Friendship in Judaism (In Tribute to a Decade of a Strange and Wonderful Friendship)

Dear Josep,

Mo’adim l’simcha! (Roughly, happy holidays. Just smile and nod.)

Aside from being the second day of Succot, it has come to my attention that today is also the tenth anniversary of the day we met.

…No. I do not expect you to have noticed this. 😉 No matter what Facebook may claim, “friendversaries” are not really a thing. Usually we have no way to know the exact date of the beginning of a friendship. But ours began in a very specific context, and I happen to have concrete evidence of that event: the newspapers we wrote during the conference. They are dated the 19th, 20th, and 21st of October, 2006, which means we met on the 18th.

You see, just for kicks, I dug up the PDFs of those newspapers from the depths of my Gmail history… and I noticed something amusing. The first issue was compiled during the months leading up to the conference–as in, before you and I had met. The editor assigned me some short articles on various topics, and asked me to write a longer feature article on the topic of my choosing. I chose to write, of course, about Spain’s Jewish past and crypto-Judaism in modern times. (What else?!)

So, if you open the paper to page 3, you find the first section of that article, alongside a column by a certain Josep… about religious life in Barcelona.

This is the very first instance either of our names appear in the byline.

True story.

excerpt from newspaper

And here we are, ten years later, still discussing religion, with me still taking up the vast majority of the space on the page. 😛

I wanted to mark this occasion, as is my wont, with a discussion of the concept of friendship in Judaism!

Well, the first thing, the most famous thing, is the line that is usually translated thus: “Love thy neighbor as thyself” (Leviticus 19:18). But the word in Hebrew often translated as “neighbor” is actually ֡ר־ע, which translates far more accurately as “friend.”

There are a few questions one might ask about this verse. Firstly, how can God command you to “love” someone? Isn’t “love” a feeling? You can’t command someone to be happy or sad or angry, can you?

So… no, actually. Love isn’t just a feeling. It was Mr. Rogers (who was a Presbyterian minister in addition to child psychologist and TV personality) who said: “Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.”

…There you have it. When the Torah commands us to love our friend or to love God, it doesn’t mean we should feel love, it means we must practice love. Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler argues that the root of love is giving: that we create love by giving to another. We give to our fellow man in many ways, many of which are listed explicitly in the Torah; and we give to God by following His commandments and giving to His other creations.

So why does the Bible say, “as thyself”? Obviously, the plain meaning is that you should care for your friend as much as you care for yourself. But there is another idea there: you have to love and accept yourself before you can truly love and accept someone else.

Let’s take a look at stories of friendship in the Bible. The most famous and obvious example is the “bromance” between David and Jonathan.

A little context: before King David came to power, King Saul ruled the Kingdom of Israel. Jonathan was his eldest son, the crown prince. But while King Saul hated David and tried to kill him, knowing he was destined to supersede him, Jonathan and David became soulmates. The Bible puts it in the strongest and most poetic of terms: “Jonathan’s soul was entwined with David’s soul, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.” The only other time this kind of language–the “intertwining of souls”–is used in the Bible, is when Judah tells Joseph about the love their father has for Benjamin: “And his [Jacob’s] soul is entwined with his [Benjamin’s] soul.”

Usually when the term “soulmates” is used people interpret that romantically. I used to think of it that way, too. But I don’t anymore. I believe that people have more than one “soulmate”–people with whom you develop a deep and inexplicably powerful bond, that can defy space, time, and circumstances. The friendship between David and Jonathan was such a bond. Jonathan was the heir to the throne; it would have made perfect sense for him to join his father in ridding themselves of “the competition.” But instead, he risked his very life to save David’s. There’s an incredibly powerful moment in Samuel I chapter 20, after Jonathan had worked out a way to find out, once and for all, his father’s intentions with David, and after he delivered the message that David must flee:

And David arose from the south; and he fell upon his face to the ground three times, and prostrated himself three times. And they kissed one another, and wept one with the other, until David wept greatly. And Jonathan said to David, ‘Go in peace! For we have sworn both of us in the name of the Lord, saying, ‘May the Lord be between me and you, and between my descendants and your descendants forever.””  (Samuel I 20:41-42)

Tragically, this was very likely the last time David and Jonathan ever spoke. David spent the next few years on the run, and Jonathan died on the battlefield with Saul.

So we see in this story that Jonathan practiced love for his friend by giving to him–everything from his right to the throne to his own life.

The Talmud also has a great deal to say about friendships. In Ethics of the Fathers, one rabbi recommends “a good friend” as the key to living an honest and good life. There are many stories about friendships in there, too. Rabbi Shlomo Ibn Gebirol, a famous Sephardic poet, said: “If you ask about a person, ask who his friends are. For every person does what his friends do.” (I wonder if this is the source for the common saying, “Show me your friends and I’ll show you who you are.”)

There seems to be common agreement among the Sages that friendships with good people can make us better people.

Well, I can definitely confirm that our friendship has made me a better person in a variety of ways.

So… happy friendversary, Josep. 😉 It’s a pleasure and a privilege to know you. As you wrote in your dedication on my copy of the book: “I hope to be arguing with you for many decades to come!” 😛



April Skies - Crepuscular rays of sunlight breaking through the clouds as a spring storm clears.. Chiemsee, Feldwies, Bavaria. April 2010.

Thoughts on Forgiveness

Dear Josep,

So yesterday was Yom Kippur. My in-laws are here, and having more “staff” around to watch the kids made it possible for me to pray at the synagogue significantly more than I am usually able to on the High Holidays. I was so, so grateful for this.

I’ve attempted to describe Yom Kippur in the past, but as I said then, it’s very difficult to put in words what is so powerful about it and why it was so fulfilling for me to be able to take part in the service. Because… I mean… an entire day spent fasting and sitting in an uncomfortable chair in a synagogue (if not standing… and there is a lot of standing) is not exactly most people’s idea of a good time.

It wasn’t mine, either, as a kid or a young teen. I dreaded Yom Kippur! I counted down the pages in the prayer book and the minutes until the fast was over. It was torture.

It was only later that I started to enjoy the service. It was a combination of becoming familiar with the prayers and the general structure of the service, really listening to the words, and developing a personal relationship with God that helped me learn to experience Yom Kippur as a spiritual high.

You have to do it to understand it–and even then, it takes a degree of familiarity with the prayers, because part of it is the sense of community, of singing and chanting these prayers together with the congregation, and you can’t really do that when you’re focused on learning the tunes or the words.

But since my eldest son was born, I hadn’t really been able to participate in the prayers on the High Holidays. The fast is more important than the prayers, and my priority was surviving the fast: not an easy task when you are nursing a small baby! I actually fast pretty well under normal circumstances, but when pregnant or nursing it becomes extremely difficult, even when I am drinking in small amounts throughout the day. I have limited energy reserves in the best of circumstances, and in those times, between the fast and caring for a small child or three, there was no point in even trying to go to synagogue.

I don’t think I really understood how much I missed it.

As per my last post, my relationship with God has taken some major leaps in a positive direction in the past couple weeks.

There is a beautiful rabbinic saying about teshuva (repentance): “The Holy One says: open for me an opening the size of a needle’s eye, and I will open for you an opening the size of a great hall.”

I really felt that this year. I felt like I made one tiny effort at healing this relationship, opening up just a crack, and God opened my heart and my hands to receive His abundance, and then poured a generous dose of that abundance into them, as if to say: “I am here. I am listening. I love you more than you can imagine. And I am sorry for all the times I have to say ‘no.'”

This Yom Kippur, the forgiveness was mutual.

I have written that one of the most difficult things I have been coping with in all the relationships in my life is the presence of anger. I think that now, the major theme is learning to forgive: to forgive myself for my imperfections, to forgive my loved ones for falling short of what I need or want from them, and to forgive God for allowing suffering in the world.

Ironically, one thing that made this easier was a really intense book I read recently about basically the worst human suffering you can imagine. It’s called A Damaged Mirror (though the author tells me they are planning to re-release it under a different name in a few months): a Holocaust memoir with a major twist. And man, if you thought Man’s Search for Meaning was brutal… this book… :-/ It contained some of the most detailed and horrifying descriptions of Auschwitz that I have ever seen. (…And I have read a lot of Holocaust literature, and seen quite a few Holocaust movies, and visited Auschwitz myself.) But the book was actually about a process of repentance. (It’s an amazing book. Mind-blowing. Really. Highly recommended.) Mutual forgiveness between man and God also came up in the book… and the fact that it was at all possible to forgive God after seeing the things that this man saw was somehow comforting to me.

