A Christian at an Orthodox prayer service, Josep? Whoever heard of such a thing? 😉
Well, unlike you, today’s guest lives in a country where they don’t need armed guards interrogating people at the door. Jacquelyn Lofstad is a 19-year-old college student from Minnesota, United States, who was raised in a Baptist family. She’s a reader who stumbled across the blog through Google, and her submission of this letter was the first contact she made with me (which is a first–all previous guest letters have been by people I know from other contexts and/or who I cajoled asked to write one!). She also writes a blog of her own about the Old Testament and how it relates to Jesus and the gospels, partially inspired by a trip she took to Israel not long ago.
She decided to share with us about an experience she had recently: observing the Shabbat morning prayer service in an Orthodox synagogue. (For those of you who need more info on what Shabbat is, click here.) I think this is a beautiful counterpoint to our previous guest letter, which was about a Jew’s positive experiences in churches!
Recently, I had the privilege of celebrating Sabbath at an Orthodox Synagogue. The Jewish people are beautiful, dedicated, and tenacious in their faith. I was extremely blessed to be able to observe a Shabbat (sabbath) service.
I am a 19-year-old college senior from Minnesota, United States, studying music education and history. I was raised in a Baptist family but do not swear complete allegiance to any particular denomination. I just believe the Bible, want to honor God and love people in the process. After visiting Israel over spring break for a Bible study trip, I gained so much respect for the Jewish people’s tenacity and dedication to their faith. Also, I love the Old Testament and am frustrated that the church does not talk about it enough. Researching Judaism seemed like the obvious answer. Wanting to learn more, I contacted a local rabbi and asked to observe a synagogue service.
I entered the room during prayers and was handed a prayer book with English translations – praise God! My lack of education was clearly shown when I forgot that the Hebrew language and therefore the prayer books, read right to left!
One thing that struck me about the Hebrew prayers was how focused they were on God and God alone. So often I will only pray to ask for things. Their prayers focused on the glory, majesty, power, and love of Hashem (Hebrew name for God, literally translated as “the name”).
After the prayers, the Torah was brought out. The cantor and the congregation sang and chanted with joy as the Torah was lifted out of the arc in the front of the room and brought to the center of the congregation. The blessing of having the word of God IS something that we should rejoice over. The Torah in the center reminded me how God is a God for all people. He comes down, right into the middle of our lives. The word of God speaks right into the middle of our messy situations. The Torah reading for this day the “snake being lifted” in Numbers. They also read from the prophets on a yearly rotation – this week the men read from 1st Samuel.
The rabbi then spoke about a former rabbi who died at the hands of communist Russia because he refused to be transported on the sabbath. While he could have easily justified breaking sabbath to save his life, he decided not to because of the people that looked up to him. While I do not have the same sabbath convictions as the Jewish people, I also have people looking up to me. I need to take my actions seriously, because as a teacher, I will have people looking at my life as they make decisions.
After the service, which was over two hours (they are dedicated people), I was invited to the Kiddush lunch afterwards. The stew was cooked the night before and left on the stove because no cooking is done on the sabbath.
One lady told me about how she read a book about how a Christian converted to Judaism because she felt like Yom Kippur offered more room for grace than Christianity. This saddened me because we clearly are not showing/sharing the love and grace of God that well then!
I had a long conversation with another woman about Israel, Judaism, and many other things (Israel actually opened many doors for conversations so praise God!). She shared how it was difficult to get a job without working on Saturdays. I again was struck by how these people’s first priority was their faith. I can learn from this. I was then asked why many Christians don’t like Israel (This question was a bit stressful–19-year-old having to answer for all Christians 😛 ). I responded by saying that many Christians misunderstand both the heart of God and the Jewish people. At the end of our conversation, we thanked each other for sharing our perspectives–it was a really sweet moment.
I learned so much from this visit and hope I represented Christianity well. I am encouraging my friends and colleagues to be willing to experience new things and hear people’s stories. The world needs people who care. Be that person, because Jesus was that person. He heard people’s stories. He saw the beauty in diversity. And he was Jewish too 🙂
Are you a reader who has something interesting to share with Josep and me about religion or culture? Don’t be shy–be like Jackie! Submit a guest letter!
So, after ostensibly “freezing” the text of By Light of Hidden Candles (my upcoming novel) for formatting, my editor found a bunch of other issues and we did another feverish round of editing on a short deadline. Now the text is frozen for real (RIGHT, DON?!)–at least, barring any issues our beta-readers and early reviewers find in the galley.
On the day before we froze the text, I became aware of a potential issue that I hadn’t even thought of before. As one might surmise from the title of the book, Shabbat candles make several important appearances. I described, in great detail, my modern Jewish character lighting Shabbat candles–twice–in the manner I am familiar with; and then it came to my attention that Sephardi tradition is different from Ashkenazi tradition.
(And here, for a change, was an issue with the book that it would be completely pointless to ask you about! 😛 )
…Let me back up a bit and explain how this candlelighting thing is done.
There are certain commandments that require a blessing immediately before performing them. But in the case of Shabbat candles, there’s an issue: making the blessing is sort of a declaration that I am accepting Shabbat. That means it’s Shabbat for me when I finish the blessing–and if I haven’t lit the candles yet, I can’t light them on Shabbat, right?!
So Ashkenazi custom has the following solution: we light the candles first, cover our eyes, make the blessing, and then open our eyes and look at the candles, as if they just appeared! Magic! 😛
Sephardi custom, however, is to say the blessing before lighting the candles with the understanding that the blessing is not a declaration of “accepting” Shabbat; but rather, their intention is to “accept” Shabbat only after the candles are lit, or only when it enters at sunset.
Well… at least, that’s the custom in theory.
You see, I have several Sephardi/North African/Middle Eastern friends, with whom I have spent Shabbat; and I didn’t remember noticing anything unusual about their candlelighting customs. So I decided to try and find out what people actually do. I took to Facebook and took an unofficial survey among my Sephardi friends.
That’s how I discovered that the matter is actually a lot more complicated than I had suspected.
My friend Malka said her Yemenite mother-in-law makes the blessing first and then lights the candles, but doesn’t blow out the match.
My friend Shareen, who has Tunisian and Persian grandmothers, said they both lit first and made the blessing while “covering” the candles with their hands.
My friend Nora, who follows the custom of her Moroccan mother-in-law, said she lights first, covers her eyes, and makes the blessing. She mentioned, however, that she has a friend of Algerian origin who makes the blessing first and then lights the candles.
My friend Yemima, whose mother was an Italian descendant of Jewish refugees from the Spanish expulsion, said her mother lit first and then made the blessing, but never covered her eyes.
My friend Reut said her Libyan grandmother lit first, covered her eyes, and made the blessing.
My friend Shahar said her Libyan grandmother made the blessing first, then lit the candles, didn’t blow out the match, and then covered their eyes to pray; whereas her Moroccan grandmother did the same, but without covering her eyes.
My friend Yonit–who is Ashkenazi–pointed out that it doesn’t really help to ask individuals if you’re trying to determine what the custom of a particular ethnic group is. I explained that I’m not doing a scientific study here; I’m just trying to find out what people do. “I want what my character does to be at least somewhat connected to reality, so people don’t come after me with pitchforks yelling, ‘You Ashkenazi, what are you doing writing about Sephardi characters?!'”
At this point I was feeling pretty confused and felt it was time to call in the real authorities. Thankfully, I knew who to call: a number of years ago, I got in touch with Yaacov Ben-Tolila, a retired professor from Ben-Gurion University who is Israel’s leading expert on Haketía (the Judeo-Spanish of North Africa) and the Jewish community of Morocco under the Spanish Protectorate. He happens to have been born in the same city and the same year as my fictional grandmother character! He was an amazing resource and was very happy to tell me about his childhood in Tétouan.
So I wrote him an e-mail, and the following morning he called me. He described his mother’s Shabbat candle (only one!) in great detail, and said he was sure she didn’t cover her eyes, but couldn’t remember if she made the blessing before or after lighting. He recommended I contact Mois Benarroch, an Israeli author who was also born in Tétouan and who has written and published many books set in his hometown. (He blogs in Spanish and Hebrew with excerpts of his work; check out the Spanish one here!)
Mind you, this is all while we were hoping to have the manuscript finalized that day!
So I found Mois Benarroch on Facebook and asked him the question. To my enormous relief, he answered within a few hours. He remembered the women making the blessing while lighting the candles and then covering their eyes!
“The results of my survey,” I wrote on the original Facebook thread, “are as follows: everyone does something different! And no matter what I write, some group somewhere will find a reason to come after me with pitchforks. Conclusion: practice self-defense against pitchforks!”
And now you must be wondering, after all this confusing research, what I decided to have my character do!
I took out all reference to covering eyes, and simply listed her actions: “I struck a match, lit the candles, and made the blessing…” leaving it ambiguous whether she makes the blessing while lighting the candles or after.
“But you know what I’m going to get out of this?” I said to Eitan as I got ready to pick up R2 from preschool after finally resolving this issue on the manuscript. “A great blog post!”
When I signed up for my bridal counselor’s course, I remember joking that if nothing else, it would provide material and inspiration for the blog. Well, I was right! It already inspired this one, and now I want to write about a topic we’ve been discussing over the past couple weeks: family planning.
