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photo of daniella and josep


No, I am not referring to Israel’s 70th birthday–that starts tomorrow night! Though I’m sure Josep is pleased about the proximity. ūüėČ

Those of you who have been following the blog for the 3+ years I’ve been writing it may have wondered why I always make such a big deal out of Josep’s birthday.

Well, one reason is obvious: I am his self-appointed Jewish-mother-friend, and as such, it is my obligation and duty to treat him like an exasperated bar mitzvah boy being shuttled around the room to show off to all my friends and relatives. As you have probably noticed, I take this job very seriously.

photo of daniella and josep
I’d grab him by the chin and crow “Such a¬†shayne punim1!” but A) he’s not actually my son (I know, shocking, especially considering he’s 5 years older than me) and B) we’re located 2,000 miles apart at most given moments. This photo was taken in November 2013 on the second of four occasions on which we were in the same country at the same time.

Another reason I do this is that Josep has a very sad history of being forgotten on his birthday or on other occasions. A few months after we first met, shortly before Christmas, he told me some miserable stories about this, including one about being the only one among 25+ cousins not to receive any Christmas presents one year. I felt so sorry for that poor teenage Josep lying on the couch in that story that I couldn’t contain myself and had to send him a present forthwith: a copy of¬†Judaism for Everyone by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. (This was, perhaps, the first symptom of¬†my now-famous compulsion to surprise him with gifts.) And for his birthday that year I made a bunch of my friends and family members email him to wish him a happy birthday, because I never wanted him to feel forgotten on his birthday ever again.

SO YOU SEE, it is a MORAL IMPERATIVE that every last one of you comment on this post to wish him a happy birthday. Those of you receiving the posts via email who haven’t figured out how to comment yet–just scroll down to the bottom of the email until you see the words “Read in browser >>” in blue and click on them (or, click on the title of the post at the top), then scroll down to the bottom until you reach a section that says “Leave a Reply”. (You can also just send your good wishes to me and I’ll pass them on!)

AND AS FOR YOU, my exasperated bar mitzvah boy. (…) Per molts anys! I wish you a year of joy and satisfaction in all areas of life, peace and tranquility, physical and spiritual wealth, good health, and lots and lots of love ūüôā And books. Lots of good books. Only some of which were written to you. ūüėõ Hopefully some that were written¬†by you! *hint* *hint* *nudge*

(Or maybe I should save that last wish for St. Jordi’s Day¬†next week. Ah well.)

1. “Shayne punim” is Yiddish for “pretty face”, generally said in a high-pitched voice while pinching the cheeks of an uncomfortable child.‚Ü©

When God Speaks: Prophecy in Jewish Thought & Theology

Dear Josep,

One of the most interesting responses I got to my post about the Jewish view of Jesus was from a devout Protestant I know. She said most of it didn’t surprise her, but that she was “shocked… like, can’t stop thinking about it shocked… that Jews believe that prophecy stopped.” Do we believe, she wanted to know,¬†that the voice of God has manifested in other ways since then? Or that He stopped speaking altogether?

I gave her a brief answer on FB, but I’m going to use today’s post to answer her in full.

The question stems from of one of those misunderstandings between Judaism and Christianity, where a certain word means one thing to one religion, and another thing entirely to the other.

What Is Prophecy?

In Judaism, prophecy is a direct dream or vision in which God Himself appears to the prophet and speaks to him (or her. Several prophetesses are mentioned in the Bible). We believe that Moses was the only one who spoke with God really directly–like, he would¬†just be hanging out, and God’s voice would speak in his ear, he would answer, and God would answer back conversationally. All the other prophets, we believe, experienced prophecy through a vision, dream, or the presence of an angel.

Now that I mention it–angels are another one of those words that we understand entirely differently from Christians. The Hebrew word for angel, mal’akh, ◊ě◊ú◊ź◊ö, means “messenger.” We don’t believe that angels are the souls of deceased humans, nor do we believe that they have a will of their own. Only humans have free will according to Judaism. We believe that angels are sort of “channels” through which God carries out His will in the world. They’re sort of extensions of Him in a sense.