But I’ve learned that this forgiving God business is not a one-off thing. Last year I wrote a post called I Forgave God, and I it was true. But it’s a cycle, and this year I had to forgive Him again. Not unlike how He has to forgive us every year. But what I’ve learned is that that cycle of hurt and reconciliation, moving apart and coming back together, is a natural cycle in any healthy relationship.

Take our friendship, for example! 😉 You know how you and I tend to get on each other’s nerves sometimes? And remember how one time we had an annoying argument about it, and when we had resolved it, I said, “You realize we’re going to have this same conversation a million times, right? In sixty years I’ll be whining at you from my nursing home through whatever technology we’ll have at the time…” That was a result of this realization: that people have different needs, and that sometimes, they just cannot be reconciled… and that that’s okay. It’s just part of the package. It’s something we have learned to accept about each other. Needs don’t always have to be reconciled in a positive relationship. They just have to be navigated. And compassion is the compass. Making the most generous assumption possible about the other is how we find our way.

I feel that until very recently, I have been harsh with God. I’ve been so angry and fearful that I was unable to make that generous assumption that He really is infinitely kind and compassionate and that even human suffering is paradoxically part of His kindness. Sometimes there are things we really cannot understand about the other, and when there is fear of getting hurt, it can be very hard to make a generous assumption. But once I had acknowledged and moved past that anger, I was able to soften… and strange as it may sound, I was able to feel forgiveness and compassion towards God. And my own softening was reflected right back at me.

I know there will be other times of distance, but I am hopeful that this latest experience has taught me how to navigate them better.

Wishing you a year of abundance and compassion and joy.




Dear God: We Need to Talk

Dear Josep,

Next week is Rosh Hashana (starting Monday night), and that Elul vibe is definitely in the air.

Accordingly, I began to think about my relationship with God. And I realized that it was in a pretty bad state. It came to my attention that I had been building resentment, and not allowing myself to express it, because I hate being angry and I have a tendency to try and suppress it or pull away from the object of my anger and grow cold.

There is a wide range of emotions towards God that are expressed in our prayer liturgy. When I’m feeling joy, gratitude, longing, or despair, I can find lots of things to say in the prayer book. Anger, however, is not one of those emotions. I was not really taught how to handle being angry at God. (Other than being told not to be angry, which obviously doesn’t help in the slightest.)

So for the past while… I haven’t really been speaking to Him. Even in various attempts I’ve made to try and get back into establishing a regular connection, I’ve been running away to the prescribed prayers, fulfilling my obligation without really saying what’s on my mind.

After spending Friday morning thinking about this, I was washing dishes, and a friend messaged me with some bad news. And I just got so mad at God. And I knew I had to say so. And all that came out was “I am so angry at You” between clenched teeth, and maybe some more muttering about how she has suffered enough.

And I have to say–even that little moment loosened something. And a day and a half later, on Motzei Shabbat, I got some good news. And the next day–more good news, and more. It felt like God was responding to me. Not giving me what I asked for exactly, but letting me know that He’s there and He’s listening and He does say “yes” sometimes.

I’ve mentioned before that they have a saying about Elul: “HaMelekh BaSadeh”–the King is in the field.

Well, I happen to have a field about a five-minute walk from my front door.

Photo of field
Okay, an abandoned vineyard. Same difference.

So yesterday morning, and this morning, I went out to the field to have a little chat with the King.

It is Rebbe Nachman of Breslov who recommends praying in the fields. He writes that “every blade of grass has its own song,” and that by listening to the song of the grass, your heart opens and you can join their song and serve God with joy.

He is also the Hassidic master who taught his followers to practice hitbodedut, literally “self-seclusion.” It’s a type of meditation that basically involves speaking to God freely and openly as though you are speaking to a friend. Rebbe Nachman recommends this practice in addition to the regular prescribed prayers, and he recommends doing it every single day.

The benefits of speaking to God freely are fairly obvious to people like you and me. But, says Rebbe Nachman, it’s not enough to speak to Him whenever you feel like it. You have to make it a practice–something you do regularly. This establishes a framework for the relationship, and things can happen within that framework that couldn’t happen without it.

I mentioned to you once that I have a sort of “system” of communication with my sister. It started after several years of living very different lives, very far away from each other, and seeing each other rarely. Every time we saw each other, there was so much to catch up on, and not enough time, and we felt like we were totally out of sync and unable to relate to each other’s lives. We would always part feeling frustrated.

So when we discussed this, she had an idea: to establish a weekly “sister update.” But we have to make it doable, she said, not something we’ll put off because it takes too long. Each update must have 5 items, but those items can be as short as “I have no idea what to say” or a silly picture, or as long as several paragraphs–doesn’t matter, there must be 5 of them. These updates would be due every Monday.

We have been doing this almost every week for about 5 years now.

At first it seemed trite and silly. We would tell each other about random things that were on our minds, worries about this or that, or an awesome recipe we had just discovered. (Food is a major topic of discussion in the Sister Updates, as befits any correspondence between a pair of Jewish sisters. 😛 ) But as the contact became regular, it also became familiar, and the e-mails started getting longer, sometimes spilling over into the rest of the week. And in the few times we have seen each other in those five years–I believe there have been three–we didn’t feel that frustration of not being in each other’s lives and having so much to catch up on.

And we were free to be our usual cuckoo selves together.
And we were free to be our usual deranged selves together.
Okay, here's one of us looking relatively normal.
Okay, here’s one of us looking relatively normal.

Point is: the sister updates created a framework in which we were able to build a steady, regular communication. They made it possible for us to genuinely be involved in each other’s lives, even though we live on opposite sides of the planet and only see each other once every couple years.

Hitbodedut works the same way. Except that the relationship you’re nurturing is with God. And when you’re in constant dialogue with God, you live your life in a completely different state of awareness. You are able to feel gratitude for the smallest things, and you are able to receive comfort for every difficulty. You can pour out your heart and feel that someone is listening who loves you and wants the best for you. God is the Ultimate Therapist.

All you have to do is show up in His office, for five minutes a day.

…So why is it so hard?!

I’ve been telling myself I need to do this for years. And it is amazing how I’ve managed to weasel out of it. In all fairness, it’s hard to find those five minutes to myself. When I was a teen, I took advantage of my chronic insomnia and spoke to God while lying in bed. These days, though, I’ve got someone else in bed trying to sleep! 😉 And obviously, having little kids around makes it very near impossible.

I really hope I manage to find a way to institute it as a regular practice this time–field or no field.

I probably won’t update again before Rosh Hashana, so let me take the opportunity to wish you and all our readers a very blessed 5777. May the coming year bring us lots of good news and joy and laughter and meaningful connections with God and with our loved ones.



All these--off limits!

Permanent Passover Disease (a.k.a. Celiac)

Dear Josep,

So, as you know, one of the Distressing Things™ that happened in my family this summer was the discovery that my middle child probably has celiac. He underwent the endoscopy a week ago, and we won’t have definite results until they finish analyzing the biopsy (which will take another couple weeks), but in the meantime all the signs point to celiac and the doctor told us to commence a gluten-free diet.

Now, I have several family members who are not eating gluten, and Eitan actually tried it for a month earlier this year to see if it would help with his migraines. (Unfortunately, it didn’t.) So I had the basic idea of what would be involved and what we could do to replace gluten in R1’s diet. But here’s the thing: those family members don’t have celiac. They are just gluten sensitive.

What’s the difference?

Well, celiac is not a sensitivity, or a food allergy, or an intolerance. It is an autoimmune disease. The difference is kind of technical, but the point is that for a person with celiac, even the tiniest particle of gluten can trigger the autoimmune response that damages the intestines.

So it’s not just that R1 can’t eat things that contain gluten; he can’t eat things that contain traces of gluten, or even may contain traces of gluten. And you’d be surprised to learn how many things may contain traces of gluten!!! (Our favorite brand of hummus, for one. 🙁 🙁 🙁 ) We have to check all the labels. We have to be very careful not to contaminate things like peanut butter or hummus by spreading it on bread and then dipping the knife back in. And even seemingly innocent products like dried beans or rice can sometimes contain traces. (Fortunately, we can still use them if we check them over carefully and rinse them before cooking.) We had to strip our cast iron pans through high heat to burn off whatever gluten particles might be absorbed into them, and replace our wooden cutting board and cooking utensils.