Can Orthodox Jews “plan” families?
In all fairness, can anybody? 😉 The term “family planning” implies that we actually have control over how many kids we have and when. On some level, modern medicine makes this possible–when all goes well. But there are so many things that are out of our control. There’s a woman in my community who had five kids and got an IUD to “close up shop”… and then got pregnant.
Conversely, I know several people who tried to have a baby for years and went through varying degrees of pain and suffering before finally having one. One woman I know went through years and years of treatments and lost many pregnancies (including two pairs of twins born too early) before finally giving birth to a healthy child.
So before I get into this I just want to put out there that we have so much less control over these things than we think we do, and it’s important to keep that in mind.
Now. Given that you are Catholic and probably know that there are issues with contraception in some religious circles, you may have wondered if we have similar restrictions.
Let’s start from the beginning.
Like, literally the beginning.
And God created man in His image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and rule over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the sky and over all the beasts that tread upon the earth.”
“Be fruitful and multiply” is considered by traditional Judaism to be the very first mitzvah in the Torah. But like everything in Judaism, we have to work out the specifics! What exactly is the requirement here? Who is obligated? Under what circumstances?
So, according to the Sages, only men are obligated in this mitzvah. That may seem strange, since, I mean, most of the burden of creating new life falls on women as a matter of biology. The Sages explain that pregnancy and childbirth are dangerous, and the Torah does not command us to do something that would endanger our lives. Obviously, however, men cannot fulfill this obligation without women! But this difference has practical implications, as we shall see in a moment.
There is a debate about how many children one is required to have to fulfill the obligation. The generally accepted opinion is at least two–one boy and one girl. Obviously, we have no control over the gender of the child, and we’re only required to do what we can… but yes, technically this means that even a man with ten sons has not fulfilled the obligation!
In general, the attitude in Jewish law is that we should have as many children as we can. The Talmud points out that each child conceived is potentially an immeasurable contribution to humanity, and we never know what potentially great person we may be barring entry to the world by preventing a pregnancy.
Therefore, we are not supposed to use any form of contraception unless it is necessary.
But, obviously, there is a wide range of opinions on exactly what qualifies as a necessity.
On the most stringent end of the scale, you will find rabbis who rule that it is only permitted to use contraception when getting pregnant would endanger a woman’s health. This is why families in the ultra-Orthodox community tend to be so large. There has (thankfully) been increased awareness in the area of mental health in recent years, so even on the most stringent end of the scale, rabbis are recognizing anxiety, depression and the like as health hazards that qualify as reasons to prevent pregnancy.
Some rabbis rule that even without a specific diagnosis of a mental health disorder, the increased anxiety or depression the parents might experience from being overwhelmed is reason enough to use contraception. The couple’s financial situation may factor in on this as well, especially when having another child might compromise the quality of care the other children receive or, again, the mental health of the parents. Education is a factor too: Rabbi Moshe Feinstein famously ruled that young couples who are still studying in college may use contraception until they complete their studies.
On the most lenient end of the scale, some rabbis rule that no special reason is needed for contraception; that it is permitted as long as the couple intends to eventually have children.
Then there comes the question of what kind of contraception can be used. Not all forms are permitted. Firstly, there is a separate mitzvah prohibiting sterilization. So any form of contraception that is permanent, such as tubal ligation or vasectomy, is forbidden. (Though I think the former may be permitted under extreme circumstances. And of course any life-saving operation is permitted even if it may cause infertility.)
Secondly, because of the fact that it is men who are obligated in the mitzvah of having children, halakha is stricter about contraceptives that interfere with the male end of things. “Fortunately,” medicine has traditionally placed the brunt of the burden of childbearing or lack thereof on the woman anyway, so the most common forms of long-term contraception–pills and IUDs–are permitted, as well as other forms of hormonal contraception and spermicides. Barrier methods are more problematic, depending on the type, but some authorities permit the use of the diaphragm or cervical cap. Refraining from relations on the fertile days of the woman’s cycle is theoretically okay, but kind of a bummer for women who keep the laws of family purity, since it adds more days of abstinence to what was already practically half the month. So women who choose to practice fertility awareness (that is, charting their fertile signs) for contraception often end up using some other method during their fertile days.
So… the decision to prevent pregnancy is even more complex for a religious Jewish couple than it is for your average couple. No method is 100% effective; every single one has disadvantages, from minor inconveniences to severe health risks; and besides, we have to balance our cherished value of growing our families and expanding the Jewish people with consideration for our physical, emotional, and financial well-being–while having no way to know for sure how one will affect the other. I know from experience that it’s impossible to predict the effect a pregnancy might have on the family. There’s this generally accepted idea in mainstream society of two years or so being the ideal “spacing,” but it depends on so many things… the kids’ personalities, health issues, sibling dynamics, etc… and none of these things are static.
So it can actually be a really tough decision.
In Orthodox Jewish circles, family planning is considered a very private thing. So it’s seen as rather intrusive to just ask someone outright when they are planning on having kids, how many, when they plan to have the next one, etc. Personally I don’t really mind discussing it with people I trust, but most people can’t really comprehend how complex an issue it can be, and that can be kind of frustrating for me.
As you know, we also have a custom not to tell about a pregnancy in the first three months. In the Chabad community, the norm is to wait five months. But as I told you once, my attitude about this custom has shifted a lot over the years. The reason for the custom is that most miscarriages occur in the first three months, so there’s superstition around it. But there is also a practical explanation: if something happens to the pregnancy you don’t want to have to explain to people about it.
Personally? I found the secrecy in the first trimesters of my pregnancies to be a special kind of torture. Here I had this wonderful news that I couldn’t share with people, but also I was feeling horrible physically and couldn’t explain to anyone why or get the support I desperately needed. Even if I don’t believe in superstitions, it’s a societal norm, and I was concerned that people would feel weird about my telling them I was pregnant before 12 weeks or so.
But when I was 10 weeks pregnant with R2, a misunderstanding led to a rumor in my extended family that I was pregnant. (My parents and siblings already knew.) It was such an awful feeling that I had no control over this information; it was as if I had failed to keep a secret I didn’t even want to keep in the first place.
To top it off, I have two friends who told me about their pregnancies early on and then had miscarriages; if they hadn’t told me, I wouldn’t have been able to support them through it.
So in light of my experiences, I don’t think much of this custom and believe that parents should share their news whenever they darned well feel like it.
Now, as you know, ultrasound has made it possible to find out the sex of the baby fairly early on in the pregnancy. I think as a kind of holdover from the norms about maintaining the air of mystery around pregnancy, in the religious community it is far more common than in the secular world for parents to choose not to find out the sex of the baby. But more often, in the religious community parents will often find out the sex of the baby–and then not tell anyone what it is until the baby is born. Personally, I can’t really comprehend the point of this. If you are telling people you’re having a baby, why should you care whether they know what sex it is, especially when you, yourself, know?! On the contrary–let them know so they can plan for a circumcision ceremony if necessary, and/or buy you gender-appropriate gifts ahead of time!
People are weird.
So that’s all for this topic for now. Stay tuned, because in a future post I’ll be tackling a related, but more controversial issue: the Jewish attitude towards abortion. 😉
I mentioned before that the 17th of Tamuz marks the beginning of a period of symbolic mourning for the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem. Practically speaking, what this means is that we observe the same customs of symbolic mourning that we do during the first 33 days of the Omer: we don’t attend live concerts (and have varying customs on what kind of music we listen to), don’t buy new clothes, and don’t get haircuts (and men don’t shave their beards). In Hebrew, the period of the Three Weeks is called “Bein HaMetzarim.” This is could be cleverly translated into English as, “Between the Dire Straits.” (Since you are not a native English speaker, I want to make sure you understand this: “Meitzar” is both a “strait”, as in a channel connecting two bodies of water, and a flowery Biblical word for trouble or distress. “Dire straits” is an English expression that means “very serious trouble.” Google translates the phrase into Catalan as “dificultats.” Sounds like an understatement to me….) The Sages teach that this is a period during which “the Prosecutor speaks against us” (as in Satan; see my section on the Jewish concept of Satan in The Vagueries of the Jewish Afterlife), meaning that God judges us more harshly. So we try to kind of “lay low” during this period, avoiding important business interactions or other endeavors that require Divine assistance.
From the first day of the month of Av (or if you’re Sephardi–which, um, I guess you are! :P–from the Saturday night before Tisha B’Av), the symbolic mourning intensifies. Ashkenazim call this period “the Nine Days.” Sephardim call it, “hashavua sheḥal bo,” “the Week on Which It Falls.” We no longer bathe for pleasure or wash our clothes (unless it’s necessary for hygienic purposes), and we don’t eat meat or drink wine. (I guess you Catholics might call that “fasting.” 😛 ) We also do not build houses or move into new homes during this period.
“Tisha B’Av” means the Ninth of Av, and it is the saddest day in the Jewish year. On this day, the First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians, and then, by Divine poetry (or bizarre coincidence, for those who believe in such things), the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans on the same date several hundred years later.
It so happens that a number of other great calamities befell the Jews on this day on the Hebrew calendar, and during this period in general. The last Jew left the shores of Spain on Tisha B’Av in 1492. A number of disasters connected to failed attempts to restore Jewish sovereignty over Judea after the destruction of the Temple also happened on Tisha B’Av. So, too, with a number of critical events during the Holocaust. Heck, just last year, I was rudely awakened on the morning of Tisha B’Av by an air raid siren… :-/ Like I said. Not a good time for the Jews.