It’s all very mystical and strange and many of us don’t understand it.

But the most common way we encounter angels in the Bible is when a prophet has a vision about them, and in that case they usually appear in the form of a person–but not always.¬†Ezekiel describes them as these very odd-looking creatures with multiple wings and “wheels” and stuff. (See Ezekiel 1.)

From what I understand, the definition of prophecy in Christianity (at least Protestantism) is much broader than this definition.

So How Do We Identify True Prophecy?

If prophecy is a dream or vision in which God appears–how do we know whether a dream we had that predicted the future, or even a dream in which God or an angel appears to us, is just a dream and not a prophecy?

What about mentally ill people who claim to see God in visions or that they are the Messiah?

It’s a very perplexing issue!

Well thank God for Maimonides’¬†Guide for the Perplexed.

In the Guide and other writings, Maimonides explains that a person can only be granted prophecy if he has attained a level of intellectual, moral, and spiritual perfection. And he must prove his prophetic abilities, not by performing miracles (since these can be done through illusion), but by making accurate and detailed predictions of the future. Every single detail the potential prophet says must be true in order for us to believe that person to be a prophet. If even a small detail is wrong, he is a false prophet.

Also, Maimonides adds, if the person tells us to add or remove any of the commandments, we can know immediately that the person is a false prophet.

What Was the Purpose of Prophecy–and Why Did It Stop?

Prophecy was a kind of “direct intervention.” Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were prophets because God needed to guide them in a world that was still completely pagan. Moses was a prophet because his job was to bring the Israelites out of Egypt and teach them the entire Torah. We believe that much of the Oral Law comes from clarifications that God gave to Moses regarding what’s written in the Torah.

Many of our sages liken the history of the Jewish people to the life of a child. When a baby is born, he is completely dependent on his mother to keep him warm, fed, and safe. As he grows up, he gradually needs his parents less and less, gaining more and more independence from them.

So it was with us. Initially, all our leaders were prophets. After Moses came Joshua, and then the Judges. We needed a very direct connection to God to know what to do. Eventually we shifted over to a non-prophet leader: a king. The kings of Israel and Judah were guided by prophets and sometimes experienced prophecy themselves, but their primary role was political, not spiritual.

Towards the end of the First Temple period, the role of the prophets shifted from a more gentle guidance to rebuke and warning. The Israelites were not following the commandments and were worshiping idols, and God sent prophets like Elijah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Isiah to warn them to turn back to the path of righteousness or they would be severely punished. It was during this period that we received the prophecies about the future and the Messiah who would eventually come after the destruction.

But those were the last direct words God delivered to us. Once we entered the exile, God stopped speaking to us through prophecy.

We don’t really know why. But we believe that God set it up this way on purpose–for us to take a more and more active role in our ultimate mission of “fixing” humanity.

In other words, God shifted the responsibility from Himself (with the prophets representing Him directly) to us.

“It Is Not in Heaven”

There is a very strange story in the Talmud that, I think, sheds light on this shift of responsibility.

Goes like this: There’s a debate going on in the Sanhedrin (what else is new) about the spiritual/ritual purity status of an oven owned by a guy called Akhnai. So most of the rabbis in the Sanhedrin argue that the oven is impure, but one guy, Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, insists that it’s pure. Now, the way the Sanhedrin worked is that they ruled by majority. So no matter how senior or wise Rabbi Eliezer was, if he didn’t manage to convince his colleagues that he was correct, he be overruled.

When he failed to convince the other rabbis that he was correct, he performed a series of small miracles to try and prove his point: making a carob tree uproot itself, making a stream of water flow backwards, and the walls of the building begin to collapse on the Sanhedrin. When his colleagues remained unmoved, he shouted: “If the law is as I say–the Heavens will prove my claim!”

In response,¬†a voice sounded from Heaven and said: “Why do you not listen to Rabbi Eliezer, as the law is as he says?!”