Hmmmmmm. What does this all remind me of…?

…You should know the answer to this by now. 😛


(If you guess “kashrut,” you get half a point! 😉 )

As I’ve mentioned, the reason Passover involves such intensive preparation is the prohibition against eating chametz–leavened products (like bread) made out of one of the five grains.

All these--off limits!
All these–off limits!

We have to clean our houses and kasher our kitchens to assure that not a tiny speck of wheat, barley, etc., will find its way into our food. Sephardim, at least, are permitted to eat things like rice, corn, or beans, as long as these have been produced somewhere where they wouldn’t have any contact with wheat, and have been carefully checked and picked over for the presence of other, forbidden grains before the holiday.

The only differences, really, are that we are supposed to eat matzah on Passover (which is unleavened bread made from one of the five grains), and that the rules about Passover were developed before the advent of such modern cooking materials as stainless steel, and therefore are more strict about absorption. I can cook a piece of French toast in a stainless steel pan, and then scrub it clean and use it to cook an egg for R1 with no ill consequences. If I wanted to use it on Passover, however, I’d have to kasher it first.

…And also, Passover is just a week. Celiac is forever. :-/ :-/ :-/

The thing is, if you haven’t figured this out yet, Jews have a special relationship with food in general and with bread in particular. Bread has a special status in Jewish law: it has its own blessings for before and after eating; we must wash our hands before eating it; and its presence is required in to define a meal in halakhic terms (so if we are required to eat a meal, such as on Shabbat or holidays or at a wedding, the meal must contain bread to fulfill the mitzvah). I think this is because of its status as a staple food in this part of the world.

So this makes things a little tricky for religious Jewish celiacs. They can’t really eat anything that halakha defines as bread, and therefore they can’t fulfill the requirements for this mitzvah… with one notable exception.

Oats appear to be a bit of an anomaly both in terms of their chemical composition and their halakhic status. As my Catholic friend Jonathan so kindly pointed out to me, there is a rabbinic controversy over whether oats are what the Biblical text is referring to. Most authorities agree that oats are the fifth of the five grains. As far as gluten is concerned, they don’t actually contain gluten, but another protein that is similar to gluten, and it appears that there is some medical controversy over whether oats are a problem for celiacs or not. Because oats are often processed near wheat, they can often be gluten-contaminated, too. Apparently some people tolerate them well (when they are gluten-free) and some people don’t. The nutritionist told us to avoid them for the first year.

But! If R1 ends up tolerating gluten-free oats, that will mean that he can have proper matzah on Passover, as well as proper bread made of oat flour that he can eat on Shabbat and holidays and such. So here’s hoping.

I tell you, I was standing in his classroom waiting to meet his teacher on the first day of school, and she was handing out candies, and when she paused and looked up at me and said, “Is this okay for him?” I was suddenly my own mother trying to inform the non-Jewish camp counselors in Pittsburgh about our crazy dietary restrictions.

I had another “flashback” to what it’s like to keep kosher in the USA when I pointed out the “gluten-free” symbol to R1 on the bag of potato chips I bought him after the endoscopy. And another when I walked into the supermarket and started examining all the products I’m used to buying to see whether they have traces of gluten. And another when I was reading the official list of restaurants with approved gluten-free menus on the Israeli Celiac Association website.

When I moved to Israel, my culinary world expanded tremendously. As a child living in the USA, there was only a small handful of options when it came to eating out. I was used to not being able to eat most places and carefully checking the labels of packaged stuff. After moving here, suddenly I could eat practically anywhere, and the entire supermarket was mine to enjoy.

After two decades, I became rather used to this glorious reality.

Now, with like a third of the supermarket off-limits and a mere handful of restaurants where I can take my son without having to worry about gluten contamination… it feels very limiting. I’ve become so spoiled!

I really shouldn’t complain; thank God, because of the whole gluten-free fad there are tons of products available that R1 can have. (And I was surprised and relieved to find that they’re not always obscenely expensive.)

I am grateful to live in a modern age where we have access to such a wide variety of foods and don’t need to rely on wheat to provide nutrition. But this is going to be more of an adjustment than I anticipated. :-/

In the meantime, R1 seems to be taking it quite well. I think he’s looking forward to not having constant stomach pain.




Diversity of Language: A Biblical Punishment?

Dear Josep,

Praise the Lord. September 1st is upon us.

This summer has been ridiculous. Just ridiculous. I can’t even. I just. Ugh. And All the Crappy/Annoying Things are not over yet. But at least the kids are back in school now. Thank. God.

Soooo. Obviously I’ve had a lot on my plate and very limited time to be engaging in my beloved pastime of rambling at you about Judaism. I’ve been scribbling down half-baked ideas, but having had a few minutes to myself this morning, I finally managed to work one into a coherent post, and here it is.

The other day, my Parisian friend Aviv asked me if he could ask a question about the Torah. I said, “Sure!” and he wrote the following very interesting thought:

In Sefer Beresheet [the Book of Genesis], it’s told that when the humans wanted to create the Tower of Babel, Hashem punished them by making 70 languages (that made the thousands of languages of today), and so the humans could not make the tower because they couldn’t understand each other. It’s also said that in the Messianic Days, the world will have only one language.

But I wonder if having several languages is not also a blessing of God. Because it has a role in the culture of each people in the world, it creates jobs, like translation, and there are people like me and you and a lot of others who love to learn languages. So I wonder if this punishment for diversity is not at the same time a blessing, or a good thing for humanity.

I responded,

That story is a very strange story in many ways. Why would God get angry about people building a tower and ‘trying to fight him’? It’s just so ridiculous, it’s like if I were to punish my kids for telling me they were planning to run away and find new parents. So what was the real sin here, and how was the punishment a fitting consequence for the sin? Just a few of the other questions one asks looking at the story.

…Oh wait, you were looking for an answer, not more questions? Hahaha… welcome to Judaism. 😛

I told him I’d like to think about it some more, and that maybe I’d write a blog post on it. So, here it is!

First off, let’s read the Biblical text describing the story of the Tower of Babel.

All the earth had but one language and the same words. As they migrated from the East, they came upon a valley in the land of Shinar, and settled there. And they said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks and fire them.’ And they had bricks as stone, and asphalt served them as mortar. They said, ‘Come, let us build a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered across the land.’ God descended to see the city and the tower that the sons of Adam had built. God said, ‘As one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, and as of now, nothing is preventing them from doing that which they propose. Let us go down and confound their speech, so that they shall not understand one another’s speech.’ And God scattered them from there across the face of the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel, because there God confounded the speech of the whole earth, and from there, God scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

 (Genesis 11:1-9)

There are many commentaries and Rabbinic legends that embellish this story. Someone who attended a Jewish day school like I did may be surprised to see how short this passage is and how many details we were taught about this story are not actually in the text of the Bible. What we are taught as children is that the building of the tower of Babel was a sin, and the creation of different languages, a punishment for the sin. But simply looking over the text, that is not the obvious meaning, or to use the Hebrew term, the “p’shat.” Here’s what I see as the simple and most obvious meaning of the passage.

To me, it seems to be describing a stage in human development. People are learning to make and use bricks and mortar to build things instead of just stone. And they are starting to build cities. They propose building one big city for all of them, and a great tower that reaches to the top of the sky.

A 16th-century depiction by Hendrick van Cleve III
A 16th-century depiction by Hendrick van Cleve III

God sees what they are doing, and for reasons not entirely clear from the passage, sees a need to stop this process. His solution is to “confound the speech” of the people so they would stop understanding each other. As a result, they stopped building the city and scattered over the face of the earth.

It is not entirely obvious from the passage what “confounding their speech” means. We have come to understand it as meaning that multiple languages were created. Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki of 10th century Provence) is the go-to commentator for p’shat interpretation, and he describes it this way: “This one asks for a brick, and that one brings him mortar, and the former attacks him and injures his brain.” I have a distinct memory of my second-grade teacher teaching us that very colorfully. It’s a cute origin story, for sure, but… what are we meant to learn from it?