So as I elaborated in my letter about Jewish fasts, Tisha B’Av is a major fast day, meaning that we refrain from eating, drinking, washing for pleasure, wearing leather shoes, anointing ourselves with oil, and sexual relations, from sundown to nightfall the next day. We also sit on low stools, like mourners sitting shiva, for the first part of Tisha B’Av (until midday, at which point the Temple had already been destroyed); nor do we greet each other, because we are not allowed to greet mourners, and we are all mourning on this day. On the evening of Tisha B’Av, after the usual evening prayer service, the book of Eikha (Lamentations) is read in the synagogue while everybody sits on the floor. It was written by Jeremiah the Prophet and describes the desolation in Jerusalem after its conquest by Nebuchadnezzar. Then a series of Kinnot (poetic lamentations) are read.
At midday on Tisha B’Av we begin a gradual process of emerging from mourning. We may sit on normal chairs from midday onward. After the fast ends at nightfall, we continue to observe the mourning customs of the Nine Days, until midday on the following day, the 10th of Av. The reason for this is that the Temple was still burning until midday on the 10th. Then we fully emerge from mourning. (This year, the 9th actually falls on Shabbat, and we are not allowed to fast on Shabbat, so the fast is observed on the 10th. That means that this year, we will fully emerge from mourning as soon as the fast ends.)
So. Obviously, this destruction-of-the-Temple business was seriously bad news for the Jews. One might ask: why? Why don’t we fast to commemorate other great disasters in Jewish history, like the Holocaust, or the Cossack massacres, or the Crusades, or the expulsion from Spain, or… sheesh, take your pick, we’d be fasting every day of the year! :-/
The Temple was the place where God and man embraced, where the limited physical reality of human existence touched the eternal. The very physical work that involved the service of the Temple–the sacrifices, the contributions, the incense, the rituals–were a way to tangibly connect with God. And that is why, originally, our entire religion, our entire service of God, centered around the Temple.
When God gave us the Torah, He had a vision for us. He would be our God, and we would be His people. The Holy Temple would serve as a meeting place between humanity and the Divine, not only for the Jewish people, but for the world in general. We were to serve as a model nation, showing the world what a society could look like if it follows God’s word. We were to be a “light unto the nations;” to spread morality and knowledge of God throughout the world. God promised us that if we kept His commandments and stayed loyal to Him, He would bless us and protect us, and make us a “nation of priests.” A majority of the book of Deuteronomy is a speech that Moses gives the nation of Israel in which he goes over the commandments again, along with God’s promise. But, God said, if we failed to keep the commandments, and strayed to worship other gods, He would curse us, and send us scattered from the land.
Basically, God presented us with an Ultimate Plan for the Redemption of the Universe. The plan was, we inhabit the land and set up a model kingdom right in the heart of the world, on the crossroads between Asia, Africa and Europe, where most world civilizations would have the chance to come in contact with us, and thus influence them to give up idolatry and immorality and embrace God and Godliness.
Unfortunately, we failed to create this model society. We succumbed to the temptations to be like other nations, to serve other gods, including our own “evil inclinations”, and eventually God had to fulfill His promise: He destroyed our kingdom and our Temple. We lost our direct connection to Him. According to Judaism, there has been no prophesy since the destruction of the First Temple. The last of our prophets was Malachi.
The rest… I’m going to step my current self aside and give my 20-year-old self the stage. This is an excerpt from a ridiculously long letter I wrote to you eight years ago on Tisha B’Av, July 24th, 2007.
So you see… it’s not really the destruction of a building I’m mourning as I sit here close to the floor with my face unwashed and my stomach empty. It’s the destruction of a certain kind of relationship. When we were in this land with our Temple, we were so close to God. We were living as a “light unto the nations”, a kingdom to shine as an example to the nations of the world and let them see how a fair and just society can look like. But we blew it.
My eyes fill with tears as I write this. We blew it. We failed. We broke the covenant. And God could not let us live here, together, any longer. He had to disperse us among the nations, where we would be hated and persecuted for two thousand years. Where we would be massacred and expelled and tortured and ridiculed throughout the centuries. Don’t you see?
The destruction of the Temple is the root of all Jewish suffering.
If we hadn’t ruined it, if we hadn’t been so stupid, none of that would have been necessary to teach our lessons to the world! We wouldn’t have needed to suffer so much to spread our ideas! All of it, all those coincidences on Tisha B’Av, and all those massacres during the Crusades, and the Spanish Inquisition, and the expulsions from everywhere, and the pogroms, and the Holocaust–all of it was part of the Divine Plan B, implemented after we messed up Plan A.
So what now? It seems that God is knocking on our door again, by some miracle giving us back the Promised Land and Jerusalem… but again, the world is poised against us. Will we mess it up again? Or will we somehow succeed in taking this chance to reestablish that role we’ve been missing for 2,000 years?
Right now I feel the urgency of this question as our government and our society slide downhill. God doesn’t need a Jewish people in its land with leaders who lie and cheat and sexually abuse.1 He doesn’t need a Jewish people in its land selfish and divided. I do believe, with all my heart, that bringing us back to Israel was the beginning of the process of redemption… but I’m so afraid of the shaky ground on which we stand. What if He has to destroy this process and go through it all over again?
So we fast and we pray and we hope that we are strong enough, that we are ready to be what He wanted us to be. The whole purpose of the Jewish faith is to hone us into a model society, one that is loving and helpful to all others, that supports those who need support, that trusts in the One God and believes only in Him. On Tisha B’Av we long to become that society… without more suffering. Without more slaughter and bloodshed and hatred. We mourn the days that we had the chance to be that way, and we pray for a second chance in the days to come.
And that, my dear friend, is the meaning of Tisha B’Av.
May we all merit to see the redemption of humanity soon–whatever you believe that may mean. (And if you’re wondering what I believe that means… stay tuned. 😉 )
1. A few weeks before I wrote the excerpted letter in 2007, then-president of Israel Moshe Katsav resigned from his presidency after being accused of rape and sexual harassment. He was eventually found guilty, and he is currently serving a maximum sentence of 49 years in prison.↩
Today is the 17th of Tammuz. Well actually it’s the 18th, but that’s what we call this fast, which was delayed by a day because of Shabbat. It marks the beginning of the Three Weeks, the period of mourning for the destruction of the Temple.
But before I talk about symbolic mourning, I should first talk about actual mourning. So, um, yes, this is gonna be a downer. Pour yourself a glass of wine, ’cause I can’t–I’m fasting. 😛
As you know, my grandmother passed away at the end of March. My family is very blessed in that this was our first experience of needing to figure out the laws of mourning–aveilut–and how my mother was supposed to observe them. The shiva (explained below) was cut short because of Passover, and my mother’s family is not the slightest bit religious, so the matter presented a number of issues.
But as a general rule, the customs around death and mourning in Judaism are designed to lead the mourners through a gradual process of grief and healing, and many report that this is helpful to them. I have to say that because of the circumstances surrounding my grandmother’s death (as I elaborated in that entry), the lack of context I had for really grieving for her was really difficult, I’d say even traumatic for me.
Anyway. Here’s how it goes:
In Jewish law, we bury our dead as soon as possible. The reason for this is kavod hamet–“honoring the dead.” According to Jewish beliefs, it causes the disembodied soul a lot of anguish and shame to see its former body lying there exposed. In general, covering something is a sign of respect in our culture.
This is also the reason there is a lot of sensitivity around archaeology and the discovery of ancient Jewish cemeteries; we prefer to leave bones where they are and not expose them unnecessarily, and if there is a need to exhume them, this must be handled with utmost care and they must be reburied as soon as possible.
Jews are traditionally buried wrapped only in simple linen cloth. Coffins are not usually used, and if they are, the body is still completely wrapped in a shroud, again, out of respect for the dead. Men are usually buried with their tallit (prayer shawl–see Prayer, Part II).
There are a number of prayers that are standard for funerals. It is customary to read Psalms, and the rabbi or leader of the funeral recites E-l Maleh Rahamim, “God, Full of Mercy”, the prayer for the dead.
The close family members also perform kriya, a symbolic rending of one’s clothes to express their grief.
I have briefly mentioned Kaddish before, and here is the place to elaborate. Kaddish is a prayer in Aramaic. It appears during the prayer services in a number of forms, most of them recited by the hazzan, the prayer leader (it can only be recited in the presence of a minyan, a quorum of ten men). Sometimes, however, it is recited by anyone in the congregation who has lost a parent over the past year. This is known as the Mourner’s Kaddish.
So what is this prayer and why is it something that mourners traditionally recite?
Here’s a translation of the Ashkenazi version of the Mourner’s Kaddish:
Glorified and sanctified be God’s great name (congregation answers: amen)
Throughout the world which He has created according to His will; may He establish His kingdom in your lifetime and during your days, and within the life of the entire House of Israel, quickly and soon; and say, Amen. (congregation answers: amen. May His great name be blessed forever and to all eternity.)
May His great name be blessed forever and to all eternity.
Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored, adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He. (congragation answers: Blessed be He.)
