Category Archives: Observant Judaism

Q&A with Random Strangers on the Internet, Pt. 2!

Before I begin, I wanted to bring your attention to a wonderful review of Letters to Josep that Yael Shahar, author of A Damaged Mirror, posted on her blog (which subsequently got a mention in this month’s Jewish Book Carnival). Thanks, Yael!

Onwards. Back in June, I posted a highly amusing piece (if I do say so myself. Well, Josep found it amusing, and that’s what counts here!) in which I decided to answer some questions or comments that various people typed into a search engine and somehow arrived at my blog.

Well, traffic to my blog has steadily increased in the past few months and I’ve been getting more “search term questions”–some of them more bizarre than others–in my stats. So, I have decided to do another Q & A session with Random Strangers on the Internet!

Let us begin:

“why are the jews so weird”

Why is the sky blue? Why is water wet? 😛

Here are my highly unprofessional hypotheses:

  1. God could only have chosen an entire nation of weirdos to take on the role of “light unto the nations” and “a nation of priests.” A’right? Because nobody normal would agree to take on this insanity.
  2. We’ve been through a lot. You have to be pretty weird to survive 2,000 years of exile, persecution, massacres, and hatred, and still love and celebrate life. In the immortal words of Seal, “Oh, we’re never gonna surviiiiiive uuuuuunless we are a little craaazy!” We’re like your eccentric grandma who has been through so much, she doesn’t give a rat’s behind what anybody thinks about her anymore. (…Oh, you don’t have a grandma like that? I do. Hi Bubbie! 😛 )
  3. Inbreeding? Researchers found a bottleneck of only around 350 Ashkenazi Jews during the Middle Ages from which the entire Ashkenazi population today is descended. This could account for some, erm, weirdnesses.
  4. Our intense holidays seasons are enough to drive anybody completely batty. And we’ve been doing ’em for 3,000 years. So.

“jewish people are strange”

…Search terms along these lines are apparently what I get for having a post titled “15 Weird Things Jews Do” go viral.

“what’s the jew thing to do”

Hmm. Well, that depends on the context. A typical Jewish response to pretty much anything is to complain about it, argue about it with anyone who’s willing to listen, joke about it, and then sing loudly and dance the hora because it’s Shabbat/a holiday/a wedding/a bar mitzvah/a happy occasion of any sort and we’ll be darned if we aren’t going to celebrate.

“all the thins jews dont do”

That, my friend, is a very long list.

image of man with huge book with caption, "All the Things Jews Don't Do"

Of the 613 commandments, 365 are “negative” commandments (do nots).  I can’t find a comprehensive list of the negative commandments separated from the positive ones, but here’s a complete list of the 613 based primarily on Maimonides (there are other sources that list them a little differently).

But many of those are not that relevant to daily life. The most important things to know about Jews not doing is: not eating non-kosher food (click here to find out what that means) and not working or performing creative activities on the Sabbath (explained here) or on certain holidays (explained here). There are a bunch of other random stuff, and if you’re interested in learning more, you can check out my book 🙂

“why do ultra orthodox jews clap”

Because… they’re happy and they know it?

Okay okay but seriously–there is an actual thing about clapping hands. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov taught that “dancing and clapping hands can sweeten all the decrees.” According to the kabbalah, the right hand is associated with lovingkindness and mercy, and the left hand is associated with justice. Thus, symbolically bringing them together brings mercy into justice.

Or something.

Either way, Breslover hassidim sometimes clap while they pray for this reason, and other Jews who are into Hassidism have adopted the practice as well. Especially during the high holidays.

See, for example, this little scene from “The Guests,” a (really great) Israeli film about a Breslover couple in Jerusalem:

…Yeah, shouting at the top of your lungs is also a Breslover thing. It’s kind of like the shofar, only using your voice. There’s a guy here who does this in public on a regular basis and you can hear him from all over the town.

“throw out dishes in jewish religion”

YES. THANK YOU. Contrary to the popular myth, as described in my recent post on the subject, we do not bury dishes that have been made non-kosher. In the case of ceramic dishes, they cannot be kashered, and therefore we have to throw them out. Fortunately, I personally have never had an issue with a ceramic dish; it is usually cooking utensils like spatulas and wooden spoons that get mixed up around here. You know, you’re standing over the stove, composing your next blog post in your head while you fry the onions, and–whoops! Wrong spatula.

…Okay, so I’m kind of a space cadet. But to be fair it happens to Eitan more often than to me!

“an invitation to pray for israel during the days of awe”

Consider yourself invited! We can use any prayer we can get!

“17 tammuz liquid fast orthodox jewish”

No, actually, the 17th of Tammuz is a typical Jewish fast, which means we refrain from both eating and drinking. More on Jewish fasts here, and more on the 17th of Tammuz and the Three Weeks here.

“judeo arabic phrases”

Sorry, all I know are some very basic Palestinian Arabic phrases. After finishing the French program on DuoLingo, I decided to take a break from DuoLingo (which had been RULING MY LIFE for the past 2.5 years) and from Romance languages and focus on studying spoken Palestinian Arabic through this awesome website for Hebrew speakers, Madrasa.

But often, Jewish dialects of other languages are basically the same as those languages with a few Hebrew and Aramaic words and phrases thrown in. You’ll be pretty safe with “insh’allah” (“God willing”), “mashallah” (“God has willed it”), “alhamdullilah” (“Praise God”), etc., like the Muslims say!

More about Jewish languages here.

“we are the battle ground between good and evil”

Yeah, we totally are.

“was hitler an amalekite”

We Jews argue that he was, in the sense that he “inherited” the spiritual legacy of Amalek. (The actual nation of Amalek disappeared thousands of years ago, so he probably was not one in the genetic sense.) More about that here.

“king david ultimate in tshuva”

King David does stand as a very important example in teshuva (repentance). King Saul, his predecessor, lost his right to the throne because after he sinned, he refused to own up to it when he was confronted by Samuel the Prophet. King David, on the other hand, immediately admitted that he had sinned. There is an entire chapter in Psalms that is believed to have been composed by him when he was confronted by Nathan the Prophet about it (chapter 51).

More about King David and his general awesomeness here, and more about teshuva here.

“the influence of juwish on the development of islam and christianity scriptures”

I’d say we were more than an “influence”; we are the “original,” in the sense that we came first. According to Islam, our scripture is a distorted version of what God originally gave us at Sinai, and the Qur’an is the real deal; according to Christianity, God made a new covenant with humanity when He came to earth as Jesus and sacrificed himself on the cross, nullifying certain aspects of our scripture and replacing them with the Christian bible.

“two most important godly customs”

Let’s see. If I had to choose two customs that are the most important for all of humanity, I think I’d go for prayer and a weekly day of rest (what we practice as Shabbat). Prayer helps us stay connected to ourselves and to God and to hope. A weekly day of rest is good for us in all kinds of ways. Take one day a week to switch off your phone and have a good meal or two with your friends and family, to pray, and to enjoy what you have accomplished that week. Trust me, it’s great stuff.

“is ethiopian jew married another’s jew?”

If you mean, “Can Ethiopian Jews marry other Jews?” the answer is absolutely! I know at least two such couples personally, and look at this adorable music video made by an Ashkenazi Israeli who married an Ethiopian Israeli woman and wrote a song about the coming together of their families:

The singer, Yossi Turetsky, is the son of Ashkenazi immigrants from Great Britain, and his wife made aliyah from Ethiopia with her family during Operation Solomon. An excerpt from the lyrics:

We left the Land thousands of years ago
The distances between us were enormous
We longed for each other each and every moment
For you and me to unite was possible only in our dreams
But the unbelievable happened suddenly…

We are a home again–can you believe it?
We are together again–this is a sign of God’s presence
We are once again being renewed as in those days
We are here again; it is a miracle of God

More about Jewish cultural identities here.

“jew boy selection”

*wince* Too many Holocaust connotations there buddy.

“michal bat esther stabbing”

Yeah, that was scary. Thank God, she’s okay and she gave birth to a healthy baby girl. She has even got involved in peace activism since the attack, partially as a reaction to it.

“are different languages of the world punishment”

My friend Haviv asked me about that! Traditionally it is thought that yes, it was. But I think it’s not all that clear-cut. Here’s my take on it.

“cardboard definition torah”

I… what?

“names of the six compartments of the jewish temple”

I’m not sure what six compartments you are referring to. The Tabernacle and the First Temple had three main areas: the hatzer, the courtyard; the heikhal, the outer hall; and the dvir, or the inner hall, which housed the Holy of Holies. The Second Temple was larger and had additional areas, but that would make more than six.

More about the Temple here.

 “ur light/contrast if you want to feel the effects i’m looking for . code: select all if (!track.has weapons()) { // so what are you going to threaten me with? exhaustion gas? return threat level::none; }”

I don’t know what game you’re playing, or how on earth Google decided it had anything to do with me, but no, I do not plan to threaten you with exhaustion gas. (….???)

“letter to a friend on eid al-adha”

God bless you, Yasmina, I’ve gotten many, many views from Muslim-majority countries thanks to your guest letter.

“funny exclamatory pictures”/”exclamatory expressions”

After seeing both of these I wondered what on earth people were finding on my blog with this search term. So I Google-Image-ed it, and apparently, this picture from 10 Essential Words in Judeo-English is one of the top results:


Not exactly what I would have described as “exclamatory,” but hey, go figure.