And is it true, as Aviv asked, that God “punished” them with diversity? Hasn’t Judaism always celebrated diversity? Even when we started out as a nation we were divided into twelve distinct tribes!

When I have questions like these, I open my trusty Chumash Mikra’ot Gedolot, which includes all the major commentaries (called perushim in Hebrew) alongside the Biblical text.

Mikraot gedolot

I found the commentaries of Or HaHayim (Rabbi Haim ben Attar of 17th century Morocco) and Kli Yakar (Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim ben Aaron Luntschitz of 17th century Prague) particularly relevant.

Both explain that the people were trying to stay together. “One language and of the same words.” There was uniformity here. The purpose of the tall tower, Or HaHayim explains, was so that the people would stay within sight of the tower, and always be able to find their way back to the city. But God had commanded Adam to “go forth and multiply and fill the land.” He didn’t want them to stay together in one place. He wanted them to spread over the face of the earth.

Kli Yakar says that their objective in building the city and the tower was to keep the peace. “If we all stay the same, we will have no reason to fight with one another.” It kind of reminds me of the idea of communism, or John Lennon’s “Imagine.” No countries, no different cultures, nothing to divide us, and that way we will all be able to sit together and sing kumbaya around the campfire!

Now, Kli Yakar emphasizes, it’s not that God didn’t want there to be peace and harmony among the humans. But, he says, he saw that this way of maintaining peace and harmony was going to backfire in a major way, and he brings a passage from the story to show this: “Come, let us build a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered across the land.” Kli Yakar explains that though they seemed uniform in their apparently noble goal of maintaining peace, each of them actually had his own interests at heart: this one wanted wealth and honor, this one wanted lots of food, this one wanted lots of sex, etc., “and through this comes discord, both because they do not have one [common] goal… and because each of them has a desire to ascend above his fellow… because of this, separation of these groups is better than their gathering, as it is said (Psalms 92:10) ‘All those who act in iniquity shall be separated’… but the righteous—their gathering is good, for their purpose unites them, because they have only one goal, and they become as one by His hand, as it is said (Psalms 119:165) ‘Great peace for the lovers of your Torah.’ But not for those for whom the external goal is the primary one.”

So, the creation of the different languages and scattering the peoples throughout the world wasn’t so much a punishment, as a way to prevent humanity from reaching the same point it had before the flood: violence and discord.

And the Kli Yakar seems to be saying that in principle, unity is a good thing, but only when the people are truly united with a common, unselfish goal. When people join together with others in the hopes of achieving only their own interests, it will end badly.

In other words: There are no shortcuts to peace.

Peace cannot be imposed on people who care only about themselves and their own interests.

The prophecies about the coming of the Messiah are rich with imagery of people–not just Jews, but everyone–gathering together to serve God. As I’ve mentioned, we don’t have universally accepted beliefs of specific details, and I’ve never heard the concept that we will go back to speaking one language. But I think the idea is that when the Messiah comes, we will finally be ready for the true unity we lacked when the Tower of Babel was built.



white dress

Tu B’Av: The Jewish Valentine’s Day?

Dear Josep,

A while ago I described Lag B’Omer as “pretty much the most obscure holiday we have.” Well, I lied.

A well-informed Jew who skims over my summary of the Jewish Year might notice that there is a little something missing. I believe when I first posted it, someone did ask me: “What about Tu B’Av?” I probably scoffed and said, “Tu B’Av is not really a thing.”

Well… that isn’t entirely true. Tu B’Av is a thing. Back in the days of the Temple, in fact, it was a major thing. It’s just that it’s not really celebrated by religious Jews in any meaningful way anymore, and more annoyingly, in Israel, it’s been commercialized and turned into the Jewish Valentine’s Day—or, as it were, the Jewish St. Jordi’s Day. 😉

So what is this Tu B’Av and why has it been hijacked by candy hearts and ads for diamond earrings?

The answer, as with everything in this crazy religion, is complicated.

Tu B’Av (the 15th of Av–it falls tonight and tomorrow) is first mentioned in the Talmud as a day of “great celebration” on par with Yom Kippur. The only allusion to it as a holiday within the Bible is in the book of Judges (19-21)–part of an EXTREMELY disturbing, gruesome, and profoundly unromantic story that starts with a horrific gang rape and murder and continues with a bloody civil war between the tribe of Benjamin and the rest of Israel. After the war, there were only 600 Benjaminite men left, and there was a concern that the tribe would be wiped out, because the Israelites had vowed not to give their daughters to Benjaminites in marriage.

The festival of Tu B’Av was used as a solution to the problem, because it involved a kind of bizarre ancient dating game: young women would go into the vineyards near Shiloh wearing white dresses (more on this in a minute), and they would dance. Young men would hide among the vines, and if they spotted one they fancied, they’d snatch her up and marry her.

That way, the Israelites reasoned, we get around the problem because we’re not willingly giving our daughters to the Benjaminites.

The earliest event associated with Tu B’Av, however–according to the Sages–is one that happened many years before. According to the Sages, the Sin of the Spies (Numbers 13-14) occurred on the Ninth of Av, marking it forever as a day of great calamity for the Jewish people. This is when the Israelites sent spies to scout out the land of Israel before entering its borders. When the Spies returned, the opinions were split ten to two: the majority reported that there was no way the Israelites could conquer the land. The remaining two, Joshua and Caleb, said the land was wonderful and that we would conquer it with God’s help. The Israelites believed the pessimistic spies, and cried all night that God had led them to their deaths. They started rebelling and planned to appoint a new leader to return them to Egypt. God was thoroughly exasperated with their lack of faith and gratitude and condemned them to wander in the desert for forty years, until a new generation arose with greater faith in God.

The Sages tell us that every Tisha B’Av for the next thirty nine years, fifteen thousand men of the “desert generation” would die. And in the fortieth year, the last fifteen thousand dug their own graves, and lay down in them, waiting to die, but God granted them reprieve and did not kill them. They say that the fifteenth of Av is when they realized that they were not going to die, and it became a day of celebration–on par with Yom Kippur, as a celebration of God’s forgiveness.

Well, that’s… all very well and good, but I literally had not heard this story at all until a few years ago. It’s just a rabbinic story, a parable, not something we are supposed to accept as historical fact. All other holidays are rooted in the Bible or in documented Jewish history. There are another number of events that are said to have occurred on Tu B’Av that are more well documented, but they occurred well after the festival was already established.

The Talmud describes the rituals observed on Tu B’Av in the days of the Temple. It says that all the girls of Jerusalem would borrow white dresses from one another: a rich girl would borrow from a poor girl, a poor girl from a rich girl, the daughter of a priest from the daughter of a beggar, etc., because on this day they were to be seen as having an equal station: all daughters of God.

The girls would then go out to the vineyards and dance there, as described above.

The unique thing about this ritual is that it erased the lines of class and station, creating an environment where men and women could select their partners based on their wishes and not on the expectations of society.

If  there is common thread among all these stories and ideas, it is a sense of love, brotherhood, and equality among the Jewish people, usually following some kind of conflict. After all, Tisha B’Av is the day the Temple was destroyed, and it is said that the Second Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred among Jews. The vineyard ritual, in contrast, blurred the lines that separated us and brought us together as one big family.

…Hey, at least it’s a more logical connection to love than a saint slaying a dragon and handing a flower to a princess, okay?!

After the Temple was destroyed, this day was no longer celebrated. For a very long time the only way it was observed was the omission of certain prayers. Nowadays, religious communities take advantage of the theme to organize singles’ events. To be fair, it’s probably on par with Tu B’Shvat in that it doesn’t really have much practical significance anymore, and its meaning has been channeled towards a more general theme.

Well, call me a spoilsport, but I’d rather pretend this holiday doesn’t exist than acknowledge it as a “Jewish Valentine’s Day.” If Jewish women need a day on the calendar to guilt their husbands into buying them chocolate and make their single friends depressed and miserable about being single, I guess it’s better that it be Tu B’Av than Valentine’s Day. But… yeah. How about no.

Now, if we took a leaf out of your proverbial book and exchanged books on this day, that would be another matter entirely. 😛

But seriously–I’d rather continue to ignore it until someone comes up with a way to celebrate love and brotherhood among Jews in a genuine way that does not focus only on romantic love.