Beyond all the blessings and hymns, praises and consolations that are spoken in the world; and say, Amen. (congregation answers: amen.)
May there be abundant peace from Heaven, and life, for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen. (congregation answers: amen.)
He who creates peace in His celestial heights, may He create peace for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen. (congregation answers: amen)
A beautiful prayer, for sure. But what does all this praising God have to do with mourning?
I heard two interesting answers to this question. The first one is that when someone dies, they are unable to continue to perpetuate the good and Godliness that they were able to in their lifetime, and when their loved ones say Kaddish, a very holy prayer about the might and glory of God, they “fill in” some of the vacuum of goodness that that person left behind.
We have a concept called ilui neshama, the “raising of a soul”. We believe that we, the people who were affected by the departed, can continue to perpetuate his or her good in the world, by doing good deeds in his or her merit. We believe that this assists the soul in its process of “spiritual cleansing” that occurs in the afterlife. Reciting Kaddish is one very important way to “raise a loved one’s soul”. People also teach or study Torah classes, put together charities, and other things like that in memory of someone for this purpose.
I think there is a very profound idea there about the effect we have on other people and how that effect we have on them, in turn, affects us and our spiritual “health”. The living loved ones can carry on the legacy and positive influence of a soul that has departed.
Another explanation for why the Kaddish is recited under these circumstances, is one that my mother heard from her meditation teacher and rabbi (she calls him her “Meditation Rebbe”), Rabbi James Jacobson-Meisels. He talks about the line, “beyond all blessings and hymns…” The word for “beyond” (or more accurately, “above”) in Aramaic is “l’ayla,” and during the holiest time of the year, the Ten Days of Repentance, we repeat this word during Kaddish: “l’ayla u’l’ayla,” “above and beyond.” Rabbi James teaches that the Kaddish is about God’s vastness and greatness and holiness and kindness, above and beyond anything we can imagine or describe; beyond all blessings and hymns that are spoken… we have no words for the greatness of God and His love. In the context of this greatness, Rabbi James teaches, what is my grief, and what is my sadness? A small blip in the general experience of God’s universe. Maybe, he says, the Kaddish is recited to help give us that perspective.
“Shiva” means “seven”. (Remember Shavuot, shavua, sheva? “Sheva” is the feminine form; “shiv’a” is the masculine form.) This refers to the custom of spending seven days in intense mourning following the burial of a close family member. It is called “sitting” shiva, because part of the custom is to sit on low benches, stools, or the floor (as opposed to chairs or couches), and to stay in the “shiva house” for the duration of the shiva. (Ideally, the shiva should take place in the house of the deceased, and all members of the immediate family should try to stay there for the week; but if this is problematic, the home of one of the mourners is fine, and the other mourners can come sit there most of the day and then go home to sleep.)
Ideally, the mourners should not have to leave the house at any time during the shiva. I’m sure you are familiar with how painful and difficult it is to “put on your public face” and walk out of the house when you are dealing with something very difficult. We don’t want the mourners to have to do this. The community must come together and run their errands for them. Their friends, neighbors and other family members do the shopping, cooking and cleaning for them. (When there is a shiva house in our community, someone sets up a Google Doc excel sheet to schedule meals to bring to the mourner’s home during the week. Almost every time I’ve tried to sign up it was completely full by the time I got to it.) This custom compels the community to embrace and support the mourner.
Other customs for mourners include: covering the mirrors (to symbolize turning inwards and away from physicality), not shaving or cutting hair, refraining from eating meat or drinking wine, refraining from marital relations, not wearing leather shoes, and not washing for pleasure.
Making a Shiva Call
It is not only customary, but a mitzvah, for members of the community to come to the shiva house and pay a visit to comfort the mourners. Nichum aveilim, comforting mourners, is a very important mitzvah in Judaism. It can be a very difficult one, too. A few years ago, the husband of a friend from our community died very suddenly and tragically. He was a young guy in his early thirties, with a successful baking business and three young kids. The enormity of the tragedy was just unfathomable. As a young mother myself, with three young kids, and a husband more or less his age, I was deeply affected by this death, and I knew that if I went to the shiva I would just fall apart. But I knew that I should go anyway. I sat on one of the benches opposite my friend, and just cried and cried. When time came to go, I went over to her, and I was so overcome with sadness I could hardly force out, in a voice so strained it came out a most inelegant squeak, “I have no words. Only tears” before dissolving into sobs again. I felt awful because I was the only one crying at the time, and I feared that my deep sadness just reopened the wounds for everyone there. But the shiva is exactly the time and the place to fall apart, and I hope that my expression of grief at least gave some legitimacy to the inexpressible feelings of others who were there. In any case, my friend, who seemed completely drained of tears at that point, asked me if I remembered when he had brought us food they had cooked us when R2 was born. I told her that I remembered, and kissed her hands, and rose to leave and compose myself.
When visiting a shiva house, there are some important rules about protocol. The most important one is that you must not speak to the mourner unless he or she specifically expresses a desire to speak to you. Someone who is grieving should have the liberty to choose if and when he or she wants to speak, and about what. Often, the conversation at a shiva involves speaking about the person who passed away, telling stories about him or her, passing around pictures and sharing memories. This helps the mourners process the loss. But if they prefer to sit in total silence–they should be able to do that, and still experience the love and support of the community. There are no words to comfort someone who has just experienced a loss.
When leaving a shiva house, it is customary to approach the mourner, and recite the following traditional statement: “May the Omnipresent comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” This expresses our sense of family and collective mourning and loss.
When the shiva is over, the comforters who are with the mourners at the time accompany them on their first symbolic walk out of the house. This is the gradual transition back to normal life, and we don’t want the mourners to have to do this alone.
After the shiva, there is a period of lighter mourning. It is called the “shloshim”, the “thirty”, because it usually lasts thirty days (including the seven days of shiva). They still do not shave or cut their hair during this time, and avoid social events, especially ones during which music is played. The purpose of this is also to ease the mourner out of mourning and back into normal life. It is expected that during this period someone who has experienced a loss will still have periods of intense grief, and the circle of family and friends should be supportive of this.
When mourning for a parent, the period of lighter mourning lasts a year. There are a number of explanations for this, and I think it makes sense that the mourning for the person who gave you life, and your expression of gratitude towards him or her and carrying on his or her legacy, should be more intense and last longer than mourning for another family member. Kaddish is recited through that year.
Every year on the date of the loved one’s death, there is a custom to visit the grave site, light a candle, and recite prayers.
In Yiddish, this is called the yehrzeit. My grandmother’s first yehrzeit will be on the 11th of Nisan, which will fall on April 19th next year.
There is also a special prayer, called Yizkor (“He will remember”) to commemorate the dead during prayer services on Yom Kippur, Shmini Atzeret, the last day of Passover, and Shavuot. Usually, members of the congregation who don’t have someone to pray for during this prayer leave the synagogue while it is recited. This was the first year that my mom said the prayer, and it was very soon after the loss, so it was pretty tough. But she told me she had a friend there to hold her hand and hug her and get her through it.
*sigh* Heavy stuff. It’s a tough time of year for the Jews. In the next post, I will finally address the significance of the Three Weeks, the Nine Days, and Tisha B’Av.
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And now, the post:
The 17th of the Jewish month of Tamuz falls on this coming Shabbat. It marks the beginning of the period we call “the Three Weeks,” which culminate in the major fast of Tisha B’Av, the day the Temples were destroyed. But I’ll get to that in a later post. The 17th is observed as a minor fast day. But this year the fast will be observed the following day–the 18th–because we are not allowed to fast on Shabbat. (Yom Kippur is the only exception to this rule.)
Virtually every religion on earth has some tradition of fasting. For Jews and Muslims, this means refraining from partaking in any kind of food or drink during the day. For Catholics, and other Christians who practice fasting, it is a lot more, shall we say, open to interpretation. At most, it means going without food, but not water. And it usually means reducing one’s intake or refraining from certain types of foods, generally food that has been historically considered high-class or festive such as meat, dairy, eggs, and the like.
Well, while I’m wasting away without food or water on a sweltering summer day while my kids run hyper circles around me and destroy the house, I will think of you, dear Catholics, and your self-imposed temporary veganism, and I will shed a tear. (That’s a whole drop of water that could have been in my cells. You should be deeply moved.)
Ahem. Now that I’ve got that out of my system:
Why Fast at All?
Why is it that so many religions have this tradition of reducing or refraining from eating or drinking? I think at its most basic, this is pretty simple to explain: eating and drinking are some of our very basic animal needs, but free will was given to humans by God, and fasting is using that free will to distance ourselves from our animal nature, therefore bringing us closer to our spirituality and to God.
Now, if you’ve been really paying attention all these years I’ve been gabbing at you about Judaism, you will be asking, “Wait. Aren’t you always saying that Judaism is all about sanctifying the mundane and channeling our basic human needs for a higher, holier spiritual purpose–in direct opposition to other religious concepts of distancing ourselves from the mundane?” 10 points to Ravenclaw1! You are absolutely right. In Judaism, the way we normally relate to the basic animal needs of eating and drinking, is to sanctify them–be that by using them to celebrate the Sabbath, a holiday, a mitzvah (such as a wedding or circumcision ceremony), etc., or by simply reciting a blessing over the food.
Why do we fast, then?