Rabbi Joshua then jumped to his feet and shouted: “It is not in Heaven!

The Talmud then goes on to explain: “What does ‘It is not in Heaven’ [a quote from Deuteronomy 30] mean? Rabbi Jeremiah says: Since the Torah was given at Mt. Sinai, we no longer follow a voice from Heaven, since the Torah itself says [in Exodus 23]: ‘The majority rules.'”

And then the Talmud says that Elijah the Prophet was asked what God said in response to the incident. Elijah answered: “He smiled and said, ‘My children have defeated me, my children have defeated me!'”

When I first learned about this story I thought it was ridiculous. GOD HIMSELF is supporting Rabbi Eliezer’s position!!! Isn’t the entire point of the Torah to fulfill God’s will?! If GOD HIMSELF supports a certain ruling, how can you oppose it?!

But that’s the thing.

God’s will is that we follow the precedents and rules He originally set up. Since the destruction of the First Temple, it is no longer up to God to determine how Jewish law will be upheld. He made it¬†our responsibility.

Even if we’re¬†objectively wrong.

Because this isn’t about objective truth. It’s about the spirit of the law. More than faith, more than inspiration, more than anything else, Judaism is about¬†tradition. (Cue Fiddler on the Roof. ūüėõ ) That link with our past, that responsibility to our ancestors and our descendants, is more important than the objective details.

It’s kind of a difficult concept to swallow. Still, over the years I have come to appreciate the wisdom of this story.

But Does God Still Speak?

Of course He does.

Just not quite that directly.

We believe that God speaks to us through history; through the events in the world and in our lives, from the establishment of the State of Israel to your favorite flower blooming on the side of the road.

We believe He speaks all the time. It is us who must learn how to listen and interpret the messages for ourselves–but with humility. We are skeptical of anyone who is 100% sure that “God spoke to them” and that know with certainty what He said.

I think this is a function of our “maturity” as a people. Apparently, we no longer need this kind of direct guidance. Instead, we have spiritual leaders–the rabbis and sages who interpret the Law. This system was set in place back in the days of Moses, apparently in anticipation that we would eventually reach this point. It reached its maturity in the early Talmudic period, when the Sages consolidated the system for interpreting the Law and applying it to new situations that arise.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaCohen Kook wrote an essay called “A Sage Is Preferable to a Prophet,” where he puts forth the argument that in our day, it is better for us to have a sage, who guides us to gently reach our own conclusions, than to have a prophet.

It’s kind of the difference between a counselor and a policeman.

Will Prophecy Be Restored?

Jews do believe that prophecy will be restored with the coming of the Messiah, who will, himself, be a prophet.

Until then, we continue to rely on the self-admittedly flawed system of rabbinic rulings, and try to figure out, to the best of our ability, how to do what God wants from us.

With love,


The Incredible (and Mildly Embarrassing) Story of “Jerusalem of Gold”

Dear Josep,

Happy Jerusalem Day! ūüėČ

I wrote extensively about the importance of Jerusalem to Judaism in last year’s Jerusalem Day post¬†(which can also be found in the book). After yet another year of¬†violent tensions¬†over the Temple Mount, and the UN denying any Jewish connection to our holiest site, this day is wrought with more tension than ever, and for me–a sense of incompleteness. Jerusalem Day is a celebration of how close we have come to the full redemption… and while our return to Jerusalem is nothing short of a miracle, we are still so far from that dream.

I mentioned around Memorial Day that we have a lot of nostalgic “Land of Israel” songs that are part of the culture here. So as you can imagine, there’s an entire genre of Jerusalem songs within that category. The most famous one is Naomi Shemer’s Yerushalayim Shel Zahav (“Jerusalem of Gold”). There are many others that are beautiful and poignant, but if you’re going to know about one song about Jerusalem, it should be this one.

In my opinion, the thing that is most amazing about this song is the story of its creation.