A Book Update & “Behind the Scenes”

I’ve been relatively quiet due to some annoying Internet issues which may or may not be fixed in the foreseeable future, depending on the good graces of Bezeq and its technician.

In the meantime, here’s a post about the book, since I haven’t babbled about it in hours!


pomeranz small 2

That is me, with a huge grin on my face, because I just found my book in Pomeranz Booksellers in central Jerusalem, on display right next to Rabbi Sacks’s “A Letter in the Scroll.” (Ahhhhhhh) (Have I mentioned that I am a huge fan of Rabbi Sacks?) (I am a huge fan of Rabbi Sacks.) (OMGmybookisnextohisinthestore) (Ahhhhhh)


If you happen to be in Jerusalem, drop by and buy a copy before the signed ones are all gone. 😉

Me signing books

And while I’m sharing pictures that make me very happy, here is another pair from a couple months ago. You see, my friend Jo happened to be traveling to Barcelona on business, so I was able to arrange a personal delivery of Josep’s signed copy, and a photographer to capture him reading my dedication. 😉

Josep reading my dedication

And also to have him sign my copy. Because I’m sentimental like that.

Josep signing my copy of LtJ


Also: this past Shabbat, a friend surprised me with a gift. We had Shabbat lunch at their house, and when I was walking out the door, he handed it to me and told me to open it when I got home so he wouldn’t have to see my reaction if I didn’t like it.

To say I liked it is a gross understatement.


Since the photo quality isn’t great: it’s three of the photos from Pomeranz, with the following written on it: “Lifelong dream= accomplished! May there be many more! Love, the Kavitskys”

Thanks so much, guys. It means a lot to me.

Anyway, the friend who gave me that picture, Mike, happens to be a writer himself, who is planning to start his own blog documenting his journey back to the USA for a year with his family. (Right Mike?!?! Now I’ve announced it on my blog, so you have to do it! 😛 ) When he was thinking about how to structure it, he asked me some questions about my own writing process, and I thought you might be interested to learn a little more about the “behind-the-scenes” of the blog.


When writing to a particular (and real) person, how do you prevent that from affecting the universality of your message? How do you avoid catering your writing and concepts expressed to that individual or type of person?

Well, part of the appeal of the letters, I think, is that there’s a balance of both… and the personal touch paradoxically makes them more universal and relatable. It changes the tone of an essay on what may be a huge, grandiose topic from a grave or arrogant “I am telling the world something of deep importance,” to a lighthearted chat between good friends.

I make plenty of personal references in the letters, making it clear that I’m really writing to Josep, not just using the “Dear Josep… Love, Daniella” as a frame for an essay. But at least with letters written specifically for the blog, I’m keeping the rest of my audience in mind. So for example, I’ll clarify concepts that I know he knows but others might not, either with a parenthetical statement or a footnote. Or, when I relate to a personal story, I explain it in the footnotes. Here’s one example of a footnote that both explains a concept that Josep and I know but other readers might not, and tells a personal story. And here’s another example. 🙂

I often use our personal correspondence, both past and present, as a sort of launching point for writing about a topic that I think both he and others might find interesting. For example, in my head covering post, I started off with an amusing anecdote about our correspondence, even adding a picture of a gift I sent him recently, and used that to launch into the topic. Another example is the Holocaust education post, where I started off by relating both to Josep’s experiences of learning about the Holocaust and mine, and connecting that to the Yad Vashem guidelines.

Are you concerned, while writing your letters, about maintaining a broad “audience” and trying to avoid offending/alienating potential readers? If so, how does that affect how you frame your thoughts and does it limit your sense of authenticity?

Aha, yes. Good question. 🙂 Yes, I definitely keep the sensitivities of my broad audience in mind and will word things carefully to avoid offending or alienating readers. That does limit me and my sense of authenticity somewhat… but it also forces me to think harder about what I’m saying and if I can really stand behind it, which can be a good thing. For example, I sent Josep an e-mail a couple years ago (before the blog) about “different kinds of Jews.” Since I am writing from my own perspective as an Orthodox Jew, and he knows that, and it’s a private conversation between the two of us, I didn’t feel a need to be so careful in my description of movements I disagree with. But when I set about the task of turning it into a blog post (it eventually became two!), I realized I’d have to elaborate a lot more and word things much more carefully if I didn’t want to get myself in trouble!
Conversely, though, sometimes I find the fact that I’m addressing the letters to Josep specifically somewhat limiting, too. For example, there has been at least one topic I would have written about freely, but chose to avoid because I know it might be sensitive for him on a personal level.

How do you dedicate the time necessary to make your writing succeed if you’re not being paid for your work? How do you pace yourself? What are some of your goal-setting methods?

Before I answer this I have to qualify it by saying that most writers are not like me in this regard.

Setting daily or weekly goals (in terms of amount of time spent writing or amount of words written) is a good method for pacing yourself and staying disciplined and focused… for most other writers.

When it comes to me, I write because I can’t not write. I write because writing is like breathing for me. It wasn’t that I sat down and decided to write a blog and maybe a book. It’s that I was overflowing with these letters and I couldn’t stop writing them even when Josep himself was not really able to read and react to them. Seriously. The blog was just a receptacle for material that was already practically leaking from my pores. Writing LtJ is not work for me, it is play.

So the answer is, I don’t “dedicate time.” I don’t set goals and I don’t pace myself. I just do it when I am inspired. The disadvantage, of course, is that sometimes I feel like I’m on the verge of running empty, and that the time will come when I’m all out of material. Well, it’s been a year and a half, I’ve written more than 120 blog posts, and haven’t gone more than two weeks or so without posting, so it hasn’t happened yet… 😉

But like I said, most writers don’t work that way. Almost everything I’ve ever read giving advice to writers recommends setting aside a specific time for writing every day and doing that and only that with no distractions. I’ve heard countless writers say that you can’t wait for inspiration and that sometimes inspiration comes while you’re already fifty pages in. That approach doesn’t work for me, it’s just not how I roll. But it may work for you.

If you’re interested in more of my thoughts about writing, I recently started a new blog called The Rejection Survival Guide, which you might enjoy. Be sure to check it out.

The view from the top of the Baha'i Gardens, overlooking Haifa Bay

Guest Letter from Bobby: On the Baha’i Faith and Its Call for Religious Tolerance

I am very excited to present this guest letter about the Baha’i faith. As I’ve mentioned before, I hang out on some online interfaith groups, and Bobby recently joined one of them, saying he’d like to learn more about other faiths. When he mentioned that he is Baha’i, I immediately asked to interview him for a guest letter.

Baha’i is a monotheistic faith, relatively recent in origin, that is not widely known. I only learned of its existence because of the beautiful Baha’i Gardens in Haifa, Israel, which I have seen from afar, but never visited.

The view from the top of the Baha'i Gardens, overlooking Haifa Bay
The view of Haifa Bay from the top of the Baha’i Gardens

So what’s the deal with these people? Who are they, and what do they believe? I asked Bobby, and as my understanding of the Baha’i Faith deepened I gained a sense that it has an extremely important message for people of all religions, especially those of us who believe in interfaith dialogue and connection. I hope you enjoy this letter as much as I did.

Greetings Josep!

My name is Bobby, and I’m a Baha’i living in Missouri, USA. I wasn’t born into a Baha’i family–my family are all Christian–but when I was 14 my grandmother passed away and I started to think about religion more seriously, a friend of mine introduced me to the Baha’i faith and after investigation I realized that (for me at least) it’s the truth.

Tell us a little about the background of the Baha’i faith. What does the word “Baha’i” mean? Where, when, and how was it developed? What are its main theological principles?

Baha’i is a term used to describe followers of Baha’u’llah, whom we believe to be the messenger of God for this age. The word Baha’i comes from the word Baha which is the 100th and greatest of God’s names–it means Glory–and Baha’u’llah means The Glory of God. The Baha’i faith recognizes many Messengers of God, including:

  • Zoroaster
  • Krishna
  • Moses
  • Buddha
  • Jesus
  • Muhammad

The three central figures of the Baha’i faith are as follows.

The first is the Bab, who was the forerunner of Baha’u’llah, prophesying Baha’u’llah’s coming. The Bab declared in 1840 that he was the Mahdi, the 12th Imam of Islam that was prophesied to return before the coming of the Promised One.