So the thing is, in Judaism, fasting is less about spiritual uplifting, and more about expressing grief, sadness and regret. You know how when you’re really stressed out or depressed, you can’t bring yourself to eat anything? That’s what fasting means to us. Fasting is what we do as an expression of communal grieving, or to express the regret that is essential to the process of repentance. That isn’t to say that we don’t believe in fasting as a means to spiritually cleanse ourselves and/or bring ourselves closer to God the way it is done in other religions; it’s more of an “and” than an “either/or”.
The Jewish Fast Days
As I have mentioned before, there are two major fasts on the Jewish calendar. They are Yom Kippur, and Tisha B’Av. Both of these fast days are entire blog posts in and of themselves, so I’m not going to get into too much detail here; I’ll focus on the aspect of fasting.
Yom Kippur, which means “Day of Atonement,” is unique among the Jewish fasts in that is the only Biblically proscribed fast, and also the only fast day that is also a holiday. It occurs on the 10th of Tishrei, the 10th day of the Jewish year, and it is the climax of the Ten Days of Repentance that begin with Rosh Hashana (the Jewish New Year). The purpose of Yom Kippur is to atone for all the sins we have committed over the year. God commands us to refrain from five things–eating and drinking, sexual relations, washing, wearing leather shoes, and anointing ourselves with oil. The Torah says specifically that the purpose of this abstinence is to “cause ourselves to suffer.” If we do this on Yom Kippur, He promises, and sincerely repent for our sins, He will “wipe the slate clean.”
The other fasts on the Jewish calendar are all rabbinic.
Tisha B’Av, the other major fast day, is the day both Temples were destroyed, and has generally been a particularly, shall we say, unlucky day for the Jewish people. We’ll get into that in a later post.
The Fast of Gedalya, a minor fast which falls the day after Rosh Hashana, mourns the assassination of the leader of Judah after the destruction of the first Temple, killed by another Jew due to political disputes. If not for this murder, there may have been a hope of maintaining a significant and continuous Jewish presence in the land of Israel even under Babylonian occupation. The murder signified the nail in the coffin of the first Jewish commonwealth in the Holy Land.
The 10th of Tevet, which falls soon after Chanukah, was the beginning of the siege on Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, which culminated in the destruction of the First Temple a few hundred years before the common era. (The exact date of the destruction is under dispute.)
The Fast of Esther, which takes place the day before Purim, commemorates the fast that Queen Esther of Persia fasted as she planned to risk her life to visit King Ahashverosh and ask him to spare the Jews.
The 17th of Tamuz commemorates the Roman breach of the walls of Jerusalem that led to the destruction of the Second Temple.
Major vs. Minor Fasts
There are several differences between major and minor fasts:
1) Duration: Major fasts begin at sundown and end at nightfall the following day, meaning they last 25 hours. Minor fasts begin at daybreak and end at nightfall the same day, so they usually last somewhere between 14-18 hours (longer in the summer, obviously).
2) Restrictions: On minor fasts, we are only prohibited to eat and drink. On major fasts, we are also prohibited from the other four “afflictions” of Yom Kippur–sexual relations, washing, wearing leather shoes (considered to be a luxury back in the day), and anointing ourselves with oils or perfume. On Tisha B’Av, since it is a day of mourning, we also have some restrictions to do with mourning–on which I’ll elaborate in later posts.
3) Strictness: Yom Kippur is the strictest of them all–in fact, the punishment the Torah lists for eating on Yom Kippur is even more severe than that of breaking Shabbat. As a rule, every Jew above the “age of mitzvot” (twelve for a girl, thirteen for a boy) is required to fast. But obviously, if fasting would put one’s life in danger, one may not fast. People who must eat and/or drink, by doctor’s orders, if possible, do so in small amounts at fixed intervals (less than “a cheekful” (around 30ml) of liquid and a matchbox-full of food every 4-9 minutes); this allows them to technically “fast” according to the guidelines of the Sages. If they can’t do this, they eat and drink normally. All Jews (barring children and those with a doctor’s order not to fast) must fast on Tisha B’Av, too; but if one has a medical reason not to fast or to break the fast, he eats and/or drinks normally, since it is a rabbinic fast and therefore less severe. Pregnant and nursing women, as a general rule, are required to fast on Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av, but one should always speak to a doctor and a rabbi she trusts before fasting to get specific guidelines for when and how to eat and/or drink if she starts to feel unwell.
On minor fasts, on the other hand, anyone who is ill, pregnant, or nursing is automatically exempt, and if someone starts to feel ill or weak enough that s/he must lie down during the fast, s/he is allowed to break it.
Isn’t Fasting Torture?
This is such a First World Problem. Thank God that in our day and age people have no idea what it might be like to go an entire day without eating or drinking.
Everybody experiences fasting differently; some people are hardly affected at all, and some people are totally incapacitated by it. Most people feel kind of weak and shaky by afternoon, maybe a little dizzy; some people get headaches. Many people feel a kind of adrenaline rush towards the end of the fast, where suddenly they feel more energetic and kind of light-headed; the mood during Ne’ilah, the last prayer on Yom Kippur, often reflects this.
For most people, me included, it’s not exactly fun, but it’s not all that bad, either.
Breaking the Fast
Contrasting with Ramadan, there is no special meal on which Jews break their fasts. On Yom Kippur, the festive meal is actually eaten before the fast. On Tisha B’Av we also have a symbolic “last meal” before the fast, sitting on the floor with some bread and salt (symbolizing the poverty of our ancestors under siege), and a hard boiled egg with ashes on it, to symbolize our hope for the rebuilding of the Temple out of the ashes.
So when the fast ends, we simply eat and drink normally. In Israel there are always articles going around before Yom Kippur about what to eat before the fast (lots of “light” protein, like fish or chicken, and “slow carbs” like whole grains that take longer to digest) and after the fast. After going a full day without eating and drinking, it is recommended (from a medical standpoint) to start with some juice or other sweet drink to rehydrate and get your blood sugar back up, accompanied with a light snack like cake or crackers; then, after a little while, to have a bigger meal. Many synagogues offer some drinks and cakes to congregants after the services on Yom Kippur.
Okay, so, what is so very terrible about the destruction of the Temple, that we designate four fasts, including a major one, to mourn for it?
Stay tuned, and you shall have the answer. 😉
1. In the category of Ridiculous and Insignificant Non-Sequiturs on Which I Offer a Far Too Detailed Explanation:
In the course of writing this letter, I wanted to use the phrase “10 points to [Hogwarts House name]” to express my approval for a hypothetical good question. But I realized that, though from knowing Josep I was fairly confident he would identify with Ravenclaw, I had never discussed the matter with him. Now, I have an established tradition of sending Josep random, bizarre questions out of the blue, but this one surpassed them all. And to my shock and horror, he responded that he has never read Harry Potter. Thus, I was forced to conduct an emergency Sorting in the Hat’s absence:
So, if you, too, suffer from this grievous, gaping hole in your general knowledge, behold, an explanation: in the Harry Potter books, the students at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry are divided into four competing “houses”. Students are sorted into one of the houses according to their dominant character traits by an animate hat called the Sorting Hat. (The traits listed in my message to Josep above correspond to the houses as follows: 1. Gryffindor, 2. Ravenclaw, 3. Hufflepuff and 4. Slytherin.) Teachers can award points to a student’s house as a reward for good behavior, or take away points to punish bad behavior.
Thus: “10 points to [Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff or Slytherin]” is a phrase that expresses approval or celebration of achievement, especially in an academic setting.
Why am I telling you all this on a blog about Judaism and Israel? BECAUSE YOU SHOULD KNOW, THAT’S WHY. Now go read Harry Potter, you Philistine. (…In Josep’s defense, my husband, too, has this grievous, gaping hole in his general knowledge. I will forever hold this against both of them. 😛 )
(So there’s the longer answer I promised, Josep. 😉 Aren’t you glad you’ve wasted everybody’s time on this silly footnote?!)↩
Everybody who knows anything about Jewish archaeology knows that there are three main architectural markers that indicate that a settlement was Jewish. One, of course, is an indentation on the doorpost for the mezuza. Another, obviously, is the existence of a synagogue. The third is the mikveh, the ritual bath. I know you have heard of these because you mentioned the discovery of one in the ancient Jewish quarter of Girona.
So what are these baths, what are they used for, and why are they literally the first thing a Jewish community builds–even before the synagogue?
What is a Mikveh?
The word “mikveh” (often spelled and pronounced “mikvah” in English, but “mikveh” is a more accurate transliteration) means “collection” or “gathering”. A mikveh is a collection of water from a natural source. This can be a naturally occurring “collection”, such as a spring, lake, sea or ocean; or, it can be an artificial “collection”, but this has to be done in a very specific way to maintain the water’s “natural” status. It must contain at least 750 liters of water (198 gallons).
Here is a video that explains in detail how a modern indoor mikveh is constructed.
What Is It Used For?
Well… now that we have no Temple, there are three main uses, which I will describe below. But back in the days of the Temple, immersion in a mikveh was in imperative part of the spiritual purification process required of anyone who visited or worked at the Temple.
What is Tahara (Ritual Purity)?