Naomi Shemer is one of the most famous Israeli poets and songwriters. In 1967, she¬†was asked to write a song for the Israeli Song Festival that was to take place on May 15th of that year.¬†She was intimidated by the task and told the commissioner she could not write under pressure like this, and he told her that she didn’t have to, but if she felt inspired–she should go ahead and write something. Thus “Jerusalem of Gold” was born. Naomi Shemer selected then-unknown singer Shuli Natan to perform the song.

Now… if your memory serves you, you’ll recall that May 15th, 1967 was three weeks before the Six Day War. So when Naomi Shemer wrote the song, Jerusalem was still divided in two, and Jews were forbidden access to the Western Wall.

So, here is my translation of the original song, which contained three verses.

The mountain air is clear as wine
And the scent of pines
Is carried on the afternoon breeze
With the call of bells

And in the trees’ and stones’ slumber
Captured in her dream,
The city that sits alone
A wall in her heart

Jerusalem of gold
And of copper, and of light
For all your songs
I am a harp

Alas, how the cisterns have dried
The market square is empty
And no one visits the Temple Mount
In the Old City

And in the caves within the rock
The wind howls
And no one descends to the Dead Sea
On Jericho Road


But today, as I come to sing to you
And to weave you wreaths
I am smaller than the youngest of your sons
And the last of the poets

For your name burns the lips
Like the kiss of the viper
If I forget thee, Jerusalem
Entirely of gold


What a sad, lonely description of the Old City. I remember my fifth grade teacher telling us how when she was a small girl, they took her up to Mount Scopus, which was the closest they could get to the Old City and to the Western Wall at that time. She recalled following the pointing finger of the guide to this tiny, dirty little wall far off in the distance.

After the war, amidst all the euphoria, Shemer added the following verse:

We have returned to the cisterns,
To the market and the square
A shofar calls at the Temple Mount
In the Old City.

And in the caves within the rock
A thousand suns rise
We will again descend to the Dead Sea
On Jericho Road

And so, the story of the return of the Jewish people to our eternal capital–the longing and the triumph–is contained within the lyrics of this song, eerily written at just the right moment in history.

Here is the song performed by Shuli Natan:


I don’t know how familiar you would be with Navarrese or Basque folk songs. If you are, you may note that the melody of the song sounds oddly familiar.

This is Polleo Joxepe,¬†a Navarrese folk song that is very popular in the Basque Country. Shemer heard Paco Ib√°√Īez performing¬†it in 1962. When the similarities were pointed out, at first she vehemently denied any connection between them, but towards the end of her life she admitted that she may have been unconsciously inspired by the melody of Polleo Joxepe when composing¬†Yerushalyaim Shel Zahav. She apparently was very sad to discover that the melody was so similar and felt guilty about denying it. But¬†Ib√°√Īez told Haaretz in 2014:¬†“It is a shame. She had no reason to feel guilty…¬†I didn’t consider this plagiarism but rather felt a lot of empathy for Shemer. Was I angry? Not at all. On the contrary, I was glad it helped in some way.”

What I find really odd¬†about this episode is that this isn’t the first time this has happened with an important patriotic Israeli song.

Here’s a performance of a piece¬†called La Mantovana. The melody’s first appearance is in a collection of madrigals from 1600, so it seems to have been a Renaissance-era folk song popular in Europe. Listen to the first few bars.

Remind you of anything?

Or have you forgotten how to sing HaTikva since the day we met and you told me you knew the whole thing? ūüėČ


I mean, this kind of stuff probably happens all the time; there are only eight notes in an octave, and a limited number of chords that sound good together. They say that creativity is knowing how to hide your sources. In a less cynical sense, creativity is taking things that exist and putting them together in new and original ways. It is no secret that musicians are influenced by those who came before, sometimes borrowing snippets here and there and developing them into something else.

Still, it’s a little embarrassing that the melodies of the national songs that are most important to us are not all that original!

I’ll leave you with my personal favorite version of “Jerusalem of Gold,” by Nourith, a French-Israeli singer. I feel that this¬†version really captures¬†the mystique¬†and intensity of Jerusalem; the call of the muezzins, the crying of the doves, the howling of the winds in the caves and tunnels, the sadness and longing and hope that hang over the Holy City at¬†the heart of the world.



