh to us moderns is no longer just about niddah, it can serve us as a physical transformative element in our own lives, for any number of changes we might be going through.

Kever Avot

One of the less well known observances held during the High Holidays is the practice of Kever Avot (visiting the “grave of the ancestors”). The practice traditionally involves visiting the graves of one’s parents or close relatives where one prays for the souls of the departed. It also serves to remind us how we stand upon the deeds of our ancestors.
This practice dates back to Talmudic times when it was customary to visit the gravesides of the pious in order for “the departed to intercede for mercy on behalf of the living” (Babylonian Talmud Ta’anit 16a). According to tradition Jacob also buried Rachel near Beit Lechem so her descendants could pray for help and guidance at her grave on their way into the Babylonian Exile.
This practice has become particular popular amongst the Hasidim, however Judaism generally discourages one from making too many regular visits to a grave. As a result our tradition has set certain times where it is customary both for the individual as well as the community to go visit the graves of our loved ones. These fixed times include: the yartzeit date of the departed, the day before Rosh Chodesh (the new month), during the month of Elul, and during the 10 Days of Repentance.
At kever avot there is usually a brief service including the recitation of several psalms and Mourner’s Kaddish. You are also encouraged to bring rocks to place on the graves of your loved ones. We place rocks on the graves for two reasons. The first is in remembrance of the method of burial done by our ancestors, and the second is because unlike flowers, stones are eternal thus indicating that the person is still thought of and cherished.
By engaging in this ritual we are reminded in a very real sense that we stand before God during the Yamim Noraim not alone but on the shoulders of our ancestors. It also reminds us how their righteousness and good deeds will continue to be a guide in our own lives, and by doing so, their names shall continue to be for a blessing.

Havdallah

One of the more beautiful and touching ceremonies in Jewish tradition is the ritual of Havdalah. Havdalah literally means separation. This ritual is most commonly done at the end of Shabbat, but it is also performed at the end of festivals as well.
The ritual of Havdalah is comprised of four blessings and it begins with the blessing over a cup of wine or grape juice. It is customary to fill the cup until it is overflowing as an expression of hope that the week will be filled with abundance of both goodness and prosperity. However if wine is not available, one can use just about any other beverage except water. These beverages could include tea or even beer. Beer by the way is the beverage of choice for the Havdalah ceremony at the end of Tisha b’Av.
The next blessing is over the spices, besamim, which are usually held in a special container. These containers, in following in the tradition of hiddur mitzvah (beautifying a mitzvah), are often times extraordinary pieces of art themselves. They can be in a variety of shapes and made of simple or exotic materials like wood or silver. The spices are usually cloves or cinnamon though one can also use myrtle leaves. According to Moses Maimonides, the soul is saddened by the exit of Shabbat, but is soothed by the fragrance of the spices.
The third blessing is over the flame, aish. There needs to be a combination of at least two flames because of the use of the plural term “lights” in the blessing, “who creates the lights of the fire.” The candles used nowadays often have as many as six wicks and are made of colorfully interwoven strands. When the blessing is recited it is also customary to look at the light reflecting off of one’s fingernails. There is also a belief that the person who holds the candle during the service should hold it up as high as he or she can reach because the height of the candle signifies how tall their future spouse will be.
The last blessing of Havdalah is the blessing of separation, meant to differentiate Shabbat from the rest of the week. At the conclusion of this blessing one then drinks most of the wine and then extinguishes the candle in the remainder. In many communities it is customary to then sing songs about Elijah the Prophet expressing the hope that he will help hearken the true and lasting Shabbat, so we can all be at peace. There are also some who then dip their fingers into the wine dish and then touch their eyelids and inner pockets to invoke a blessing for the week.
Havdalah is both a simple and beautiful ceremony that can be incorporated into your home lives, and makes for a great way to mark the end of Shabbat as a family.

Counting the Omer

“And from the day on which you bring the Omer (sheaf) of elevation offering – the day after the Sabbath – you shall count off seven weeks.” (Leviticus 23:15)

This passage from Leviticus refers to the counting of the Omer. The omer originally was the quantity of offering needed for the first barley offering of spring, which was approximately two quarts. According to tradition, the omer of barley was brought by the people to the Temple where it was roasted and then pounded into grits before being offered up to God. Then the Israelites would count forty-nine days from this offering to the holiday of Shavuot where they would begin the celebration of the summer wheat harvest.
Nowadays, with the Temple gone, we instead count the forty-nine days (sefirat ha-omer) from the Second night of Passover through until the night before Shavuot. By doing this, we are tied to our past and also symbolically connect Passover (the Festival of our Redemption) to Shavuot (the festival of The Giving of Torah).
The counting of the Omer is done at the evening service, and there are many regulations with regards to this procedure. For example if one forgets to count the omer at night, they should not say the blessing the next day before counting it. However if one should forget to count it all together, then that person should not say the blessing from that point forward.
Of course all of this seems so midakdeik, so filled with minutia. Why would we, with our calendars and pocket personal computers, need to count out forty-nine days? There are many possible answers to this question.
One response is that we should count the omer because it is part of our heritage and tradition as is mentioned in Leviticus, and it is always good to keep up with tradition.
A second possible reason because some scholars speculate that the forty-nine days represented just enough time for the barley to ferment, which if you think about it, adds a whole other layer to the Shavuot celebration.
But my favorite reason is because each day we count the Omer, it can also serve as a reminder to us that our days are numbered. We only have so many of them to do with what we will, and therefore, we had better make each and every day count. Though a little bit of beverage containing fermented barley during this never hurt either.
May all your days be filled with blessing, and may you strive to make each of and every one of them count.

Tisha B'Av and Tu' B'Av

Usually during August, we observe the Jewish memorial day of Tisha B’Av. It constitutes a national day of mourning for us by marking the various tragic events that occurred to our people. These events include the destruction of the First Temple in 587 B.C.E. and the Second Temple in 70 C.E., the expulsion from Spain in 1492 as well as others calamitous events. To mark Tisha B’Av we read from Book of Lamentations and in traditional circles engage in a full day fast while dressed in sackcloth and ashes.
However there is also another holiday observed during Av. It is a lesser-known holiday that you probably would not even find on a Jewish calendar. It is the holiday of Tu B’Av. According to the Mishnah, the fifteenth of Av was the time when the daughters of Jerusalem would go out all dressed in white and dance in Jerusalem’s vineyards and fields. Then all the young unmarried men would go out to the fields and vineyards as well, seeking a companion.
One could even call it the Valentine’s Day of Israel. It was a day that celebrated women and celebrated marriage with merriment and enjoyment serving as a wonderful foil to the sackcloth, ashes and mourning of Tisha B’Av.
By allowing the celebration of Tu B’Av, it was as if the rabbis knew that one should not be burdened with too much sorrow, nor should one engage in too much rejoicing. We are, if anything, a people of moderation. In today’s troubled times, this is indeed a good thing to be because the voice of moderation is all too often shouted down by extremists. Therefore it is incumbent upon us to keep reasserting our voices. We should do this to remind others that the moderate path, the path of reason, and a willingness to listen, is what the world needs more of.
If you fast on Tisha B’Av, I hope it is an easy fast. And if you are looking for another reason to celebrate life, love and happiness, may you enjoy all that Tu B’Av has to offer. And may both holidays continue to serve as a reminder to all of us that a life lived in between extremes is really the best life one can live.