Let’s get this straight before we go on: the mikveh is indeed a “bath” that uses water, but when we use the concepts of purity (tahara) and impurity (tum’a), we are not talking about cleanliness. Tahara and tum’a are simply different spiritual states of being. Tum’a is a state that is associated with a variety of restrictions, depending on the type of the impurity. We know nothing about what it actually is or means, but it is often associated with death in some form. Tahara is its opposite. This is a vast subject in Jewish law, most of which is not currently relevant because the Temple does not currently exist and most of the matters pertaining to ritual purity have to do with Temple service. The only type of tum’a that is currently relevant and can be reversed by immersion in a mikveh, is niddah. We’ll get to that in a moment.
A Gateway to Another State of Being
So why is water required for this purification process? There is much to be said about the symbolism and spiritual significance of water, and it is not unique to Judaism. Christianity and Islam also use water for spiritual purification. (The differences between immersion in the mikveh and baptism will become clear over the course of the letter.) In Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s book “The Waters of Eden”, he explains that all naturally occurring water in the world originated in the four rivers of the Garden of Eden that are mentioned in Genesis, and thus, natural water sources connect us physically to our spiritual source–the state of spiritual purity in which Adam and Eve existed before their sin. That sin is what brought the possibility of death into existence, and as I said, there is a connection between tum’a and death. So it makes sense for contact with the spiritual state of the Garden of Eden would be what would remove that influence from our bodies.
When we immerse in the mikveh, we must remove all physical barriers–dirt, stray hair, etc.–and immerse our entire bodies, so that we are completely surrounded by the water. The water can be likened in this way to amniotic fluid, and the mikveh to a spiritual womb–or grave. It is a gateway to another state of being. Thus encompassed in the water, we are “reborn” into a new spiritual state–the state of tahara.
Immersion of Vessels (Tevilat Keilim)
One of the uses of mikvaot today is the ritual immersion of vessels made of metal or glass that were produced by a non-Jew. The Torah (Numbers 31:21-23) commands us that when we want to use vessels made of various kinds of metals that were previously used by non-Jews to prepare or serve food, we must first immerse them in a mikveh. Our sages decided that glass must also be immersed because, like metal, it can be melded back together if it is broken. Clay or stone vessels do not require immersion.
Why does the Torah require this? The short answer is, as with everything to do with ritual purity, that we don’t know. I like to think of it as a way to physically dedicate the use of whatever vessel it is to be used for sacred purposes–feeding my children, cooking kosher food, preparing food to celebrate the holidays, etc. Yet another way to bring awareness of the Divine into the mundane.
This is not to be confused with kashering vessels. Immersion of vessels is a separate mitzvah.
Family Purity (Taharat HaMishpacha)
So what is niddah? Niddah is a state of tum’a that is brought on by menstruation. Remember how I said that tum’a is usually connected in some way to death? In this case, it’s not so much death, as the loss of potential for life. One might also find a connection between it and Eve’s curse, bringing us back to the connection between tahara and the waters of Eden.
The practical implication of this state of tum’a is just one thing: “You shall not come near to revealing the nakedness of a woman in her state of niddah.” (Leviticus 18:19) Meaning, sexual relations, and anything that might lead to them, are forbidden. The sages unanimously agree that this means any kind of physical contact between a woman in niddah and a man who is not a close family member (a parent, grandparent, or sibling)–especially not her husband.
Yes. This means that for around 12 days every month (5 minimum for menstruation+7 “clean” days–won’t get into how we reach those calculations here, it’s too complicated), I cannot hug my husband or hold his hand or even pat him on the back.
…And you thought it was horribly restrictive and frustrating that I can’t hug you. 😛
Remember when I told you I didn’t want to get into the technical explanation about that? So, here it is. 😛 The touch restriction applies to anyone to whom one is sexually prohibited–except close family members. I’m sure that doesn’t surprise you, but this will: the prohibition against premarital sex is actually not from the Torah; it is purely rabbinical. But any sexually mature woman who has yet to immerse in a mikveh, as with most unmarried religious Jewish women, is niddah, and therefore the restriction applies. And a woman who is tehora, but married, is obviously prohibited to anyone except her husband. So. Yeah.
Yes, I know it feels like a huuuuuuge stretch to think of any kind of physical contact as “coming close” to sexual relations, especially in a platonic friendship, and we’ve had that conversation before. 😉 As you know, some halakhic authorities permit leniency in cases of touch that is clearly formal, such as shaking hands, and I tend to hold by that to avoid embarrassing people; but once you are friends, any kind of touch is inherently affectionate, and that’s halakhically off limits.
And yes, I know it sucks. Have an e-hug. 😉
Back to “family purity”. The fact is that in a healthy romantic relationship, there can be something really positive about this cycle of drawing apart and coming together again. Having limited time to be together can make you prioritize nurturing your physical relationship while it is permitted, and nurture the other aspects of your relationship while it is forbidden. Moreover, there is something in this period of “forbiddenness” that adds an aspect of yearning and desire. Niddah gives us an opportunity to long for each other. And that makes the eventual reunion that much sweeter and more meaningful and powerful.
…Aaaaand that’s all I’m going to say about that. 😛
ANYWAY. Where were we? Right, niddah. So once a woman completes her seven “clean” days, she must remove all physical barriers from her body and immerse in a mikveh. After she immerses, she is tehora, and she and her husband are permitted to each other again.
And that, as I’m sure you now understand, is why the mikveh is such a crucial part of any permanent Jewish community. 😉 The practice of family purity is one of “the Big Three” commandments that are central to observant Jewish life, and basically serve as a litmus test for whether one is halakhically observant or not. The other two are Shabbat and kashrut. Obviously, what goes on in other people’s bedrooms is absolutely none of anyone else’s business, so the latter two are generally how people identify each other as observant. I should also say that along the observant spectrum there are people who interpret “coming close to” more liberally, and don’t have a problem with non-sexual physical contact. While I still must say that unfortunately, I do not feel that this interpretation falls within the halakhic framework, I still consider these people to be observant. (In fact, I had one such person give you a hug for me recently, didn’t I? 😉 )
Conversion to Judaism
Immersion in the mikveh is the final step in the process of a halakhic conversion. Conversion to Judaism is another vast topic about which I know rather little. What I do know is that it is very difficult and involves months, if not years, of intensive study, as well as being “adopted” by a Jewish family and living within an observant community for a certain length of time. At the end of this process, the potential convert appears before a beit din, a panel of dayanim (judges) who test him or her on his or her knowledge of Jewish law. If the beit din decides that the person is knowledgeable enough and is truly committed to becoming a halakhically observant Jew, the convert then goes to the mikveh–the spiritual womb. S/he goes into the water as a non-Jew, and emerges “reborn” as a Jew.
This probably reminds you of baptism, and in some ways it is an apt comparison. In both cases, there is some kind of immersion in water that creates an irreversible spiritual change in the religious identity of that individual. The major difference is that you can be “accidentally” or forcibly baptized, and the baptism is still binding. (As you know, this created some fairly problematic situations in the past…) Jewish halakhic (Orthodox) conversion, however, is completely impossible if you do not have a sincere intention to become a Jew and stay a Jew. If, at the moment of immersion, the potential convert does not intend to be Jewish and observe the Torah, the immersion is completely meaningless. If, however, s/he was totally sincere at that moment, but the next day changes his/her mind and decides to be a Hindu, s/he is still a Jew–forever. Children can be converted, even as infants, but when they reach the age of halakhic responsibility (bar or bat mitzvah), they can protest the conversion; meaning, the conversion is conditional, depending on whether the child decides, once he or she is of age, to continue being Jewish. So Jewish conversion can only happen with intention and consent, and under the supervision of a beit din.
There are men (and non-Orthodox women) who immerse in the mikveh for spiritual or traditional reasons. While this is thought to be spiritually cleansing, particularly in Chassidic/Kabbalistic thought, it is not a Torah required immersion, so the whole “removal of barriers” is not required, and men may not recite the blessing for immersion as women do when immersing for niddah. Men will immerse before visiting the Temple Mount, and many men will make a point of immersing before Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement. Entry to come in its time. 😉 ).
…Well, I’m sure I’ve given you plenty to chew on there!
This part of the year is chock full of notable events on the Jewish calendar. The next one coming up is Lag B’Omer, which is pretty much the most obscure holiday we have. But before we get into that, let’s back up a minute and talk about the Omer.
What is the Omer? Well, the word itself refers to a certain offering that was brought to the Temple at this time of year (omer ha’tenufah, “the sheaf of waving”). But it also lent its name to something we call “the counting of the Omer” (sefirat ha’omer).
Remember how we mentioned that the Exodus was basically the birthday of the nation of Israel? Sometimes it is also compared to the “betrothal” between God and the Israelites. The betrothal, or engagement, is an initial commitment that takes place before the eternal commitment of a marriage, right? So if the Exodus was the “betrothal”, the giving of the Torah–the seal of the eternal bond between us and God–is the “wedding”.
When a bride and groom are looking forward to their wedding, they often count the days left until the big day. That’s exactly what counting the Omer is–only when we count the Omer, we count up, instead of down.