The second is Baha’u’llah. He is the divine Messenger for our age.

The third is Baha’u’llah’s son Abdu’l-Baha. He was the leader of the Baha’i faith, writing many invaluable books about our faith.

Some of the most important principles of the Baha’i faith are: harmony between science and religion, equality between men and women, unity of humanity, and unity of religion.

I understand that the Baha’i faith recognizes all other monotheistic religions as stemming from the same spiritual source, and that it celebrates diversity of worship. Does that mean that the Baha’i faith recognizes all those other religions as being true, in the sense that Jews, Christians, and Muslims are all correct in their understanding and interpretation of God’s will? Or is it that the technical details don’t really matter, as long as we are devoted to serving God and humankind?

The Baha’i faith teaches that all religions are true and contain the seeds for the message of the next of God’s Messengers, but Baha’u’llah taught that the adherents of the previous religions erred when they created sects/denominations. Because God is a perfect unity, without division of any kind, his religion is one. The creation of division in religion and all the fighting it’s caused is harmful to the peace God wants us to obtain, but ultimately all religions are correct because the are the revealed divine will of God.

I can understand and get behind the idea of this as a sort of general principle–at the end of the day, we’re all trying to achieve the same thing. But it gets complicated when we talk about specifics. Because some beliefs in one religion absolutely contradict the beliefs in other religions. For example, Christians believe that Jesus was the Messiah and a human manifestation of God. Muslims believe he was a prophet. Jews believe he was none of those things. This is far more than a squabble over a minor detail; it results in a completely different understanding of the will of God.
I am reminded of a classic Jewish joke, where two Jews go to their rabbi to settle a financial dispute. The rabbi listens carefully to the first Jew’s account and says, “You’re right.” Then he listens to the other Jew’s account and says, “You’re also right.” The first Jew says, “But rabbi! We can’t both be right!” And the rabbi says, “You’re also right!”
So, how can we all be right? 😉 If all religions are the revealed divine will of God, why does it appear to contradict itself?

Wonderful question!

The issue is not so much with the religion and the religious texts (which would cause the religion to not be the true word of God), but rather the problem is with how man interprets the writings. We believe that Jesus did fulfill the prophecies to be the Messiah, but not all Jews believe this because they interpret the prophecies in different ways than Baha’is. For instance, we believe that the prophecy that the whole world shall know God and worship him has nearly been fulfilled thanks to the spread of Christianity and Islam. If it weren’t for Jesus sending out his followers to spread the faith, the majority of the world would not believe in God.

Another prophecy is that when he [the Messiah] comes there will be a resurrection of the dead. This is one of the 13 principles of Jewish faith.1 We believe this happened spiritually rather than physically. The Jewish faith was in a great time of changing and turmoil 2,000 years ago with the Roman invaders, and Jesus’ coming caused the dead spirits of the Jewish people to come back to life. The Jewish people (speaking of those who rejected Jesus) really flourished in their writings and deeper understanding of Torah post Roman invasion up until not too long ago.

Now as for the Muslims, they have two classes of Prophets. The first is Nabi, the second is Rasul. A prophet is a Nabi, someone who is inspired by God, but the Rasul is the Divine Messenger of God (Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad are on this list), and they consider Jesus to be Rasul.

So there are no contradictions between the religions. It is a progressive revelation. The only issues are with interpretations. But from my understanding of Baha’i writings this is what God wants. He doesn’t want there to be only Christians or only Baha’is. He wants all of his religions to exist at the same time in harmony, with the understanding that they are one religion.

If you thought this was confusing you should hear me try to explain Jesus’s end times prophecies! 😀

I think I get it. You believe that all religions were meant to be the same, and Baha’i has its own understanding of the religious texts and how they all fit together. So it’s not so much that you think the Christians, Jews, and Muslims are all “correct” per se, but that the Torah, Christian Bible, Qur’an, and other holy texts are all the word of God, and the discrepancies between the religions are the result of the (according to you) erroneous ways we interpreted and applied them. Is that correct?

Simply put, yes, that is the belief. But to err is human, and the Baha’i writings say that no matter what one’s faith is, if he practices with conviction, he is in the right. So even a Jew who rejects Jesus is considered right in their practice of the religion of God, from my understanding, because they don’t have to accept Jesus to still have the (a?) correct religion 🙂 Many Baha’is go to synagogues, mosques, and churches every week to learn and commune with our spiritual brothers and sisters. We wholeheartedly believe that you all have the truth. It’s just your doctrine on certain things that we have a different understanding of.

I feel that we live in a world where a sort of “zealous ownership over religious truth” lies at the heart of the biggest and bloodiest conflicts. What do you, as a Baha’i, wish members of all these different religious groups would recognize about each other? How do you think we can navigate these differences in our belief systems, when they appear to be mutually exclusive?

As a Baha’i I wish that everyone would realize we all worship the same God, albeit in different ways. If we could realize that our seemingly different religions are actually the same, once you strip away the cultural influence and superstition, then, I think, we could end religious prejudice.

How do you practice the Baha’i faith on a day-to-day basis? What calendar do you follow, and what festivals do you celebrate?

The Kitab-i-Aqdas, the Most Holy Book of the Baha’i faith, is the record of the commandments of God for our age, it tells us our day to day responsibilities as Baha’is. Among these are the Obligatory Prayers in the morning, at noon and at sunset. Another command is for daily meditation while reciting Allah’u’Abha2 95 times.

We use the Badi calendar created by The Bab. This calendar has 19 months with 19 days each, also containing intercalary days that have became a gift giving holiday for the Baha’i called Ayyam-i-Ha. Some other holidays are Naw Ruz which is the Persian new year, the martyrdom of the Bab, the Ascension of Baha’u’llah, the Day of the Covenant, and others.

What is the significance of the Baha’i Gardens in Israel to your faith? Have you ever been there?

The Gardens of Haifa are a holy place in the Baha’i faith. They go up the side of Mount Carmel to the shrine of the Bab, and lead to the Shrine of Baha’u’llah in Bahji, Akka (a.k.a. Akko or Acre), Israel.

The Shrine of Baha'u'allah near Acre, Israel By Marco Abrar, CC BY-SA 3.0,
The Shrine of Baha’u’allah near Acre, Israel
By Marco Abrar, CC BY-SA 3.0

Baha’is make pilgrimage to these holy spots at least once in their lifetime if able, but sadly I have not had a chance.

According to Wikipedia, there are somewhere around 5-6 million Baha’is in the world. Are you part of a community? What is your experience of belonging to a faith that is relatively unknown, that many people you meet may never have heard of?

According to the latest enrollment numbers from The Universal House of Justice (the closest thing Baha’is of to a “church”) there are 7.6 million enrolled Baha’is around the world. Unfortunately none of them live near me! I would love to live in a community; Baha’is get together every nineteen days, that is, the first of every month on our calendar, for a feast. How wonderful community life would be! But a good thing is that I have many people to educate on the Baha’i faith around here.

What are some of your favorite things about being Baha’i?

My favorite thing about being a Baha’i is that I never have to say that I’m right and everyone else is wrong. My second favorite is that the Baha’i faith teaches that hell is a metaphor not a real place of torment.

Is there anything else you think is important for us to know about the Baha’i faith?

The Baha’i houses of worship (one on every continent!) are open to members of all faiths. I very much recommend visiting one! I adore the House of Worship in Chile.

The Baha'i House of Worship in Santiago, Chile. Photo courtesy of Baha'i World News Service
The Baha’i House of Worship in Chile. Photo courtesy of Baha’i World News Service


1. For more about the Jewish concept of resurrection of the dead, see “The Vagueries of the Jewish Afterlife.“”↩

2. “Allahu’Abha” is the traditional Baha’i greeting that means “God is the most glorious.” It can be compared to Islam’s “Allahu’Akbar.”↩

Do you belong to a lesser-known faith, or a smaller sect of one of the major religions? Want to share your unique perspective? Write us a guest letter of your own!

Visions of the Psalms, Psalm 23

Lush Pastures and Valleys of Shadows: Psalm 23 from a Jewish Perspective

Dear Josep,

I know you enjoyed that post about King David in which I mentioned the book of Psalms, and I decided to treat you to a whole blog post on something I know is close to your heart: your favorite psalm. 🙂

But I want to start by telling you about an extraordinary place you should visit next time you are in Jerusalem. It’s called the Museum of Psalms; a tiny little gallery tucked in an alley off of Jaffa Road. The project on display is a collection of paintings, one for each of the 150 psalms, created by artist Moshe Tzvi Berger, a Transylvanian Holocaust survivor.