Any other questions, Internet?! Don’t be shy, ask in a comment or via the contact page or in an e-mail to letterstojosep at gmail dot com! I love getting questions from readers!

Women in Orthodox Judaism, or: Daniella Opens a Can

Dear Josep,

I was asked recently whether I had written anything for the blog on the status of women in Judaism. I gave an ironic smile and said, “Oh, heck, no. I’ve been avoiding that can of worms.”


I brought my can opener.
I brought my can opener.

I’ve been avoiding it because… well, volumes have been written on the topic of women and gender in Judaism from every possible viewpoint and perspective, and I don’t feel I have anything groundbreaking to contribute to the conversation. Furthermore, my views on the topic are somewhat conflicting and in flux–sometimes I feel one way strongly, and sometimes another, and sometimes neither.

But you are not part of any of that discourse, so I might as well just give it to you straight, and then discuss my thoughts on it afterwards.

The Torah asserts a fairly non-politically-correct, but in my opinion, actually-correct idea: that men and women are built differently. Now before everybody jumps on me, that isn’t to say that one gender is better than the other, or that some men aren’t built more similarly to women, and some women, more similarly to men. It means that in general, the biological difference reflects a mental and spiritual difference, too. And the differences in the requirements of halakha in regards to men and women, are meant to reflect those differences.

However, as we all know, society has been abusing those differences since the dawn of humanity, and some of the differences between men’s and women’s roles in society are the result of misogyny and abuse of power. Sadly, there are some aspects of Jewish law that probably reflect that as well.

Practically speaking, the difference is this: women have fewer halakhic requirements, and therefore halakhic privileges, than men. We are exempt from commandments that are anchored to a certain time of day, and a few others. They include many of the external and public ritual observances, such as prayer, putting on tefillin, studying Torah, and the like. While that means we have less halakhic “responsibility,” it also means that we can’t be as involved in those rituals as men are. For example, because we are not required to study Torah, and therefore hearing the Torah reading is optional for us, we can’t read the Torah for a man to fill his obligation, because he needs to hear it from someone who has the same level of obligation as him. When it comes to the reading of the Scroll of Esther on Purim, on the other hand,  women and men are equally obligated, and therefore a woman could theoretically read it for a man and fill his obligation. But because of issues of modesty, it is very rare for a woman to read megilla for men (even though it is permissible). In communities that have megilla readings by women, they are usually for women only.

So, historically, the combination of lesser obligation and modesty issues led to women being marginalized in the synagogue, and left out of the houses of learning altogether, until quite recently. Women were generally your typical homemakers and child-bearers, and female leaders were very rare. But they did exist! Miriam, Moses’s sister, had a prominent role among the Israelites. Deborah the Prophetess (Judges 4-5) led a war against a Canaanite general.

Deborah, as interpreted by Gustave Doré.
Deborah, as interpreted by Gustave Doré.

Salome Alexandra (Shlomtzion in Hebrew) was a Hasmonean queen who brought relative peace to Judea under her rule. A woman called Bruriah is quoted as a sage in the Talmud, and was respected for her vast knowledge. And today, there are quite a number of rebbetzins (rabbis’ wives) who are regarded as great spiritual leaders.

Still, as a general rule, women have a more traditional role in Jewish society, and the laws of modesty tend to focus more on women’s requirements than men’s. There is no denying that sometimes that can be stifling, if not discriminatory.

However. There are a few howevers:

Unlike most other religions, the heart of Judaism is not actually the external rituals observed in the synagogue, but the laws observed in the home, namely kashrut, Shabbat, and family purity. The observance of these laws has always fallen mostly in the domain of women. Moreover, having children and raising them as dedicated Jews has a lot of importance to us. Therefore, women have actually had a very central role in Judaism. That’s one of the reasons Judaism is passed down through the mother, not the father or a combination of both.

Which brings me to the next “however”: there are aspects of Jewish law that actually favor women over men. Such as what I just mentioned. Another example: the Jewish marriage contract is slanted sharply in favor of the woman. The Torah (Exodus 22:10) specifically requires a husband to provide for his wife, and it specifies: food, clothing, and sexual satisfaction. (!) While the husband does expect certain “rights” from his wife, these have much less weight than those three Torah obligations. The entire contract was built to protect women, and though it is far from perfect, it was way ahead of its time.

Also… things are changing, even in the most insular of Jewish communities. It was always accepted for women to have female spiritual leaders, but now that has become a lot more widespread, and there is even a daring movement in the Orthodox world to ordain female rabbis. Whereas many synagogues used to designate one little room in the back with a little window as the “women’s section,” these days it is much more common to have a barrier down the middle of the room, so the women can be close to the ark where the Torah scrolls are kept, and follow the prayers more easily. In the communities I have belonged to, women also give talks on Torah topics during the services (where only men used to do that), and generally participate more fully in the ritual aspect of Jewish life. I read from my weekly Torah portion at my bat mitzvah party (instead of at synagogue), and a number of my peers held women’s prayer services for their bat mitzvahs so they could read from the Torah during the service. And I’ve been reading from the Scroll of Esther on Purim during women’s readings since I was in tenth grade.

As Ludwig van Beethoven. What?
As Ludwig van Beethoven. What? 😛1

Personally? I very rarely felt excluded and marginalized as an observant Jewish woman. I grew up in communities where women were respected and valued. But I recognize that I may not be representative of the majority. I mean… I grew up with a mom who is a karate instructor and later became a prominent activist for women’s empowerment and all kinds of other cool things; she is one of the founders of El Halev (the Association for Women in the Martial Arts in Israel). And I followed in her footsteps as a self-defense instructor.2

Basically, I was raised in a household where there was no concept that I was any “less” because I was a woman. My mother always took a very active role in her public practice of Judaism. I went to a high school for religious girls, and they never gave me a sense that I had any less responsibility or a less important place in society than men. For the most part, I am relieved to have a “lesser” obligation towards certain mitzvot, because it gives me more leeway, and freedom to connect to God in a way that suits me. And I connect to the more “feminine” aspects of Judaism and the commandments that have traditionally been embraced as being “women’s” commandments–lighting Shabbat candles, “taking challah” (separating a piece of dough and burning it in memory of a donation to the priests that would have been made in the time of the Temple), and immersing in the mikveh. In general, I grew up with the sense that women are to be respected and revered for our power to bring life into the world; that femininity is a force that is different, but no less powerful, than masculinity, and both are required to bring balance to the world.

I know, though, that there are many who have experienced being a Jewish woman differently.

I have written before that there are things about the Torah that I struggle to reconcile with my own sense of morality. In some senses, we believe that the wisdom of the Torah is Divine and therefore eternal and relevant at every moment in time. In other senses, however, we recognize that some parts of it may have been meant as a compromise with human nature, taking into account the context of the time. For example, in Deuteronomy 22:1-14, the Torah describes a situation of war, in which a beautiful woman is taken hostage by an Israelite soldier.  The Torah permits the Israelite to sleep with her, but only after he fills the following conditions:

  1. He must admit her into his household.
  2. Her head must be shaved and her nails cut.
  3. She must be permitted to wear regular (non-slave) clothing.
  4. She must be given a full month to mourn the loss of her parents.

After all these things, if he still wishes to sleep with her, he may marry her, and do so. If not, he must set her free, and he is not allowed to sell her, because, the Torah says, “he has tormented her.”

…Why would the Torah allow a Jew to “torment” a woman this way?

The Sages teach that during the time of the Bible, and even today (see: ISIS), raping and pillaging as part of war was a matter of course. The Torah accepts that this is the reality, the Sages say, and that this is part of human nature during wartime; however, it seeks to channel this urge more positively. Meaning, it gives the man an outlet for his urge, but only under certain circumstances which place some distance between him and his urge, reducing the harm to the woman somewhat, and discouraging him from doing this in the first place.

But why, one would ask, would the Torah do this? If the Torah recognizes wartime rape as immoral, why not simply forbid it? The Sages would respond that the Torah has to take human nature into account, because if it ordered us to do things that were simply impossible, we would end up rejecting the whole thing.

Okay, well, I recognize the wisdom in taking human nature into account. But why is wartime rape “channeled,” while, say, homosexual relations are completely forbidden? And I think the answer is that the Torah was speaking to the context of its time–when homosexuality was less about love and more about idol worship, and women were still viewed as lesser members of society, if not property.

The fact is that the Torah was daringly progressive for its time in terms of its treatment of women. As far as I know, it was the first religion to grant women any rights at all. (See above about Jewish marriage.) Many of the laws, such as requiring a man to marry a woman if he rapes her, seem cruel and primitive in the context of our time, but actually made more sense in the context of the Biblical period; a woman who was raped was seen as damaged goods and would probably never find a husband to provide for her–pretty much a death sentence for a woman of that period. Requiring the rapist to marry her meant that she would be provided for. “Well, then,” I say, “why not punish rape more severely, and require the community to support a woman who was raped, or offer an incentive to a man who marries a victim of rape?” I have lots of advice for God, you see. 😛

I am not the only person, however, to think that the restrictions in the Torah are sometimes not enough, and that the rules should be adapted to raise the moral standard. The most famous example of this is the ban of Rabbenu Gershom, prohibiting Jews from marrying more than one wife. While polygamy was not prohibited by the Torah, monogamy was generally the norm in Jewish society, and Rabbenu Gershom, seeing how much harm polygamy could cause, made it officially prohibited in the 11th century.