“And you shall count from the day after the day of rest, from they day that you bring the omer ha’tenufa, seven complete weeks. Until the day after the seventh week, you shall count fifty days” — Leviticus 23:15-16
It just so happens that I got married on the 47th day of the Omer–the 3rd of Sivan, 3 days before Shavuot. So that year that feeling of counting up in anticipation was very tangible for me! (Not to mention that one of my sons was born on the 49th day and another on the 48th three years later. A lot to count up to each year! 😉 )
The “day of rest” referred to in the above passage is the first day of Passover. So we begin the night after. Since this is a mitzvah, we make a blessing first, and then count the first day: “Today is one day of the Omer.” “Today is two days of the Omer,” etc. Note that the passage says to count both seven weeks, and fifty days; so we mention both when we count. For instance, today is day 25, so last night the formula went as follows: “Today is twenty and five days, that are three weeks and four days of the Omer.”
So why are we counting up instead of down?
Good question. 😛
According to the Kabbalah, there 10 ways that God expresses Himself in the universe. These attributes or emanations are called sefirot. Does that word sound familiar? 😉 They are, from highest to lowest: Keter/Da’at (crown/knowledge), Binah (understanding), Chokhma (wisdom), Chesed (lovingkindness), Gevurah (might, discipline), Tiferet (beauty, glory), Netzach (eternity or mastery), Hod (splendor), Yesod (foundation), and Malkhut (sovereignty). These sefirot are arranged in a certain order, from the lowest and most material, to the highest and most spiritual. The lower seven are the ones that are expressed in our world.
This is not the time or place to expound upon each one of these attributes, how they are expressed in the world and how we can recognize God through them. Kabbalah is a whole world unto itself and I don’t know much about it.
Anyway, each day of the Omer is associated with a different combination of sefirot. The first week is Chesed, lovingkindness, so the first day is “the chesed within the chesed“, the second day is “the gevurah (might/discipline) within the chesed“, etc.
The point of this is that it is an opportunity to examine the way each of these attributes is expressed through us. So for instance, today is “the netzach within the netzach“. Netzach can be interpreted as “eternity”, or “mastery”, or “endurance”. So on this day we can think about our endurance, our consistency, our fortitude, and try to improve these qualities within ourselves.
So let’s return to the question: why are we counting up? Because the idea is that with each day that passes from Passover to Shavuot, from the Exodus to the Revelation at Sinai, we rise up a spiritual level. Today, we are on “level twenty-five”–halfway there! Tomorrow, we will be on “level twenty-six”. When we reach “level fifty”, we will be ready to re-accept the Torah. Using the “chart” of the sefirot is one way that we can help ourselves ascend the spiritual ladder that is the Omer.
Now. All this is very exciting and you’d think that this would be a joyous time of year. Right?
Around the time of the destruction of the Second Temple, there was a rabbi called Rabbi Akiva. He is mentioned often in the Talmud as one of the greatest and most influential teachers of his time. He had thousands of students. And at one time, there was a terrible plague that killed of 24,000 of his students during the first 33 days of the Omer. The Gemara states that this plague was wrought upon the students “because they did not honor one another”. For this reason, during the first 33 days of the Omer, it is customary to be in a sort of symbolic public state of mourning. We don’t cut our hair, don’t shave beards, don’t buy new clothing and don’t have weddings.
Now… one might ask, why all the fuss and bother over a bunch of students who died two thousand years ago? Haven’t there been worse disasters in our history that might be more deserving of public displays of mourning? Heck, if we commemorated every major disaster in our history we’d be in mourning every single day of the year.
Well, it’s a good question. And you know how we Jews sometimes like a good question better than we like a good answer? 😉 The answer is not very neat and easy to explain. People can take it in all kinds of different directions. One article I read went through the historical details of exactly what happened with the hypothesis that these students had the potential to reverse the destruction of the Temple and bring on the era of the Messiah, but that because they didn’t honor one another, they failed to do so and created an extremely unfortunate turning point in our history. This is the best explanation I have heard, and it’s worth taking a look at the article; lengthy, but worth it. 😉
So what is Lag B’Omer then? “Lag” is simply the number 33. Hebrew letters are also used as numerals, so 33 is ל”ג, which, sounded out, says “lag”. The 33rd day commemorates three things:
1) The end of the aforementioned plague;
2) The death of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, to whom the Zohar (the book of the Kabbalah) is traditionally attributed, so it’s a big day for Kabbalists;
3) The rebellion of Bar Kochva against the Romans (after the destruction of the Second Temple) began that day. (The rebellion eventually failed, but… the same way we feel pride about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which also eventually failed, we also feel pride about Bar Kochva’s uprising.) To communicate the beginning of the rebellion, Bar Kochva’s men lit bonfires to be seen by their colleagues…
And that is why Lag B’Omer is the most polluted day of the year in Israel.
Because it has become a custom to light bonfires in honor of Bar Kochva that night. Now, Israelis love bonfires. It’s a big part of traditional kibbutz culture, and fits right in with the general Israeli love of being outside. (And didn’t I mention that Jews have a thing for fire? 😛 ) So this custom is a big hit even among totally secular Israelis.
Lag B’Omer is next week, so all the kids are hard at work collecting bonfire wood, hoarding it, and guarding it ferociously from other kids. When I was an older kid/young teen, I enjoyed going to bonfires with my friends, roasting meat and marshmallows in the flames and staying up late hanging around the fire.
But then I grew up, got sick of dealing with all the smoke, and became a curmudgeon along with my asthmatic husband 😛 so this is the only night of the year we keep all our windows closed and the air conditioner on all night. :-/
In Part I, I mentioned that the Seder (and Passover in general) are all about interactive and experiential learning that is usually directed towards the next generation: the kids. This actually does not begin on Seder night, but on the night before, with a special ritual we call bedikat chametz.
In the weeks and days before Passover, as mentioned in Part I, we thoroughly clean and check our homes for any recognizable traces of chametz (leavened products; see part I for explanation). On the evening before Passover, we hold a special ritual to symbolically finish this task, called bedikat chametz, “checking for chametz”. We make a blessing, and then turn off all the lights in the house, and by the light of candles and flashlights, search for little pieces of chametz that were intentionally hidden by one of the family members (traditionally it’s 10 pieces). Obviously, this would be an extremely inefficient way to actually check for chametz; this is more symbolic than anything else, and it’s a fun game for the kids, kind of like a treasure hunt in the dark! When all the pieces of chametz have been found, we recite a passage in Aramaic that effectively nullifies any chametz that we have missed in our search. We declare that if there is any chametz left, to us it will be like “the dust of the earth”.
The following day, any remaining chametz (that will not be sold) must be burned or otherwise destroyed in a way that makes it unusable (such as pouring bleach all over it).
(True story: I cleaned, searched, vacuumed, and scrubbed my house top to bottom, and first day of Passover this year, I discovered two granola bars of dust in my purse. Thanks to the above declaration, it’s all good–I simply destroyed the evidence and removed it from the premises. 😛 )
The holiday begins with lighting candles at sundown, as with every other Biblical holiday. A service is held at the synagogue, and then all families return to their homes to begin the Seder. It is a very strong tradition to have the Seder with lots of people, generally with one’s extended family, and/or lots of guests. When an Israeli asks me what I’m doing for Seder this year and I say, “Just the five of us,” s/he gives me a look that is halfway between pity and horror. Even Jews with very little connection to tradition and halakha tend to attend some kind of Seder. I guess the parallel would be like how Christmas is celebrated so widely even by people who don’t really consider themselves Christian. We like to have quiet, intimate Seders, so there is room for discussion but things don’t drag out too long, and especially when our kids got old enough to participate, we really want to keep their attention as long as possible. Back in the USA, we generally had our Seders with my dad’s parents in New York and whatever aunts and uncles were around.
The word “Seder” means “order”, referring to the ten steps to the ritual meal that must be carried out in order. The Haggadah, briefly mentioned in the entry about the Jewish holy books, guides us through these steps, which mostly involve reading the passages aloud and eating symbolic foods that help us commemorate those events. The symbolic foods are arranged at the center of the table on the Seder plate:
We also set three matzot on the table in a pile and covered by a cloth.
The table is set, the kids and guests are seated, and we begin:
The leader of the Seder (usually the head of the household) recites the kiddush over a cup of wine. This is the same kind of “declaration” of the sanctity of the day that we perform on Shabbat and other holidays. If the Seder falls on a Friday night (as it did this year), the kiddush for Shabbat is recited as well. Then, we all drink our first cup of wine while reclining. This is symbolic of our freedom, as royals used to eat while reclining. (Yes, I said “first” cup of wine. There are four. It’s gonna be a long night. 😉 ) (Grape juice is okay for those of us who would rather remain sober…)
We wash our hands as though for bread, but without the blessing. We are not about to eat bread, but there is a custom to wash our hands this way before eating a food that is dipped in liquid.
Karpas (Green Vegetable)
We eat a green vegetable, usually parsley or celery, dipped in salt water. The green vegetable symbolizes spring, and the salt water symbolizes the tears we shed under the oppression of slavery. The Polish tradition is to do this with potato, which is not a green vegetable, but good luck finding anything green in Poland at this time of year 😛
Yachatz (Splitting in Half)
The leader of the Seder takes the middle matza from the pile and breaks it in half. The bigger half is hidden away as the afikoman, which will be eaten later.