Infinite Light

Yesterday I took a little walk in Rehovot after sundown, and got to see the brightly lit chanukiyot in the windows, and watch families huddled around their candles, singing the blessings and songs. I¬†couldn’t stop smiling the entire way.¬†The sight of so many Jewish families lighting up the night like this filled me with such joy and pride and hope.

Tonight is the eighth and final night of Chanukah. Each night we increased the light incrementally, until today–the climax of the Festival of Lights. Eight is the number of infinity. In Jewish tradition, it symbolizes the realm of the supernatural.

May this infinite light carry us through until next year.


Just Checking In

Dear Josep,

Well, you have quite enough of our personal correspondence to catch up on, so I’m letting you off easy this week.

…Okay, actually I’ve just been sick all week and dealing with other stuff (mostly good things!), and haven’t been feeling inspired.

But! I would not want to let our devoted blog readers languish over there, on the other side of their computer screens, despairing that they haven’t had their fill of my charming self¬†this week! ūüėõ So I’m going to link to a little piece of mine that was published on Hevria yesterday. Hevria is an online platform¬†for creative Jewish writing,¬†and last week they posted¬†an essay called “When Standing with Us Is Not Enough,”¬†about the sense that Diaspora Jews are not doing enough in support of Israel. While I understand and identify with the sense of isolation Israelis feel during this time, I felt that the essay placed too much responsibility and blame on Diaspora Jews. So I wrote a response, which you can read here: “When Standing with Us Is More than Enough.”

And in case you missed it, my letter on “The 5 Secrets of Israeli Resilience Against Terror” was picked up by the Jewish online newspaper for Australia and New Zealand, J-Wire. You can see it here.

I hope that holds our readers¬†over until next time. (As for you, I never worry that you suffer¬†from a¬†lack of my presence in your life. ūüėõ )

Shabbat shalom and lots of love,


10 Great Principles You Had No Idea Were in the Torah

Dear Josep,

I have mentioned in the past that Jews count 613 commandments in the Torah. What these commandments are exactly is, of course, a subject of debate. There are certain things that some sages consider a commandment while others don’t, and vice versa. All agree that there are 613, and there is a consensus on most of them.

You may have wondered what on earth we could possibly have so many commandments about. While it’s true that keeping Shabbat, for example, is extremely complicated, only about 5 of the 613 address Shabbat. Kashrut is very complicated too, but only about 20 or so of the 613 address the dietary restrictions. That leaves 578 to go!

Well, you can find a comprehensive list here, based on the method of Maimonides. Skimming through it you’ll find that many of the commandments are not really applicable today, since they address the Temple service, ritual purity, and other things that are not relevant to our current status. But I wanted to draw your attention to¬†the lesser-known mitzvot that reveal how much the Torah penetrates into the minutiae of daily life to try and create a society of justice and compassion.

You’ve heard of the commandments against murder, stealing, false testimony, and adultery, and the commandments to honor your mother and father and love your neighbor. Here are some¬†commandments you probably haven’t heard about.

1) Return Lost Property to Its Owner (Hashavat Aveida)

This is actually two commandments: to return lost property (Deuteronomy 22:1), and¬†not to pretend that you didn’t see lost property, to avoid the obligation to return it (Deuteronomy 22:3).

Oh yes. God is in your head, and He’s not leaving room for excuses. ūüėõ

There is, of course, a whole set of rabbinic laws detailing exactly what this law applies to, when it applies, how to return it to its owner, and how hard to try and find the owner until you may claim it as your own. When I moved to Israel I was pretty tickled to discover that when people lost or found something, they would hang up signs, not reading “Lost” or “Found,”¬†but¬†“Hashavat Aveida”–the name of¬†this mitzvah. Religious people also add, “The item will be returned¬†al pi simanim,” “according to its distinguishing features,” referring to the requirement to withhold information on the item’s distinguishing features and then have the person claiming the item describe it to you, to be sure you are returning the item to the correct owner.