The problem is that this only goes in one direction. We can add restrictions, but we can’t lift them. So if monogamy makes sense, we can definitely forbid men to marry more than one wife. And if slavery is awful, we can toss the laws protecting the rights of slaves and ban slavery altogether. But if, say, it also makes total sense for women to serve as rabbinical judges, we can’t cancel the strong precedent in Jewish law that asserts that rabbinical judges must be male (based on the conjugation of the Biblical passage). It is those types of restrictions or limits that are the source of the most friction in this constant conflict within the heart of the modern observant Jew. Jewish law does change and shift over time and there is importance to the reality on the ground, but there is a strong anchor in ancient texts that may be less relevant to our time… and that’s built in to the system.

So I think that the Torah was meant as a starting point; a blueprint on which the Oral Tradition and the living sea of Jewish law was meant to be built upon. And I think that there are parts of it that are meant to be taken at face value–such as, “Thou shalt not murder”–and others that we are meant to struggle with over time. So maybe God actually likes my “advice,” and gives me–and all people in general–the responsibility to figure these things out, working from the framework laid out by the Torah. And maybe the things we find difficult, we are supposed to find difficult. I don’t know why. But I have faith that God knew what He was doing.

Our anchor in ancient texts and precedents, which in some ways may hold us back, also prevents us from being swept away in the swiftly-changing currents of human ideas. This may be counter-intuitive to the modern thinker, but there is great wisdom in it, because the human sense of morality has shifted drastically over time–usually in a direction of greater morality, but not always. Western concepts of equality and human rights, for example, are wonderful and progressive ideas that are definitely supported by the Torah. Western concepts of sexual freedom, however, can be highly destructive when they get out of bounds–objectifying women, creating an environment where young men feel they have to make “sexual conquests” to be “real men,” etc. When you have a system like ours, trends and ideas are sifted through many filters, considered extremely carefully, before we adopt them as part of our society. So, being slow to change has its advantages, too.

And now that I’ve probably offended or disappointed everyone along the entire religious and political spectrum, I’m just gonna post another photo of 16-year-old me in my Beethoven costume.

You're welcome.
You’re welcome.



1. Dressing up in costumes is a unique tradition of Purim, which I explained in a post about Purim that I had to remove for technical reasons (and will post again next Purim). And I always embraced this tradition with such gusto and creativity, that the photographic evidence of my wackiness is basically the only thing Josep remembered about Judaism from all the e-mails I sent him that year. 😛

2. Yes, I am a self-defense instructor for IMPACT Personal Safety here in Israel. Click here for more information on IMPACT … and here to see a video of me demonstrating a knee strike on a padded male instructor! 😀 (Don’t worry, he’s well protected!) 

Prayer, Part II: A Peek into the Jewish Prayer Book

Dear Josep,

In Part I, we discussed the concept of prayer in Jewish thought. Today, we’re going to get into the technicalities of formal Jewish prayer.

So first of all: why do we have formal prayer at all? Why not just say whatever we like whenever we like? Well, the first reason is, as I’ve explained before, to help the Jews maintain a regular use of Hebrew. (As I mentioned, formal prayers are always conducted in Hebrew–with some prayers in Aramaic.) Needing to pray in a group (as I will elaborate later) also forces Jews to live close together, maintaining ties with a community. And having a specific liturgy helps us all focus on the things that are most important to us individuals and as a nation. I would say the main functions of formal prayer are to connect us with one another as a community, unifying us in our service of God; and to institute connecting with God as a regular practice throughout the day, providing a formula and framework for an “effective conversation” with Him.

When I say “formal prayers”, I’m including all the proscribed prayers that you will find in the siddur (or maḥzor–High Holiday prayer book). Will all students please open their prayer books to the table of contents….

The table of contents from the Ahavat Shalom Artscroll siddur with an English translation.
The 3-page-long table of contents from the Ahavat Shalom Artscroll siddur with an English translation….

Yyyyeah, so, we are not going to cover everything that’s in there. I will describe the basic structure of the prayers and prayer services, building from the “core” of the prayers outwards. Which means, we must start with…

The Amidah

Formal prayers as a daily practice began at the beginning of the Second Temple period, with the composition of the Amidah prayer, also known as the Shmone Esrei. “Amidah” means “standing”, referring to the fact that it is recited while standing. “Shmone Esrei” means “eighteen”, because it was originally composed of eighteen blessings (another was added later), addressing a variety of universal topics. Remember how we mentioned that Jewish prayer is usually structured using the praise-request-thanksgiving formula? So the Shmone Esrei begins with praise: praising God for his treatment of us and our forefathers, for his might and kindness, and for his holiness. Next come the request prayers. We pray for knowledge and understanding; for repentance and being drawn nearer to the will of God;  for forgiveness; for redemption; for health and healing; for prosperity; for the ingathering of the exiles; for restoration of justice; for the annihilation of evil and evildoers; for the welfare of the righteous; for the rebuilding of Jerusalem; for the restoration of the Davidic royal dynasty (a.k.a. the Messiah), and lastly, for God to accept all our prayers. Then comes thanksgiving. We thank God for our lives, for “Your miracles that are with us every day”, for “Your wonders and goodness at all times”, and His eternal kindness. Finally, we pray for peace and His blessing in all things, and thank Him for blessing us with peace.

During services, this prayer is first recited in silence, every person to him or herself. We recite it while standing with our feet together, which is symbolic of the angels (who are described somewhere as having only one foot), while facing Jerusalem. At the beginning and end of the prayer, we take three steps backwards, and then three steps forward. There are a number of reasons for this, some of them having to do with the Temple services, but this is how I like to think about it: before the prayer, “we step back” from the material world and then “step up” before the King of Kings. After the prayer, we back respectfully away from our Master and return to the material world. We also bow during certain parts of the prayer, as though bowing before the King.

After the silent recitation, the ḥazzan, the cantor, repeats the entire prayer out loud. This practice was established for those Jews who couldn’t read and couldn’t memorize this (rather long) prayer. They can fulfill their duty to pray it by answering “amen” when the azzan completes each blessing.

Prayer Services

Jews are required to recite many prayers throughout the day (most of them blessings), but as a general rule, there are three prayer services that we are required to attend. (And by “we”, I mean men. In Orthodox Judaism, women are exempt from commandments that have specific proscribed times. We are also required to pray, but not necessarily at the proscribed times and not necessarily three times a day.) The prayer services are Shaḥarit (morning services), Minḥa (afternoon services) and Ma’ariv/Aravit (evening services). They were established in memory of the three daily sacrifices at the Temple that corresponded to them. As a rule, men are supposed to attend these services and pray with at least nine other men (in a minyan–a quorum of ten men. In Orthodoxy, women are not counted for this because they have a different “level” of requirement for this particular commandment.) In practice, if they can’t attend a synagogue for whatever reason, they may pray on their own, but certain prayers that are said in a minyan must be omitted.

On Mondays, Thursdays and Shabbat, a weekly portion of the Torah is read during the morning services, after the azzan‘s repetition of the Amidah. (More details on the Torah reading here.) On Shabbat, Rosh Chodesh, and holidays, there is an additional prayer service called Musaf ( meaning “addition”), which corresponds to an additional sacrifice that was offered on those days. It is usually recited right after morning services, as part of the same service.

Composition of the Services

The morning service can be rather lengthy, lasting 30-45 minutes in a synagogue on a weekday and longer on Shabbat or a holiday. It begins with a series of “morning blessings”, thanking God for basic things like eyesight, clothing, being able to walk, etc. Then, there is a series of psalms and other prayers that fall under the shevaḥ (praise) category. Next comes the Shema prayer, which is proceeded and followed by two long blessings. Then comes the Amidah, and depending on the tradition of the congregation, there may be a number of other psalms and prayers read before the service is concluded with a special prayer called Aleinu (“It is Upon Us”), which is about our responsibility to now go out into the world and proclaim God’s glory, and the kaddish prayer (a special prayer in Aramaic about God’s supremacy and holiness. I’ll get back to it when we talk about Jewish mourning practices, because at certain points in the service, only mourners–those who have lost a close family member in the past year–say this prayer).

The Minḥa service is much shorter, consisting only of a few psalms, the Amidah, and Aleinu. Ma’ariv is also short like this, but it includes reading the Shema again before the Amidah, with slightly different blessings preceding and following it. On Shabbat and holidays, the Amidah is different–it includes only seven blessings, not eighteen, because we don’t do request prayers on Shabbat and holidays. Instead there are different blessings specific to the day. This is also true of Musaf. On Shabbat and holidays there are also additional songs and prayers, and certain prayers that are omitted.

Other Prayers

I’ve written about blessings before, but there are also a few other prayers we say that are not part of the daily prayer service. One of them is the prayer we recite upon waking in the morning, “Modeh/Modah ani”: “I give thanks to you, living and eternal King, for returning my soul to me. Great is Your faith.” That last bit contains a very deep idea–God has returned my soul to me, not because of my faith in Him, but because He has great faith in me. He returned my soul to me because He trusts that I will contribute goodness to His world and work to fulfill my role here, whatever that may be.