Maggid is the centerpiece of the Haggadah; the section that actually contains the retelling of the story of the Exodus. There is no way I’m going to cover all its contents here. For that, you’ll have to actually read a Haggadah. (Conveniently, Chabad has a full English version here.) You’ll notice that it doesn’t really follow the narrative the way you would expect. To understand why… well, you’ll just have to come to our Seder someday, and we can discuss it long into the night–as per the tradition. 🙂
So by this point in the evening, if you have never been to a Seder before, you are going to be really confused. What is going on? Why are we eating these weird things? Why is this holiday so different from other holidays?
Well, that’s how Maggid kicks off the story. The smallest child at the table recites the Four Questions: Why is this night different from all the other nights–that on all other nights, we eat chametz and matza, but on this night, only matza? That on all other nights, we eat all kinds of vegetables, but on this night, we eat bitter herbs? That on all other nights, we don’t dip our food even once, but on this night, we dip it twice? That on all other nights, we eat sitting or reclining, but on this night, we all recline?
The idea of the Seder is to make the children curious so they will ask questions like these.
The answer to those questions comes right away: Once, our ancestors were slaves in Egypt, and God saved us from their hands. The text then dwells a little on the concept of retelling the story and educating our children about the Exodus, and then goes on to describe the story of the Exodus and interpretations of the passages and events by various sages. (Remember, the Haggadah is an extremely old text that was written around the time of the Talmud, so the passages reflect rabbinic discourse of that period.)
The most poignant part of the Seder, in my view, is the following passage, recited in the middle of Maggid: “And it is [that promise] that has stood for our fathers and for us, for not only one has arisen against us to destroy us, but in every generation they arise against us to destroy us, but the Holy One, Blessed be He, saves us from their hand.” This line, written so many centuries ago, has rung true at every single Seder since. This is a beautiful version composed by one of my favorite singer/songwriters, Yonatan Razel, who here changes some of the lyrics to present and future tense to emphasize how relevant this ancient passage still feels.
We wash our hands again, this time actually for bread–that is, for…
That first word refers to the blessing we make over bread, hamotzi lechem min ha’aretz, “…who brings bread out of the ground”. We make two blessings over the matza–one for the enjoyment of food, and one for the mitzva–and eat the proscribed amount of it while reclining.
Maror (Bitter Herbs)
These are eaten to represent the bitterness of slavery. We usually eat either romaine lettuce or horseradish or some mixture of both. (The horseradish on the plate is that purple stuff. It’s purple because it’s mixed with… la remolatxa1. 😛 That is how it’s usually served with the famous (or is it infamous…?) gefilte fish.) We first dip the lettuce or horseradish into that brown mush, which is called charoset, and represents the mortar used by the slaves to make the bricks. It is traditionally made with apples, wine, nuts, and/or dates, and is supposed to be sweet, so it sweetens the bitterness of the herb representing slavery.
Now we follow a tradition established by Hillel the Elder in the days of the Second Temple. Tradition has it that Hillel sandwiched all the symbolic foods of Passover–the matza, the maror, the charoset, and the Passover sacrifice (a lamb)–and ate them together. Since we have no Temple, we cannot make the sacrifice, so we leave out the lamb. BTW, if you’re still wondering about the shankbone and the egg on the plate–the bone represents the Passover sacrifice, and the egg represents the Chagiga (holiday) sacrifice.
Shulchan Orech (Setting the Table)
This is where we have the feast! Everybody’s favorite part. 😛 Traditional foods include knaidlach, or matza balls, dumplings made of ground matza, in chicken soup; the aforementioned gefilte fish, which are balls of ground fish, usually carp; and lamb, in commemoration of the sacrifice. (I happen to dislike lamb. So, beef or chicken it is. As to gefilte fish, usually I can take it or leave it, but I enjoy it as a special Passover thing.)
So remember the piece of matza the leader of the Seder hid away way back before Maggid? Now is the time to find it: it’s the afikoman (that word apparently comes from the ancient Greek for “dessert”). We are required to have a proscribed amount of it as the last thing we eat. But first, the kids have to find it! Another treasure hunt. 🙂 This is a great way to keep them awake and engaged. Another tradition developed out of this that the children then hold the afikoman “captive”, thereby indefinitely delaying the end of the Seder, and “bargaining” to give it back in return for a gift or a treat.
Now we recite Grace After Meals, over a third cup of wine (the second was drunk at the end of Maggid), and then drink that cup and recite the blessing after drinking wine. The final cup of wine is poured.
Hallel is a special prayer recited on holidays, comprised of Psalms 113-118. The first part of Hallel is recited at the synagogue, and it is continued here, and then we go on to read additional Psalms along the same general theme of God being awesome. The final cup of wine is now drunk. (And if it’s really wine, so are we. 😛 )
The name is referring to God accepting our completion of the Seder. This is when the Seder officially ends. (There are opinions that this is not a distinct section of the Seder, but that this and the previous are one section–“Hallel Nirtza”.) We sing l’shana haba’ah b’yirushalayim habnuya–next year in rebuilt Jerusalem! Then there are a few more traditional Passover songs, which are generally fun and lively and get everybody’s energy up for the final leg of the Seder. (Great for keeping the kids awake, too.)
The very last song of the Seder, at least in Ashkenazi tradition… you’d think it would be something profound, about freedom, or the purpose of the Jewish people, or maybe even about the holiday itself. But it’s this:
A cumulative song in Aramaic about a little goat that Dad bought for two zuzim (units of money), which gets eaten by a cat, which gets bit by a dog, which gets hit by a stick, which gets burned by a fire, which gets doused by water, which gets drunk by an ox, which gets slaughtered by a shochet (ritual slaughterer), who gets killed by the Angel of Death, who gets destroyed by the Holy One, Blessed Be He.
(And you betcha we sing it with sound effects. 😛 )
…I know. Why on earth are we ending the Seder with this silly little ditty?
Obviously, as with everything in the Seder, because it is has important symbolism. The idea of the song is that there is justice in the world, even if we don’t see it at the time; that every action has a consequence, and that, as the Talmud says: “There is justice and there is a Judge“.
Believe it or not, this silly animal song contains the deepest, most fundamental message of the Seder.
Why is it so important for us to remember that God freed us from slavery and brought us out of Egypt?
Because we must remember that there is justice, and there is a Judge, and even when the world seems unjust and terrible things are happening to good people, there is a reason for everything, and it’s all for the ultimate good. Even when we’re at the profoundest depths of despair, God’s redemption can occur in the blink of an eye.
That is the message of the Seder, and that is why the tradition of the Seder has carried us through many other “Egypts” throughout history.
So… that’s the Seder, in a nutshell. Outside of Israel, you “get” to do the whole thing all over again the following night. (I’m sure there are advantages to this, but to me it just sounds exhausting and I am grateful to be here!)
A blessed and happy Passover!
1. La remolatxa is “beet” in Catalan. The only reason I know this word is because 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.)↩
I was going to write Part II of the Passover series, but I think it’ll have to wait.
You may recall me mentioning that my grandmother was diagnosed with terminal cancer shortly before my trip to the USA. So, she passed away Monday night.
I would probably write about how Judaism deals with death and mourning, but right now I’m just feeling even more strongly what I wrote in that letter. My heart is perpetually broken, and there is nothing like losing a family member halfway across the world while you are deep in Passover preparations and trying to entertain your kids (who have been on vacation since Sunday. Thanks a bunch, Ministry of Education) to emphasize how unnatural and painful it is to be so far away from your family. I am so jealous of my Israeli friends whose families can converge within a few hours when something like this happens. The Jewish mourning practices–on which I’m sure I will elaborate eventually–are really very sensitive to this need for family to mourn together, and to be with friends and loved ones, without necessarily needing to speak. Funerals and the surrounding customs provide a context for your grief, they surround you with your loved ones, there’s a catharsis. That is what can’t be fulfilled by the miracles of modern technology. I couldn’t attend the funeral. I couldn’t be there to hug my mother and grandfather and sister. I wasn’t even able to be with my father or brothers, who are here. You know how much I struggle with the pain of distance even without the added pain of loss. It’s agonizing, Josep. It truly is. It makes the process of grieving ten times more painful.
It sounds so cliche to say my grandmother was an amazing lady, but she really was, and there is so much to say about her, I can’t even begin. I think you would have loved her, and she you. You would have talked about Shakespeare and both of your world travels over a glass of fine wine. The “chai” necklace I mentioned (the gold one in this entry about Jewish symbols) is around my neck, and I think that symbol really embodies so much of what she was–full of life, to the very end. She used to wear that necklace all the time, and when I was a baby I would always play with it and put it in my mouth, so she decided she would give it to me when I got older. She gave it to me before my wedding day. A couple months ago when I spoke to her on FaceTime I was wearing it, and she pointed out that I was fiddling with it exactly the same way… I hadn’t even noticed 😉
I was lucky to get to say goodbye to her. Three weeks ago, I was at her apartment in Florida, and we talked about her life and her family. “You come from a long line of strong women,” she told me, “and I see that spark in every one of you.”
When time came to part for the last time, she held both of my hands, smiled, and said, “We will be in touch. Forever.” I started to cry. She told me not to, and we hugged.
I inherited her smile. I can only hope to emulate some of the positivity and joyful strength of spirit that shined from that smile.
I loved her very much, and I miss her, and I am a total mess and I have no idea how I’m going to survive this holiday. Honestly I have no idea how I’ve survived to this point, either.
Anyway. That’s why part II is postponed for now. I hope I’ll get to it sometime during Passover. If not… there’s always next year.