2) Don’t Speak Negatively of Others¬†(Shmirat HaLashon)

I actually wrote a whole post about this one before, in which I defined this mitzvah thus: “There is a mitzvah in our tradition called ‘shmirat halashon,’¬†‘guarding the tongue.’ It is a prohibition against speaking negatively¬†about and/or to other people. There are several categories of negative speech, including hona‚Äôat devarim, speech that is directly harmful or abusive to the person to whom you are speaking;¬†hotza‚Äôat shem ra, libeling; and the most well-known,¬†lashon hara, gossiping or speaking negatively¬†about people behind their backs.” You can read the whole post here.

3) Don’t Just Stand There (Lo Ta’amod)

The Torah has a number of commandments that require us to get involved to assist our fellow man, from not “standing by idly” when human life is in danger (Leviticus 19:16), to the obligation to assist someone who is trying to unload a heavy burden from his beast (Exodus 23:5) or even assisting a beast that has fallen beneath its burden (Deuteronomy 22:4).

The Torah commands us to actively engage in compassion and justice and take personal responsibility for the plights of others.

4) Treat¬†Animals Humanely (Tza’ar Ba’alei Šł§aim)

The Torah actually quite a few¬†commandments that address humane treatment of animals. The most obvious one is the laws of¬†sheŠł•ita, kosher slaughter, that require us to kill the animal as quickly and painlessly as possible.¬†The Torah also forbids us from slaughtering an animal and its young on the same day (Leviticus 22:28)¬†or from taking a mother bird with its young (Deuteronomy 22:6), and it requires us to set a mother bird free from her nest before taking the eggs (ibid. verses 6-7).

You're doing WHAT?
You’re doing WHAT?

It even forbids us to work the field with two different kinds of animals (say, a horse and a donkey) yoked together, since their difference in build and strength might cause them difficulty and pain (Deuteronomy 22:10). We are also required to allow our animals to rest on the Sabbath (Exodus 23:12), and are not allowed to muzzle an animal that is working a field of produce which it can eat and enjoy (Deuteronomy 25:4).

5) Conduct Business with Complete Honesty

You’ll see in the list I linked to above that there’s a whole section devoted to business practices. I wanted to bring out one commandment to exemplify the level of detail the Torah goes into: Leviticus 19:36 instructs us to have “true measures¬†and weights,” “ma’azanei tzedek” and “avnei tzedek“. But¬†the word “tzedek” doesn’t really mean “true,” it means “just.” That is, you are required to assure that the weights and measures that you use to weigh and sell your wares are accurate and correct, so that you don’t accidentally cheat someone by selling less for the price of more.

I remember reading a story in the Mishna about an oil vendor who would let the oil drip into his customer’s jug from his measuring cup for a very long time, so they would get the full measure of oil they had purchased. The Mishna brings examples like these to show what real honesty and good business conduct look like.

6) Hold Everyone Equal Before the Law

This principle was revolutionary in its time, and has become one of the foundations of the modern concept of justice. You will see that one of the longer sections in the list of the 613 commandments pertains to the court and judicial procedure, and many of these are specifically for judges deciding a case. One of them is not to favor a man because of his greatness (Leviticus 19:15), or be afraid of a bad man when making a decision he might not like (Deuteronomy 1:17), or even to let compassion for a poor man (Exodus 23:3; Leviticus 19:15), a stranger, or an orphan (Deuteronomy 24:17), or disdain for a sinner (Exodus 23:6) distort your judgement.

In other words, the Torah says, justice means making a judgment based not on who the people are, but on what they did or didn’t do. This is called “impersonal justice.”

Lady Justice was a Greek goddess, but she was not depicted with that blindfold until the 15th century.
Lady Justice (a.k.a. Themis) was a Greek goddess, but she was not depicted with that blindfold–symbolizing¬†objectivity and impartiality–until the 15th century.

This sounds completely elementary now. But its origin is in the Torah and its first application was in the ancient courts of Biblical Israel.