Another prayer worth noting is tefillat ha’derekh, the traveler’s prayer. It is a short prayer for safety we recite upon leaving the city limits. The roads here being as they are, this is a prayer I recite with particular intention and fervor every time I leave town… :-/


Generally speaking, no special equipment or attire is required for prayer; one must be at least minimally clothed, of course, and it is proper to be fully dressed, with our heads covered (hence the kippah), out of respect for the Guy to Whom You Are Speaking.

However, if you ever stumble across a Jewish man in prayer on a weekday, a rather strange sight will greet your eyes:

Rabbi with tefillin by Jan Styka. {public domain}
“What, this? This is my God antenna.”
Rabbi with tefillin by Jan Styka. {public domain}

This is a painting of a man wearing a prayer shawl, a tallit, and phylacteries, tefillin. The prayer shawl is a four-cornered garment, so it has tassles (tzitziyot) at each corner, according to the commandment of tzitzit (described in this post). The stripes of the tallit are what inspired the blue stripes on the Israeli flag–symbolizing the State as the culmination of our prayers for two millennia.

For the record, that's what's supposed to go in that velvet bag of yours.1
For the record, it’s also what’s supposed to go in that velvet bag of yours.1

Tefillin is a separate commandment, mentioned in the Torah a number of times, one of which is the Shema prayer: “You shall bind [the words of the Torah] as a sign upon your arm, and they shall be as a reminder between your eyes” (Deuteronomy 6:8) So that’s what those little black boxes are. They are leather boxes that contain parchment scrolls, on which four passages from the Torah are inscribed–two from Exodus, and two from Deuteronomy, the latter two being the first two paragraphs of the Shema.

The tefillin scroll from the one that goes on the forehead, containing the first paragraph of the Shema. Note how the letters
The tefillin scroll that goes on the forehead, containing the first paragraph of the Shema. Note how the letters “ע” and “ד” are emphasized as they are in the mezuzah scroll.
By Dovi (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
The boxes are bound to the body with leather straps: one on the forehead (“between the eyes”) and one on the inner side of the arm–the left arm if you’re right-handed, and the right if you are left-handed. (In the painting above, the “arm tefillin” is hiding under the tallit.) Men are required to put on tefillin every day except Shabbat and holidays. Women are not required because of the same rule mentioned before. We are also not forbidden to do it, but there is a very strong tradition for women not to, and in the vast majority of Orthodox circles, women don’t. I suspect that very slowly, over the next few decades, this will change. In Conservative and Reform circles, women do put on tefillin.

The Torah explains that the purpose of tefillin is to serve as a reminder of God’s intervention in the Exodus from Egypt. Practically speaking, having a physical object connected to prayer on your body helps channel your concentration and maintain an awareness and focus on God.

On Another Personal Note

I shared in my previous post that I sometimes struggle with spontaneous request prayer. I really struggle with formal prayer, too–and always have. It is very difficult to maintain kavana (intention, concentration, and focus) on the same exact words every single day. I find that it’s much easier to connect and feel that the prayer is “doing something for me” when I have a longer space between prayers. Especially with kids around, it’s really a challenge. I get very frustrated when I’m interrupted, and as you full well know, there is no way to be around young kids without being interrupted every 30 seconds. So I tend to rely on the most lenient opinion that women are only required to say one prayer per day, and that it doesn’t have to be the Amidah–just something structured with the praise-request-thanksgiving formula. I know the idea is perseverance, continuing to “show up” even when you don’t feel like it and even when you can’t do it as well as you’d like or should. And obviously, that’s something I need to keep working on. I hope when my kids get older I’ll feel more available to pray regularly. It’s strange; it seems like such a burden when I think about it, but on the rare occasions when I actually pick up my siddur and start to pray, it usually feels like a breath of fresh air for my soul.

I will conclude with this section of Sephardic version of the Amidah:

Hear our voice, Lord our God; Merciful Father, have compassion upon us and accept our prayers willingly and with mercy and favor; for You are God who hears prayers and supplications; and from before You, our King, do not turn us away empty-handed. have mercy on us, and answer us, and hear our prayer. For You hear the prayer of every mouth. Blessed are You, Lord, who hears prayer.



1. Josep sent me some pictures of his room back in November 2006, “to help me get to know him better”. After noting, with amusement, the big Israeli flag hanging over the bookshelf, I squinted at the detail pictured above and was like, “Wait… is that a tefillin bag? And a kippah?! What is a non-practicing Roman Catholic in Barcelona doing with those things?!” He explained that they were gifts from a friend who had traveled to Jerusalem, and after some back-and-forth we figured out that the bag said “tallit” on it. I called this corner of his room his “Judaism shrine”. 😛 

ETA: …And today he was kind enough to provide a more detailed picture of the tallit bag in question:

This shall henceforth be filed under "random things Daniella makes Josep waste time on during his weekends"
This shall be filed under “random things Daniella makes Josep waste time on during his weekends”

Different Kinds of Jews, Part II: 2,000 Years of Arguing

So as with Part I, I have to begin with a disclaimer: I am a modern Orthodox American-Israeli Jew, and this entry, as well as the rest of the blog, reflects that perspective. So if you ask a differently affiliated Jew to define his or her community or other groups or subgroups, you may get different answers.

As before, there are many groups that will not be mentioned because this is a vast topic that could (and does) fill several books, and I’m sticking to the ones that are most prominent and well-known. I thereby apologize in advance to any member of any group or denomination that is not properly addressed in the categories that follow–and invite you to mention it in the comments, and to write us a guest letter to tell us about your community.

A reminder for those who haven’t read part I: this is technically from the archives; an expanded/reworked e-mail I sent to Josep about a year ago.

Dear Josep,

In Part I we addressed Jewish cultural identity and the subcultures within Judaism. But more well-known than the division between Ashkenazim, Sephardim, etc., is the division between Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and other denominations of Judaism. In this entry we will discuss how these movements came to be and how they differ from one another. We will also discuss Hassidism and its influence on Jewish practice and thought.

Religious Denominations/Levels of Religiosity

So this is where I get myself in trouble. 😛

The first thing to understand about the idea of “level of religiosity” is that it’s a fairly modern phenomenon. Up until the 19th century, there was no need to define a “religious” Jew because everyone was religious, and someone who abandoned the traditional practices of Judaism pretty much abandoned the faith and the community altogether. It was only at the time of the “enlightenment” in the 1800’s that Reform Judaism came about that the concept of a “secular Jew” came into existence.

That said, throughout history there were disputes between Jews on how to properly observe the Torah. (All together now: “Two Jews, three opinions…”) In the time of Jesus, for example, Judaism was split into two major sects: the Pharisees and the Sadducees, who each had different ideas about how to observe the Torah. Mainstream Orthodox Judaism is basically descended from the tradition of the Pharisees. There is speculation that the Karaites, a movement that emerged around the 8th century, are the “ideological descendants” of the Sadducees. Karaite Judaism rejects rabbinic Judaism and the idea of the “Oral Torah” altogether, and believe that the written Torah must be observed literally. (Of course, the reason we have an Oral Torah is to interpret the many vague and difficult concepts in the Torah, so the Karaites developed their own tradition on how to interpret it.) There is still a small community of Karaite Jews, most of them in Israel.

Another thing that’s important to understand is that the most well-known “denominations”–Reform and Conservative–are mostly American today. Reform Judaism began in Germany, but its center shifted to the USA as the Jewish population in the US grew and the one in Europe shrunk due to emigration and the Holocaust. In Israel, the breakdown is a lot fuzzier, because as a general rule, Sephardim and Mizraḥim tend to be less stuck on self-definition (and more traditional). I’ll get to the Israeli definitions of religious level soon.

Orthodox Judaism

This is a general term for mainstream traditional Judaism: Jews who observe Jewish law as interpreted by the mainstream rabbinic authorities throughout history. The term “orthodox” was borrowed from Christianity by the Reform movement, and I don’t particularly like to use it to describe myself. I prefer to describe myself as an “observant Jew”, meaning, I observe the commandments. But many people don’t know what this means, so when speaking to people who aren’t familiar with that term I usually use “Orthodox”.

Within this category you will find the ḥaredim, the “ultra-Orthodox”, as well as “modern Orthodox”. In Israel, “modern Orthodox” is mostly interchangeable with “Zionist religious” (or “national religious”–dati leumi), because ḥaredim tend to be non-Zionist. Eitan and I consider ourselves dati leumi (see below under “Religiosity in Israel”).

Reform Judaism

Reform Judaism came about in the 19th century, when science became the new religion of Western society. Reformers saw the Torah and the observance of traditional Jewish law as outdated and superstitious. Basically, Reform Jews don’t see the Torah as being binding in any way, and many of them don’t believe that the Torah was given by God. If you ask a Reform Jew what he or she thinks the Torah is, you might get a wide variety of answers, but most would probably agree that it is a collection of wisdom (man-made, and perhaps “Divinely inspired”) that they feel has value–only some of which is still applicable today. Many Reform Jews take ideas from the Torah (and the body of rabbinic teachings that they mostly reject) and apply them to modern Western values. A favorite is “tikkun olam”, “fixing the world” which is actually a fairly vague, mystical concept from Kabbalah, but is often applied to mean that man has responsibility to improve the world and make it a better place through social and environmental activism.