Berger is a Lubavitcher Hassid well-versed in Kabbalah, and the paintings are rich with symbolism and vibrant with magnificent colors. Here’s a 10-minute video about the museum, in which the artist talks a little about the paintings.

My in-laws discovered this place and brought me there a couple times. They bought a book called “Visions of the Psalms” that features all the paintings alongside the psalms represented by them, in both Hebrew and English, and some commentary by the artist. Here’s your page:

Visions of the Psalms, Psalm 23

When they first took me to the museum, before E was born, I thought about buying you a print of that painting as a gift for his birth. But they didn’t have Psalm 23 available as a print. What they did have was Psalm 27… which happens to be my favorite.

Psalm 27, Moshe Tzvi Berger
So I bought it for myself!

The similarity between the paintings is no accident. The painting for Psalm 27 is almost a close-up of the painting for Psalm 23. The text that comprises the red goblet in both paintings is the same line from 23.

Psalm 23 is one of the most well-known. It is cherished, sung, and recited by Jews and Christians alike. Jews sing it during the services on Shabbat evening, and traditionally sing it during the third meal of the Sabbath, too.

This melody, performed here by Shuli Nathan, is the most commonly sung. It was composed by Ben Zion Shenker. (You actually heard us singing this in synagogue, but I couldn’t tell you what it was from the women’s section. 😉 )

Now that we have these colors and images and sounds in our minds… let’s take a look at the words of this psalm. We’re going to look at each verse from a literary and Biblical perspective, bringing in traditional Jewish commentaries when necessary. This is a typical way for Jews to study and analyze a Biblical text.

I think when we’re done, you’ll appreciate why studying the original Hebrew gives a lot more depth to the Psalmist’s words.

A Song of David…

Jewish tradition holds that these words were written by King David. This may or may not be true, but as I mentioned in the previous post on this topic, I feel that they really capture his spirit.

…God is my shepherd, I will not lack. In lush pastures He lays me down, by tranquil waters He leads me.

What an image this evokes. You can almost hear the gentle murmur of the clear water, smell the fresh scent of the lush green grass, and feel the sun on your face as you bask in its warmth. The Psalmist describes this as a metaphor for God’s presence in his life.

I think the painting of Psalm 23 above beautifully portrays this feeling. The “sun” is in the shape of the letter yud, symbolizing God. We see an island, or an oasis, floating in the midst of the blue–which, the artist points out in the video, is the color of mercy. The “cup” that “overflows” (a metaphor that appears later) is reflected on the tranquil waters. It is surrounded by lush trees–perhaps meant to recall the Tree of Life, a symbol for the Torah, as we have discussed.

The image in the painting reminds me of Ein Gedi, the oasis near Masada where David hid from Saul.

Ein Gedi
Ein Gedi. Photo by yours truly.

Many of the great figures in the Bible started out as shepherds–Jacob, Moses, and David himself. I was taught that the skills and temperament required for that job were what made these men suitable to become leaders.

When you think of a shepherd, you think of someone who is both tender and firm; someone who guides you and provides you with the opportunity to sustain yourself. He doesn’t bring the sheep their feed; he brings the sheep to the pasture, where they must graze themselves. I think this is an apt metaphor for our relationship with God.

He restores my soul; He leads me on paths of justice for the sake of His name.

Here we have moved from a very gentle image to a slightly harsher one, where we are talking about “restoring my soul” and “paths of justice.” We are also turning outward: “for the sake of His name,” and not necessarily for the sake of His love and tenderness towards me.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me…

This is the most famous verse from the psalm. We have gone from tranquil, lush pastures to “the valley of the shadow of death”–quite the contrasting image. What comes to my mind is the Jordan Valley, with the stark desert mountains of Judah and Moab towering over either side.

“With me” is not an exact translation of the word that appears in this verse, עמדי (imadi). “With me” is עמי, imi. The word imadi comes from the root ע.מ.ד., which means “to stand.” So the word means more than just “with me.” It means “standing with me,” or “helping me stand up.”


…your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

ע.מ.ד is also the root for the word עמוד, which means “pillar” or “spine.” We come across similar imagery in these words: שבט (shevet), “rod,” and משענת (mish’enet), “staff.”

Why are both these words mentioned, though? What’s the difference between a “rod” and a “staff”?

The word shevet implies justice and rebuke–a rod used as punishment. The word mish’enet comes from the root ׊.ע.× , as in להישען, “to lean”–something to lean on. A walking cane.

This image may be more subtle than the previous metaphors in this poem, but I think it is just as powerful.

The Psalmist finds both the “rod”–God’s harsh justice and perhaps even His punishment–and the “staff”–God’s mercy–“comforting.” You can understand why he might find the “staff” comforting. But the “rod”? What is comforting about the terrible things that happen to us?

The answer is in the first part of this same verse. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, You are with me. I know that even Your “rod” is the result of Your love for me.

You will spread a table before me, in front of my enemies; you have anointed my head with oil; my cup overflows.

The image here is of a man sitting at a table spread with great abundance, while his enemies watch in fury, unable to withhold this bounty from him.

If you’ve ever seen a Middle Eastern table spread, you’ll know that olive oil is a prominent feature. But God did literally anoint David’s head with oil. That’s how they crowned kings in Biblical times. God sent Samuel to Bethlehem to anoint David king years before David ascended the throne.

I find it beautiful how this image seamlessly blends in with the previous one, the table spread with goodness, and the one that follows–the overflowing cup.

However. Remember the Hebrew word that means “the anointed one”? Mashiach/Messiah. That is not the word that is used here. The word is דשנת, dishanta. The root ד.׊.×  can just mean “to oil” something, but it can also mean to make something fertile, or full of enjoyment and satisfaction.

The word often translated as “overflows” is רויה (revaya), from the root ר.ו.ה/י, which means “to quench,” or “soaked.” This is along the same lines as the word dishanta.

So this whole verse brings us back to the sense of sustenance and bounty.

May only goodness and kindness pursue me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of God for the length of days.

Here the Psalmist turns to God with a request: let me feel this abundance of goodness all my life. May only goodness and loving kindness follow me.

“The length of days” is a direct translation of לאורך ימים (l’orekh yamim), which has been traditionally translated as “long years” or “a long time.” The King James Bible translates it as “forever.” Perhaps King James read Maimonides on this: Maimonides says that “the house of God” here means the World to Come, and “the length of days” would then mean “eternity.”

The word translated here as “dwell” is שבתי, shavti. But that’s not really the simple meaning of the word. ישבתי (yashavti) would mean “sit” or “dwell.” Shavti would normally be translated as “return.” I think it is traditionally translated as “dwell” because that makes most sense in context. Radak (medieval commentator David Kimhi) suggests that it means “I will be tranquil”–relying on a verse from Isiah that uses the root to mean tranquility (and he also interprets the word I translated as “restore” above, yeshovev, the same way).

But begging pardon from the Sages, I will venture my own suggestion: maybe שבתי is from the root ׊.ב.ה/י, as in שבוי (shavui), which means “captive.” “I will be captivated in the house of God for the length of days.”

Here’s my reasoning: in the first part of the verse the Psalmist used the word “pursued” to describe being surrounded by goodness and kindness. Maybe he is finishing off that metaphor here by implying that he has “fallen captive” to the goodness and kindness that pursued him, and here–in the house of God–is where they hold him for eternity.

Just a thought.

Psalm 23 and Psalm 27

I think the reason the paintings are “twin” paintings is that they both discuss similar themes. Here is a quote from Psalm 27 for comparison:

“God is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? God is the stronghold of my life; from whom shall I be frightened? When evildoers draw near to me to devour my flesh, my adversaries and my enemies against me, they stumbled and fell… One [thing] I ask of the Lord, that I seek; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to see the pleasantness of the Lord and to visit His Temple…”

A trust in God, a desire to draw closer to him, and a sense that He has provided us with an abundance of blessing… I think these are the things that appeal to us about these psalms.

Any insights to add?




People Find Me by Googling the Strangest Phrases. Here Are My Responses.