Conservative Judaism

Conservative Judaism was a sort of counter-reaction to the Reform movement. Some Jews agreed with the Reform movement that Judaism needed some updating for the modern world, but did not want to reject the teachings of the Torah. So the Conservative movement started as sort of a middle ground between Orthodox and Reform. Conservative Jews do, for the most part, believe that the Torah is of Divine origin, but they believe that the Law is much more flexible than the Orthodox do–in that they don’t see the precedents of previous generations as being nearly as binding as the Orthodox see them. They believe halakha is meant to be adapted as much as possible to modern times and reinterpreted to suit progressive sensibilities. So they tend to be more egalitarian and liberal than the Orthodox–mixed seating in synagogue, female rabbis, gay marriage etc.–using their interpretation of halakha to find ways to permit things that Orthodox Judaism prohibits, for the sake of adapting to Western values. Practically speaking, however, in many Conservative congregations, the members of the community are not strict about observing the Conservative version of halakha, and there can be a huge gap between the level of observance of the rabbis and that of the congregants.

Now… you being a secular liberal who doesn’t have a solidified opinion on the source of the Torah or its historical accuracy, I’m sure the above two movements make a lot more sense to you than the Orthodox approach. So you may be asking yourself, “Daniella is a reasonably intelligent, rational, open-minded person; why wouldn’t she be on board, at least with the Conservative movement?”

So here’s my personal take on “adapting halakha for modern times”. I believe there is a reason God set up the halakhic system as we have observed it for thousands of years. While I identify with many of the “progressive” Western values, man-made values shift and change over time, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. I think the Torah is the expression of a value system that is eternal and Divine, and I believe that the Orthodox halakhic system is the most authentic way to interpret it in the way He wished. To me, adapting halakha to better suit Western values feels like taking a ring of the finest silver and coating it in stainless steel. It’s taking a Divine value system and stuffing it into a fickle man-made frame. I think serving God should be about adapting yourself to His system, not adapting His system to yourself. As I have mentioned many times, this isn’t always easy, and the system is not perfect. Modern Orthodox Jews often struggle to reconcile our strong belief in Torah and our identification with Western values when they seem at odds with each other. So I understand how others might feel differently about it. We live in confusing times, and God does not reveal Himself and His will the way He used to; we are meant to choose our path, and growing up with so many different voices that sound reasonable and good, it is hard to know which path is the right one. I believe the Orthodox halakhic system is the closest to God’s true will, so that’s the one I try to follow.

There are other, smaller American denominations, but I’m not going to get into those as I don’t know much about them. The above are the three major ones.

Religiosity in Israel

While Reform and Conservative communities do exist in Israel, for the most part they are extremely small and isolated, mostly of American or European immigrants. In most of Israeli society, it’s a spectrum of observance, more than a set of strictly defined groups, but it basically breaks down like this. Secular Jews (ḥiloni in Hebrew) don’t keep the commandments like kosher or Shabbat. The majority of Israelis are traditional Jews (masorti in Hebrew), who keep some of the customs/traditions, but not all. For instance, in a traditional Jewish family, they might make kiddush over wine and light Shabbat candles, but then go watch TV. Or they might eat strictly kosher but not keep Shabbat. It’s really a continuum. Religious Jews (dati in Hebrew) are observant Jews who keep all the commandments, and those generally divide up between modern Zionist (dati leumi), ultra-Orthodox Zionist (ḥaredi leumi), and ultra-Orthodox non-Zionist (ḥaredi). (Yes, there is such a thing as a non-Zionist Jew living in Israel. And their attitude towards the state is a serious political issue.) Datiim leumiim are also sometimes called “kipa sruga” (“crocheted kippah”) because they are the ones who wear colorful crocheted kippot, as opposed to the ḥaredim who wear black velvet and/or black hats. (…When you SMSed me to ask what color kipa to buy, I figured it was too complicated to explain the intricacies of these differences, and it didn’t really matter anyway. I was not surprised to see that you subconsciously chose to identify with the religious stream Eitan and I belong to. 😛 )

Needless to say, crocheting is a highly prized skill in our community. :P I can crochet, but making kippot bores me to death.
Needless to say, crocheting is a highly prized skill in our community. 😛 I can do it, but making kippot bores me to death.
Kippot” by Zero0000Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Ḥaredim keep a much stricter version of halakha than datiim leumiim, at least outwardly (modesty of dress, level of strictness about kashrut, separation between men and women in public, level of interaction with the secular world etc.). Women are generally treated with respect, but there is a very strong focus on modesty and traditional gender roles, sometimes to an extreme that leads to marginalization and other unpleasant social issues. American ḥaredim tend to be more open and “progressive” than Israeli ḥaredim.

It is very easy to differentiate between datiim and ḥaredim by the way they dress. Dati men wear kipot, may or may not have a beard and/or payot (sidecurls), may dress in regular casual clothes (T-shirts and shorts) or may dress more like Eitan–button down shirts and long pants. The women dress more or less like me: no restrictions on color, shirts with sleeves (the more religious you are the longer the sleeve), skirts past the knee, and married women usually cover their hair to some degree, usually with a scarf or hat.

This criminally adorable couple, for example. Eitan is wearing a kippah and tzitzit with the fringes hanging out (you can see the knots from one of them next to the edge of his shirt...). My hair is mostly covered, sleeves past the elbow, modest neckline, skirt past the knee.
This criminally adorable couple, for example. Eitan is wearing a crocheted kippah and tzitzit with the fringes hanging out (you can see the knots from one of them next to the edge of his shirt…). I have most of my hair covered with a scarf.

Ḥaredi men wear black suits all the time, and the women wear only dull or pale colors, clothes that are non form-fitting, stockings and closed-toed shoes so the only skin you can see is their hands, face and neck. Single women keep their hair tied back, and married women completely cover their hair, usually with a wig, but sometimes with a scarf or hat.

A Hassidic/haredi family in Brooklyn. By Adam Jones [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
A Hassidic/haredi family in Brooklyn.
By Adam Jones [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Now as a Christian you may note with curiosity that none of this categorization corresponds to belief. Whether someone believes in God or not does not actually define him religiously in Israeli culture. Judaism is about what you do. So you might find a completely secular Jew who believes in God and may even believe that the Torah is Divine, but just doesn’t feel it’s relevant to him. Or you may find a traditional Jew who doesn’t really believe in God but thinks that the Jewish traditions are an important connection to his heritage and past.

Spiritual Approach (Hassidism vs. Lithuanians)

Another group you may have heard of is the Ḥassidim.

So what is Ḥassidism? It was a sort of Jewish renewal movement founded in the 17th century by a rabbi called the Baal Shem Tov. Up until that point, Judaism had become a kind of elitist society where learned scholars were seen as being far more important than the common folk in terms of service of God. The approach was generally very dry, rationalist and intellectual. The Baal Shem Tov sought to bring feeling and heartfelt service into the practice of Judaism. He also sought to teach that even the lowliest of peasants was just as important in God’s eyes as the great scholars. This seems totally basic now, but back then, it was pretty revolutionary. There were a number of other ideas spread by Ḥassidism, one of which was the concept of the “tzaddik”, the “righteous person”, who was a conduit to the Divine. Ḥassidim believed that by being close physically and spiritually to a tzaddik, they would be closer to God, too.

So as you can probably tell by now, parts of the Ḥassidic approach filtered down into most of Jewish practice today. But back then it was seen as a frivolous, anti-rationalist, and maybe even dangerous movement, and there was a strong counter-movement–the Mitnagdim (which literally means “the opposers”), led by the Gaon of Vilna (hence the term “Lithuanians”). He was a rationalist and felt that the Ḥassidim had their heads in the clouds and were not taking Jewish law seriously enough.

“Torah is serious business, people. WHY ARE YOU DANCING?!”

This was a major, bitter schism within European Judaism that lasted pretty much all the way up until the Holocaust.

Nowadays, practically speaking, you can hardly tell Ḥassidim and Lithuanians apart. Ḥassidic sects tend to be ultra-Orthodox/ḥaredi and dress in the same black and white garb. There are some distinct features of their traditional dress, such as the streimel, a round fur hat that some Ḥassidim wear on Shabbat and holidays. They do have a lot more singing and dancing than non-Ḥassidic ḥaredi sects, and tend to be more involved in mysticism and Kabbalah. Non-Ḥassidim are more rationalist in their approach.

I mention all this because there are two particular Ḥassidic sects that are particularly relevant–the first because you are very likely to hear about them, and the second because I have a special connection to their philosophies and I am likely to mention them in the future. Incidentally, both of them have a common feature: their “rebbe”, great rabbinic leader, is dead. (In every other Ḥassidic sect, there is a live rebbe who serves as the “tzaddik” and passes his status down through his sons and/or followers.)

The first sect is Chabad (pronounced Ḥabad, but usually spelled Chabad. Except in Spain, where it’s spelled Jabad. Even in Barcelona, though the Catalan “j” isn’t the same as the Spanish “j”. Go figure). They are also known as Lubavitch, the Yiddish name for the Russian village Lyubavichi, where the sect originated. These are the Ḥassidim you are most likely to meet because they are very into Jewish outreach and set up “houses” in all these random places all over the world where they offer all kinds of services to Jews who visit and live there. They tend to be very open and accepting in these contexts, and many people begin their journey of becoming religious through them. (As I just mentioned, Barcelona has a Chabad house too. I was in touch with them before I came; they weren’t particularly helpful, apparently in the tradition of modern Catalan Jews… :-/ ) Their “rebbe”, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (…”sch” is the Yiddish/German sound pronounced “sh”… sheesh, will the pronunciation confusion never end!) was a truly great man, and many of them believed that he was the Messiah. Some Chabadnikim still do believe this, which feels suspiciously Christian to the rest of us 😛 but we love them anyway because they do great things!

The other Ḥassidic sect I want to mention is Breslov. Their rebbe, Rabbi Naḥman of Breslov, lived in Ukraine in the 18th century and taught some really amazing things about despair, happiness, and developing a close and personal relationship with God. He is most famous for the following statements: “All of the world is a very narrow bridge, and the main thing is not to make yourself afraid.” “If you believe that it’s possible to destroy, believe that it is possible to repair.” His followers practice a sort of meditation called hitbodedut, which simply involves talking to God like a friend, telling Him about all your troubles, asking Him for whatever you want, even the tiniest things. I really connected with this idea of a personal relationship as a teenager, and though I feel I have become more distant in recent years, I yearn to return to the simplicity of being in constant dialogue with the Creator this way.

Anyway, Breslov also attracts many “ba’alei teshuva” (people who start out secular and become religious) because of its deep and heartfelt philosophy. If you’re ever in Israel and see this:

…don’t call the police, that’s just Breslovers trying to make people happy. 😛 Cultivating joy is a large component of their practice.

And thus we conclude Part II!



Mikveh: A Spiritual Womb

Dear Josep,

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.

This one was built in the 12th century in Speyer, Germany.
This one was built in the 12th century in Speyer, Germany.
Judenbad Speyer 6 View from the first room down” by Chris 73 / Wikimedia Commons. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Other Immersion

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!



Passover, Part II: Seder Night 101

Dear Josep,

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.

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 Seder

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:

Our seder plate. Explanations of each of these symbols below.
Our seder plate. Explanations of each of these symbols below.

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:

Kadesh (Sanctification)

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…)

Urchatz (Washing)

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 (Retelling)

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.

Rachtza (Washing)

We wash our hands again, this time actually for bread–that is, for…

Motzi Matza

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.

Apparently Ben & Jerry’s produced a charoset-flavored ice cream this year. o.O

Korech (Sandwich)

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.)

Tzafun (Hidden)

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.

Barech (Bless)

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 (Praise)

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. 😛 )

Nirtzah (Acceptance)

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.)

Passover, Part I: Freedom, Education, and National Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Dear Josep,

So I figured out why I never sent you an e-mail specifically about Passover, even back in 2007 when I would get concerned notes from you wondering if something was wrong because you hadn’t heard from me in 5 days.

(…Yes, apparently that happened.)


The reason is that it is just not possible to capture Passover in a single e-mail. No, not even a Daniella Standard Size e-mail.

So what we’re gonna do is make it a series. In Part I, I will discuss the general concepts of the holiday. In Part II, I will go into detail about the Seder night and the Haggadah.

To begin, let us turn to the age-old template for Jewish holidays: “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat”. Does it apply here? Why, yes it does. 🙂

As you probably know, Passover is the celebration commemorating our freedom from slavery in Egypt, also known as the Exodus.

You know, slavery, burning bush, ten plagues, splitting the sea, all that jazz.
You know, slavery, burning bush, ten plagues, splitting the sea, all that jazz.

It begins on the 15th of Nisan, which is the day the Israelites left Egypt, and lasts seven days in Israel. This year it falls on this coming Friday night through the following Friday. It is one of the three “Regalim”, holidays mentioned in the Torah, on which we were required to make a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem. (“Regel” means “foot”.)

All Regalim, unlike rabbinic holidays, are celebrated similarly to Shabbat, with the same types of restrictions, barring a few differences with regards to the preparation of food. Such a day is known as a “Yom Tov” (literally “good day”). In the case of Passover, it begins and ends with one Yom Tov in Israel (two each outside of Israel), with five days of “chol ha’moed” (“the mundane of the holiday”=days that are still part of the holiday, but with much fewer restrictions) in between. That’s a total of seven days in Israel, and eight outside of Israel. (Why is it different outside of Israel? A reason that is long, complicated, and not so interesting in my opinion. 😛 But if you insist, Wikipedia keeps it simple.)

The first night (or two nights outside of Israel) is the crux of the holiday: the Seder night. You may have heard of the Seder; it is believed to have been Jesus’s “last supper” (hence the proximity to Easter). As mentioned, we will elaborate on the Seder in Part II.

But first: why is the Exodus such an important event in the history of our people?

There is a vast amount of rabbinic literature that addresses this question, but here’s the simple answer: the Exodus marks the birth of the nation of Israel. The narrative of the Bible, up until that point, follows a number of individuals, or at most a family, and their interactions with God. We became a multitude under slavery; we became a nation, with a destiny and a purpose, when God gave us our freedom.

It is said that God wanted us to be slaves before giving us the Torah to develop our sense of empathy and justice. You can never really understand someone until you’ve experienced his pain. And you can never know and appreciate the true value of freedom if you have never been a slave. Our purpose is to be a “light unto the nations”, to spread kindness, compassion and justice throughout a corrupt world. We could not have done this without first knowing pain, cruelty, and injustice.

The goal of the Seder night is for every one of us to relive the experience of being freed from slavery. It is a multi-sensory, hands-on educational production, and it revolves around passing the message to the next generation. As we’ve discussed, educating children is a very important mitzvah, and the purpose of some of the strange customs on Seder night is to provoke the children to ask questions. Raising questions is a classic Jewish educational method. We even tend to like excellent questions better than we like excellent answers. 😉

So, that’s freedom, and education. “National obsessive-compulsive disorder”?!

Well… yeah. This is another thing that makes Passover so special, and also such a pain in the neck. Over the seven days of Passover, we are not allowed to eat or possess “chametz“. Chametz means leavened products. That is, any product made out of grain (wheat, barley, oats, spelt, or rye) and water that was cooked over 18 minutes after the flour came in contact with the water–therefore beginning the process of fermentation that causes the dough to rise and become puffy.

Um… wait, you say. Is there any type of grain product that is baked in under 18 minutes?!

Why yes there is. It’s called… matza.

"Shmura Matzo". Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.
Appetizing, I know.
Shmura Matzo“. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

This is the bread of Passover, referred to in the Haggadah as the “bread of affliction”. Apt, because it tastes like cardboard, and we are required to eat a fair amount of it on Seder night. (Okay, okay, it’s not that bad. It’s like a very plain cracker.)

So what’s the deal with unleavened bread?

(Good, good, keep up the questions! 😉 )

The practical answer is that the Israelites were granted their freedom very quickly and they did not have time to get ready for their trip out of Egypt. The Torah says that they did not have time to let their dough rise for bread, so they made matzot to take on their journey. The prohibition against eating chametz, and the mitzva of eating matza, are both in commemoration of that. There is also an idea that chametz represents the ego, and that on Passover we clean it out of our homes and souls.

So the thing is, you know how obsessive-compulsive Jewish law is about things we’re not allowed to eat… and this applies to chametz too. In fact, it is even more strict than the laws of kashrut. This means that we have to literally kasher our kitchens before the holiday. (Which, as I’ve been trying to tell you all these years, is not nearly as fun as you think it is. 😛 ) Most of us have an entirely different set of dishes and cookware set aside specifically for Passover, because not everything can be kashered, and because, again, kashering pots and pans can be a serious pain.

We are also not allowed to own any chametz, which means we have to clean our houses thoroughly (especially us parents of toddlers…) to make sure no bits of crackers/cereal/bread are in accessible places. People (by which I mean “crazy Jewish housewives”) often take this to the extreme and use it as an opportunity to do a very thorough “spring cleaning”… but much of this is not really necessary.

The prohibition against eating chametz also gave way to the most famous of legal fictions in Jewish law. Obviously, getting rid of all one’s chametz can be impractical at best and financially damaging at worst, especially for stores and factories. So we have a rather silly solution: we “sell” the chametz to a non-Jew during the seven days of Passover, keep it covered/hidden during the holiday, and “buy” it back afterwards.

…By the way, can I interest you in some instant oatmeal and maybe a few pitas? 😛

(I kid, I kid. These days we can sell our chametz very easily through rabbis who centralize the “sales” and sell them to a designated non-Jew. We can do this through our synagogue or even on the Internet.)

Well, that’s Passover in a nutshell. Stay tuned for Part II, in which we will discuss the details of the aforementioned multi-sensory, hands-on educational production we call the Seder. 😉

Bona Pasqua!



An Introduction to the World’s Biggest Book Club

Dear Josep,

Most people who know the basics about Judaism know that our holy book is what we call the Torah. But there is a lot of confusion around this because we have a lot of holy books! The Bible, the Talmud, the prayer books, and a whole slew of rabbinic literature from throughout the centuries.

So in this letter we’re going to make some order in this chaos.

The Torah

This is kind of confusing because the word “Torah” is used to refer to a few different things. It literally means “instruction”, and for the most part, when we use it, we’re referring to the entire body of teachings and Jewish law, starting with the Bible and all the way down to the rabbinic literature being written at this very moment. When we say that we believe God gave us the Torah at Sinai, what we mean is that He gave us the Written Torah (which is the first five books of the Bible), and also an Oral Torah, which is meant to be taught from teacher to student and father to son. We’ll elaborate more on the Oral Torah later.