I figured we could all use some comic relief right about now, and this post is presented in that spirit. First, however, I have an exciting announcement: I have been informed by the manager of the Pomeranz bookstore that they will be stocking Letters to Josep: An Introduction to Judaism as of around two weeks from now. They are the most well-known English-language bookstore in Jerusalem, specializing in books of Jewish content, and I am beyond delighted to have my book on their shelves. If you are in the Jerusalem area, I hope you will support both me and them by purchasing a copy from them. They are located downtown, on Be’eri Street, between Ben Yehuda and Hillel. I intend to drop by after the stock arrives to sign some copies, too.

If you have any kind of relationship with the manager of a local bookstore, here’s what you can do to get LtJ onto their shelves: print out a copy of my press kit, or even simply the first page of it, and hand it to them. If they end up ordering some copies, let me know and I will send you a signed bookplate in thanks!

And now, today’s post.

I enjoy checking the visitor stats for this blog. I love to see what countries people are reading from. When I first started writing and my audience was smaller, I knew exactly who was reading when I got a visit from a place like Spain (hi Josep!) or Japan (hi Pamela!), but now, thank God, I tend to get enough traffic from enough interesting places that I really can’t be sure.

Google usually encrypts people’s search terms, so most of the time I have no idea what people have Googled that led them to this blog. Occasionally, though, a non-encrypted search term will appear in my stats, and… let’s just say, sometimes I prefer not to know.

Today I have decided to respond to some of these people and address the (fairly odd) questions that led them to me.

“I often wonder the jews the men smartly dressed with trilbys hats. what do they do in life beside praying.”

Well. That’s pretty much what this whole blog is for! If you find it overwhelming, I highly recommend reading my book!

“isnt delaying iftaar practise of jews? so whats strange if we find this in shias because”

Ramadan Kareem, Internet Stranger! To be accurate, Jews do not observe Ramadan and do not have iftars. (You can read more about Jewish fasting practices and how they compare to those of Islam and Christianity here.)

However, your question inspired me to do a little research, wherein I learned that there is a dispute between Sunnis and Shias concerning iftar (break-fast) time. From what I read, most Sunnis break the fast after sunset, and most Shias break it after nightfall. While it is true that Jews, too, break fasts after nightfall, Shias observe this timing of iftar not because they are secretly Jews, but because of Surah Buqarah aya 187: “eat and drink until the whiteness of the day becomes distinct from the blackness of the night at dawn, then complete the fast till night.

The confusion is because on both the Hebrew and the Muslim calendar, days begin at night. But when does the night begin? Sunset? Twilight? Dusk? Nightfall? Not clear! We Jews call the period between sunset and nightfall “bein hashmashot,” literally “between the suns,” and there are all kinds of difficulties due to the uncertainty regarding exactly which day it is during that period! We try to err on the side of stringency in both directions. That’s why we fast until nightfall.

“weird things jews do”/”jews practicing weird customs”

I get this a lot. My post “15 Weird Things Jews Do” went viral last year and is, at the moment, the #2 result when I Google that phrase. Weird Jewish Customs ‘R’ Us!

“wierd thongs jews do”

That, my friend, is an entirely different question.

“religious people are right about sex”

Well, I am flattered that you think so. I wouldn’t put it quite so boldly, but I tend to agree with you, as evidenced by this post.

“pizza manu carp meem domenoz”

I…. am so sorry. I have no idea what language that is, and I certainly have no idea how you managed to stumble across my blog while Googling it. I do love pizza, though, so there’s that.

“do breslev kallah cover their hair straight after the chuppah”

Huh. No idea. I know that some Sephardic brides do, but Breslev is a sect of Hassidism originating in Ashkenaz, so I would guess that they don’t. In any case, it wouldn’t be straight after the chuppah, it would be after the yichud room. (If you don’t understand half the words in those last two sentences, see Different Kinds of Jews, Part I, and Part II, and my “Jewish Weddings” post.)

“what is the halakhic definition of a jew?”

Excellent question! Someone who was born to a halakhically Jewish mother, or who converted to Judaism according to Jewish law. More details here.

“stay with me versionada al catalĂ ”

Em sap greu. I have literally no idea how or why Google directed you to me! The extent of my Catalan is a few key phrases/greetings and a couple random food words like el poncem and la remolatxa. (Don’t even ask.) (Okay, you can ask. El poncem because it’s a fruit used in an odd Jewish ritual during Succot; la remolatxa because, as explained in the footnote on Passover Part II: “I served a Moroccan beet salad to Josep when he was here for Shabbat, and he asked me what it was, but we did not have a common language in which we both knew the word for this vegetable. After Shabbat I Googled it, and now I’ll never forget. (When I clarified, he was like, ‘Not something I eat every day!’ Was that a polite way to tell me he hated it? I decided not to press the issue.)”)

Anyway, where were we? Oh yes: “Stay with Me.” I can see why you wanted a translation; it’s a catchy and poignant song. Unfortunately the lyrics aren’t much to write home about. You should definitely write a better version in Catalan.

“caganer equivalent in judaism”

Listen… I’ll be the first to admit that Jews have some pretty odd practices. (See: “Weird Things Jews Do” above.) But Catalans and their crazy Christmas traditions are a whole different class of weird.

We have no such equivalent. Sorry to disappoint you. But Josep and I always get excited about anyone drawing any connection, however vague it may be, between Judaism/Israel and Catalonia, so thanks for the thought.

“catalan jew never invite”

I know, right? I have also been disappointed by this lack of hospitality on the part of Catalan Jews. So has Josep, who was not allowed to enter the synagogue in Barcelona because he is not Jewish. Uncool, Catalan Jews. (In their defense, their spurning of Josep was because of the tight security, which is meant to keep Jews safe from antisemites. Of course, if they had bothered to talk to him for more than 30 seconds, they would have realized that they had something entirely different on their hands.)

“jewish therapy barcelona”

Yes, Barcelona is most definitely in need of some Jewish therapy.

“yiddish nachas, vol. 2”

If you are my mother, I believe you have arrived at the correct destination.

(“Yiddishe nachas” generally refers to the feeling of pride and satisfaction a Jewish parent feels about their children being good Jews. More about “nachas” here.)

“tomb of the paper manufacturer max krause in the jerusalem cemetery in berlin”

I…. literally have no idea what this is about. And I have no idea how Google decided that my blog had anything to do with it. Sorry.

“letters as to why shabbat is important”

I’ve got one! Here it is.

“danniella levy shaving”

Regretfully, I’ve been growing out my beard for years. Can’t help you there.

“download video seks daniela levy”


“foto danniella levy”

That you can have. It’s on the “about” page of the blog. But I have a feeling you may be disappointed. In light of this line of inquiry on the part of Random Internet Strangers such as yourself, it has come to my attention that there’s a porn star who shares my name, and, well. Nope. Juuuuust nope.

Gonna file that one under “Things I Wish I Never Knew About the Universe.”

“the sanctity of shabbos: a comprehensive guide to forbidden activities which one may ask a gentile to do on the sabbath or yom tov”

Actually, it’s a debate as to whether or not it is permissible to ask a gentile to do anything forbidden on the Sabbath or Yom Tov. Most agree that ideally, you should not do so, even though you may benefit from the actions of a non-Jew on Shabbat (say, if you are sharing a room with a non-Jewish roommate and she turns off the light so she can sleep). But if it’s really necessary for your well-being during Shabbat, you can hint to a non-Jew that you need something done for you (for instance, if the light is on in your room and you catch a random non-Jew in the hallway and say something like, “The light in my room is extremely bright, don’t you think? Very hard to sleep with it on, I imagine”).

This is not a comprehensive guide, of course. I hope you found one.

“i asked for forgiveness to anyone gmar katima tova”

Oh. I am glad to hear that. Gmar Chatima Tova to you as well.

“what is the special dietary needs that must be considered for the juwish”

Aha! Now that is a question Josep has asked me! And my answer was so complicated it was split into three letters: here, here, and here.

“i m not supporter of orthodox rutuals a letter”

Hmm. This blog is probably not what you were looking for.

“chag hakurban”

Who are you that you Googled “Eid Al-Adha” under its Hebrew name in English transliteration? You sound like my kind of person.

Well folks, if you have any other random (or non-random) questions for me, do feel free to ask!