As I mentioned, though, sometimes the word “Torah” is referring to the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. This is also called “the Chumash”, which translates well as “the Pentateuch”. The Torah was first written down as scrolls. During the beginning of the Second Jewish Commonwealth in Judea, the leaders of the reestablished Jewish community, Ezra and Nehemiah, established a law that the Torah scroll should be read publicly three times a week. They divided the Torah into weekly portions for this purpose. They did this because Jews at the time were poorly versed in Torah and were forgetting how to speak Hebrew. (They spoke Aramaic.) That custom stuck and is still practiced in every observant Jewish community today. The weekly portion is read from the Torah scroll on Mondays, Thursdays, and Shabbat, during prayer services. This is how it looks in an American Ashkenazi synagogue:

This is how it looks at a Sephardi service at the Western Wall:

Ashkenazi scrolls, as you see in the video, are generally wrapped around two handles, and covered with a decorative cloth when not in use. Sephardi scrolls are kept in a special case of wood or metal, wrapped around rods that are turned while the scroll is still in the case.

Sephardi style Torah case "SilverTorahCase" by Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 il via Wikimedia Commons.
Sephardi style Torah case.

SilverTorahCase” by Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 il via Wikimedia Commons.

Ashkenazi style Torah scroll גמלאי עיריית טבריה [CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons
Ashkenazi style Torah scroll
גמלאי עיריית טבריה [CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons
You will notice that they are chanting the words of the Torah in a kind of singing way. This is called “cantillating”. There is a very specific system of notes designated for this purpose, which is marked in the Chumash when it is in book form.

Like this one. This is the book of Genesis, with English translation and rabbinic commentary.
Like this one. This is the book of Genesis, with English translation and rabbinic commentary.

In scroll form, it must be written using the same special calligraphy and parchment that we use for the mezuza.

The Tanakh

The word Tanakh is a Hebrew acronym for the words Torah, Nevi’im (Prophets), and Ketuvim (Writings), which essentially make up the Jewish Bible or as y’all prefer to call it, the Old Testament. This is the hardcover book I gave you.

Don't worry, we're still covered. ;)
Don’t worry, we’re still covered. 😉

I should mention here the other important scroll in Jewish life: Megillat Esther, the Scroll of Esther, often referred to as simply “the Megillah”. It appears in Writings, and is read from the scroll during the holiday of Purim, which is coming right up. 😉

The Talmud

So remember this Oral Torah I mentioned that was supposed to be passed orally from teacher to student? The reason we needed it was that we needed a system to interpret the Written Torah. There are places in the Torah where God says “do X as I have described to you”, and there is no description in the text. That is referring to this Oral Law. In fact, there is a law that we are not supposed to write down this law, because it is meant to be a “living Torah” that is dynamic and shifts with the new needs and issues of each generation.

But, there was a problem. After the destruction of the Second Temple, the great Torah scholars were being killed and teaching Torah was illegal under the Romans. Under these circumstances, it was decided that the Oral Torah must be written down to preserve it for future generations. Rabbi Judah the Prince, an important figure at the time, compiled the teachings into a volume that was completed around the year 200. This book was called the Mishna (which means “teaching”).

Another volume was eventually compiled of analysis and commentary on the Mishna, and this was called the Gemara (which means “study” in Aramaic). These two volumes together, the Mishna and the Gemara, comprise the Talmud (which means “study” in Hebrew).

There are two versions of Gemara; one was compiled in Israel and completed around 350-400. This is called the “Talmud Yerushalmi”–the Jerusalem Talmud. Another was compiled in Babylonia, where the biggest and most important Jewish community was at the time, and it is called the “Talmud Bavli” (the Babylonian Talmud). The latter is the one most widely studied. It is also much longer and more comprehensive.

Yup. Allllll that is the Babylonian Talmud. This is why Jews spend their entire lives studying this thing... By אני (אני) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Yup. Allllll that is the Babylonian Talmud. Jews spend entire lifetimes studying this thing…
By אני (אני) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
The rest of rabbinic literature is basically analysis and interpretation of the Talmud. Except….

The Siddur

The Siddur (which means “order”) is the Jewish prayer book, which you have seen yourself at least twice. 😉

This is an extra one I have lying around that happens to be the one I brought with me to Barcelona. You found it lying around in the office somewhere and handed it to me, and I remember having half a mind to let you keep it. ;)
This is an extra one I have lying around that happens to be the one I brought with me to Barcelona. You found it lying around in the office somewhere and handed it to me, and I remember having half a mind to let you keep it. 😉

It has been compiled over a long period. Formal prayer was institutionalized by Ezra and Nehemiah for the same reasons mentioned above–mostly to preserve the Jews’ Hebrew. All traditional Jewish prayer is in Hebrew. The prayer they wrote was the Shmona Esrei, a collection of eighteen blessings that we are supposed to say three times a day. Over time a lot more was added onto it; we read the Shema prayer (discussed in the letter on mezuzot) with blessings before and after, and before that, more blessings, poems, and Psalms. There is a different order of prayers for the morning, afternoon, and evening prayers, and additional or alternative prayers for Shabbat and holidays. The High Holiday prayers are so different and long that we have a separate book or books for that, called the Machzor (which means “cycle”, referring to the annual cycle of the holidays).

It is also very common to find a book of Psalms on the shelf or in the pocket of an observant Jew. It’s part of the Tanakh (in Writings), a collection of poem-prayers traditionally attributed to King David.

The Haggadah

The Haggadah (which means “telling” in Hebrew) is a book exclusively read on the first night of Passover during the Seder (the Passover ceremonial meal; I’ll elaborate in a later letter). It was compiled during the Mishnaic and Talmudic periods, and the text has remained the same for hundreds and hundreds of years. There are a number of precious ancient Haggadot that were created hundreds of years ago and still have the same text we use today.

Such as.... the Barcelona Haggadah. :) This beautifully illuminated volume was created in 14th-century Barcelona. The text here is clearly legible and recognizable from the Haggadot we use today.
Such as…. the Barcelona Haggadah. 🙂 This beautifully illuminated volume was created in 14th-century Barcelona. The text here is clearly legible and recognizable from the Haggadot we use today. It is a passage from the Talmud telling the story of several rabbis who stayed up all night to discuss the exodus from Egypt on Passover.

Turns out, we are known as the People of the Book for a reason… 🙂



Links in the Chain: On Educating Children

Dear Josep,

I remember you telling me once that one of the things you liked about Jews and Judaism was the strong emphasis on education and love of learning. Jewish literacy rates were always significantly higher than those of the surrounding populations, and it all comes down to the fact that teaching our children is one of the most important commandments in the Torah. Combine that with the love of delving into the depths of the Torah that characterized our ancestors, and it’s no wonder there’s a completely out-of-the-park disproportionate representation of Jews in the sciences and other fields that require a lot of study.

As with everything, the Sages guide us in how to properly educate our children and raise them to serve God and be good Jews and good people.

You asked me last year about a few things that stood out to you in my kids’ appearance, and I was going to write you an e-mail on “boy mitzvot”, but that will pull me into the topic of gender and Judaism and I just don’t feel like opening that can of worms right about now. 😛

So there were two things you pointed out: the payot, “sidecurls”:

R1's are particularly impressive :)
R1’s are particularly impressive 🙂

And tzitziyot, the four-cornered garment worn underneath the shirt with fringes on each corner:


When you see a Jewish boy with these things, he is probably over three years old. Why? Because age three is what we call gil chinuch–the “age of education”. It is when we start teaching them about the Torah and the mitzvot. There is a custom to let their hair grow out until the third birthday, so that we can cut it that day to teach them about the mitzvah of payot; the prohibition to shave that area above and behind the ears to create a rounded shape–because this was a symbol of idolatrous practices back in the day. (The payot don’t need to be that long, but like with beards, growing them out is an outward symbol of piety.) We also have them start wearing tzitziyot and kippot* at this age. These are all highly visual and experiential mitzvot that make the children look and feel different, and that’s why they’re the best ones to start with.

The mitzvah of tzitzit is sourced in the third chapter of the Shema prayer: “‘Speak to the children of Israel, and tell them that they make, throughout their generations, fringes in the corners of their garments, and that they put with the fringe of each corner a thread of blue. And it shall be unto you a fringe, so that you may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Lord, and do them; and so that you will not go about after your own heart and your own eyes, after which you go astray; so that you may remember and do all My commandments, and be holy unto your God.” (Numbers 15:38-40) So the very idea of this commandment is that it is a visual reminder of God’s presence… sort of the clothing version of the mezuza. 😉

Kippot are actually not a Biblical commandment and even rabbinically they are only required when studying Torah or praying. The idea is modesty before God when speaking of Him. But today most observant Jewish men wear them all the time, and they have become an expression of Jewish identity, to a point where not wearing one is considered to be making a statement. So practically speaking we think of it as a requirement.

Anyway, back to chinuch. Age three is also when we start teaching them to recite blessings and basic prayers, and to light candles for Shabbat. Observant Judaism is so complex and there are so many details, we don’t try to give it all over at once; we introduce things slowly and organically. You probably don’t remember when we were walking home from the playground on Shabbat and one of my kids picked up a coin that was on the ground; I mentioned that we are not allowed to carry money on Shabbat, and you asked if you should take it from him, and I said no. I don’t want them to experience Shabbat as something restrictive and harsh, so I choose my battles carefully. Children are not obligated in mitzvot until their bar or bat mitzvah–at age 12 for girls and 13 for boys. In Judaism, this is the age where they become morally responsible for themselves. By this age, of course, most of them have been keeping all the mitzvot for years, with the possible exception of fasting on fast days.

I was thinking about this lately as I listened to H and R1 recite the blessing over tzitzit in the morning. There is a concept in Yiddish and Hebrew that is not quite translatable into English, called nachat (or naches in Yiddish); it’s that sense of contented joy and pride you get when your children or other loved ones live up to your hopes for them and “do you proud”. That’s what I feel when I hear the sweet voices of my children reciting that blessing. Slowly, carefully, I am taking this precious gift passed down to me through hundreds of generations starting at Mount Sinai, and passing it on to my own children; becoming a link in the chain that roots us in the past and raises us towards the future.

May you have lots and lots of nachat from raising your own son. 🙂




*Kippot is the plural of kippah, also known in Yiddish as a yarmulke; a special cap that Jewish men wear. Josep knows all about this and owns at least one, which he likes to wear when he is here and confuse all my neighbors. 😛

Jew Food, Part III: In Which Things Get Ridiculously Complicated.

Important note to readers: This entry is not a guide to kashering dishes or utensils, nor as an any kind of authority on answering halakhic questions on kashrut. If you landed here by asking Rabbi Google a halakhic question regarding kashrut, I would encourage you to ask a local human rabbi 😉 (most of them don’t bite!) or at least consult a website run by halakhic authorities that you trust. (In the meantime, welcome to Letters to Josep! Have a kosher lemonade and enjoy the blog! 😉 ) Chabad has a good, reliable, comprehensive guide to kashering a kitchen here.

Also! This is the 3rd and final post in a series on kashrut. Click here for Part I, and here for Part II!

Dear Josep,

So, we’ve covered the issues with animals and animal products, and with plants and their products. None of this has explained why I answered “no” when you asked me if I could eat something made of kosher ingredients that you would cook in your kitchen, nor why I couldn’t simply eat the vegetarian food I was offered at the conference.

The reason for this can be summarized in one halakhic term: ta’am, which translates as “flavor”.

What does it really mean, the sages asked themselves, to avoid eating a certain type of food? What of the experience of eating a non-kosher product is prohibited? So the answer in our tradition is that it is the flavor, the ta’am, of the non-kosher product, that we must avoid. This principle expresses itself in how we answer questions about the level of separation between non-kosher and kosher food and meat and milk.

The problem, of course, is that if it’s the flavor that makes the difference, how are we supposed to make a ruling about something if we can’t actually taste it out of concern that it may not be kosher?! Sephardim actually hold that you can give the food to a non-Jewish cook (or someone else who is involved in the food industry and has an incentive to give an accurate answer) and rely on his answer about whether the flavor of the non-kosher product is discernible. But for the most part, we rely on the following principles:

K’Bol’o Kakh Polto–“As It Absorbs, So It Emits”

This is the principle about the utensils we use to cook and eat the food. Halakhically speaking, utensils absorb the flavors of the food that was cooked or served on it, as long as the food is hot. How hot? The sages say: yad soledet bo; basically, too hot to comfortably touch. Aside from temperature, there is also harifut; strength of flavor. Some foods are considered to have particularly strong flavors, such as onions, garlic, and citrus fruits. Those transfer their flavor even without heat.

Practically speaking, this means we have to have two sets of dishes and utensils: one for milk, and one for meat. We also have a bunch of pots and a big vegetable knife that are pareve (neither milk nor meat), so we can make food that can be eaten with either meat or milk. It also means that we can’t use any dish or utensil that has been used to cook non-kosher food, at least with hot food.

Our two sets of utensils. For some reason, blue became the accepted color to represent dairy, while red (for more obvious reasons) represents meat. You can often find your way around a kosher kitchen knowing this
Our two sets of utensils. For some reason, blue became the accepted color to represent dairy, while red (for more obvious reasons) represents meat. You can often find your way around a kosher kitchen knowing this “color code”. (Yes, I am aware that the dairy one is green. Close enough 😛 )

It is from this principle–that utensils absorb the flavor and emit the flavor the same way–that we learn how to kasher (=make kosher) utensils. So if I normally use a pot to cook food by boiling it, that means the flavors of that food can be removed by boiling water in the pot. If an oven absorbs flavor by its heat, you need to clean out the oven of any bits of food that might be stuck in it, and then leave it at its highest temperature for an hour or so. That’s the basic idea. Now I know what you’re thinking–oh, that sounds easy enough. Have you ever tried scrubbing every last inch of the inside of your oven? Unless you have a self-cleaning mechanism, this is really irritating and difficult work… I know because we have to do it every year for Passover. (Just wait ’til I tell you about the restrictions around Passover. 😛 ) Some things need to be torched (yes, with a blow torch) to burn out the flavor.

It should be noted that modern stainless steel is a lot less porous than the metals that were once used for things like this, so this is very, very strict and probably unnecessarily so. Sephardim hold that because glass is not porous, it cannot absorb flavors and therefore would not need to be kashered. (Unfortunately for me, Ashkenazim do not hold this way.) There is a rabbi in Hebron who, after reviewing a scientific study about the absorption levels in stainless steel, ruled that stainless steel should be considered like glass, but with the caveat that no one should hold this way unless another two prominent rabbis agree with him. As far as I know, this hasn’t happened yet.

Ta’am Lifgam (Unpleasant Flavor) and Ben Yomo (Of the Same Day)

Another principle is that the ta’am is only a problem if the flavor being transferred is desirable and pleasant. So, for example, if I’m washing dishes with hot water, and I accidentally use the meat sponge instead of the milk one, it’s okay because the dish soap gives it an unpleasant flavor.

This principle allows for the principle of ben yomo–the idea that after 24 hours, a flavor that was absorbed into a utensil is no longer pleasant. So for example, if I have a pot that was used to cook meat within the last 24 hours, if I cook dairy in it, even if it was clean, the dairy food is not kosher and the pot needs to be kashered. If, however, I cooked meat in it more than 24 hours ago, the pot will still need to be kashered, but the dairy food is okay to eat, because the flavor it absorbs from the pot is not a pleasant flavor.

Batel B’Shishim (Nullified In Sixty)

Friday morning. Eitan’s amazing Shabbat chicken soup is bubbling away on the stove. One of my curious little gremlins, who happens to be munching on a slice of cheese, quietly and stealthily slides the stepstool over to the sink, and before I have a chance to stop him–drops a bit of the cheese in the soup!

What will happen?

Can Shabbat be saved?!?!

A Shabbat without a bowl of this stuff is like a Christmas without Caga-tió!
In my household, Shabbat without a bowl of this stuff is like a Christmas without el Caga-tió!

…The answer is, probably. 🙂 According to the principle of batel b’shishim, the flavor of any given food becomes nullified–batel–when it is mixed with another food that is at least sixty times its volume. So in this case, I’d have to fish out the bit of cheese I could still see if it hadn’t melted completely into the soup yet, but as long as it was just a little bit and there was enough soup in the pot, and there is no recognizable cheese in the soup, then it’s batel and the soup is fine.


Note, however, that this rule does not count for foods that are considered harif (spicy or strong-flavored), for obvious reasons. You know what one clove of garlic or a squeeze of lemon can do for a dish. 🙂

To Summarize

The easiest way to think about this is to think of kashrut as a sort of “spiritual allergy”. Someone who has a severe allergy to peanuts or gluten can’t eat things that even have tiny traces of those foods, or that were processed in the same factory or cooked using the same utensils. Kashrut is actually less stringent than this after the fact, but the level of care we take to avoid any “contamination” of non-kosher foods or mixing of meat and milk is on the level of someone with severe celiac avoiding gluten. (I’m stepping away from the peanut allegory, because there are people who will have an allergic reaction just from sitting in the same room with someone who opens a bag of peanuts… as you know, I am perfectly content to sit in the same room as someone eating non-kosher food. 😉 )

And the bottom line, of course, is that keeping kosher is hard! 😛 I grew up with it, so it comes fairly naturally, but even so, every once in a while I’ll reach for the wrong spatula or pour hot food into the wrong mixing bowl. I know enough about the laws of kashrut that I usually know when something is okay, but when I’m not sure or I think it might not be okay, I relay the question to Eitan, who is ordained on this topic (meaning he is well-versed enough to give halakhic rulings on it). Sometimes even he will be stumped and will bump up the question to a higher authority, and give one of his rabbis a call.

This concludes our Great Jew Food Tirade! If you have any other questions about it, feel free to ask. 🙂

…Still convinced you’re going to kasher your kitchen for me if and when I come visit?! 😛 If you are, I clearly have not done my job! It may take a reading of this comprehensive guide to kashering a kitchen to properly dissuade you. 😉

But, as I was then, I am very touched by your intentions. I will be perfectly happy with sandwiches on paper plates if the occasion ever does arise. 😉

Lots of love,



Missed the previous installments? Here they are:

Jew Food, Part I: Vegetarians, Avert Your Eyes

Jew Food, Part II: The Vegan Section (well, sort of.)