7) Uphold Rule of Law

Eitan is reading a book by Francis Fukuyama, an American political scientist, called “The Origins of Political Order.” According to Fukuyama, one of the factors that contributes to a healthy government with accountability and restraint on its power is something he calls “rule of law.”¬†That is, that there is a system of law by which the government itself is bound. This is one of the¬†principles by which¬†small tribes have always governed themselves, but in terms of a state-level government, the Torah¬†was the first to introduce this idea. (Brahmanism also employed it, independent of Judaism, but it came later.) In Deuteronomy chapter 17, there is a whole list of requirements that a King of Israel must uphold. He is not allowed to acquire an excessive number of horses (verse 16) or wives (17), nor an excessive amount of wealth (ibid.). He is, of course, just as subject to the laws of the¬†Torah as any other person, and in the books of Samuel and Kings, you can see numerous examples of prophets visiting kings of Israel to rebuke them for not following the law.

8) Eliminate Public Hazards

Remember the Mishna I “chanted” for you to demonstrate the “Talmudic singsong cadence”? It discusses responsibility for a certain kind of public hazard. In fact, that entire tractate discusses the subject of public hazards, who is responsible for eliminating them, and compensation when someone’s property or person is damaged by another’s property.

The Torah requires one to take responsibility for public hazards (Deuteronomy 22:8) and to build a¬†barrier around one’s roof, to prevent people from falling off (ibid.).

9)¬†Don’t Waste Perfectly Good Stuff¬†(Bal tash’Šł•it)

In Deuteronomy 20:19-20, the Torah forbids us to destroy fruit trees, either for no reason, or for purposes of warfare. Trees that do not produce fruit may be cut down during wars.

It is from this source that we learn the ethical principle of¬†bal tash’Šł•it, the prohibition against senseless damage or waste, including things that aren’t food. We must not waste lamp oil, destroy clothing or furniture, or kill animals unnecessarily.

10) Maintain Proper Hygiene

Deuteronomy¬†23:13-14 is very explicit about this: “And you shall have a designated place outside the camp, so that you can go out there [to use it as a privy]. And you shall keep a stake in addition to your weapons; and it shall be, when you sit down outside [to relieve yourself], you shall dig with it, and you shall return and cover your excrement.” The Torah then goes on to explain, in verse 15, “For the Lord, your God, goes along in the midst of your camp, to rescue you and to deliver your enemies before you. [Therefore,] your camp shall be holy, so that He should not see anything unseemly among you and turn away from you.”

Now, obviously, God “sees” everything, so this isn’t really about God not wanting to “see” human waste. He is describing here how to maintain a respectful environment in which to engage with the Divine.¬†The Sages expand the rule of keeping human waste outside the space and covering it properly to other spaces in which our consciousness of God dwells: places where we study Torah or pray. This is why we are not allowed to pray in the bathroom (and why we don’t install mezuzot on bathroom doorways). The Sages also see this commandment as one of a number of commandments that have the purpose of maintaining human decency even in the chaos and turmoil of war. (The commandment about¬†the “beautiful woman hostage” that I described in my post about women in Orthodox Judaism is another.)

I’ve said before that I think religion is responsible for introducing some of the major values that we, in Western society, see as being completely basic now. I think the examples from above demonstrate a little of what I mean by that. Historian Paul Johnson, author of “A¬†History of the Jews” and “A¬†History of Christianity,” wrote:

Certainly, the world without the Jews would have been a radically different place. Humanity might have eventually stumbled upon all the Jewish insights. But we cannot be sure. All the great conceptual discoveries of the human intellect seem obvious and inescapable once they had been revealed, but it requires a special genius to formulate them for the first time. The Jews had this gift. To them we owe the idea of equality before the law, both divine and human; of the sanctity of life and the dignity of human person; of the individual conscience and so a personal redemption; of collective conscience and so of social responsibility; of peace as an abstract ideal and love as the foundation of justice, and many other items which constitute the basic moral furniture of the human mind. Without Jews it might have been a much emptier place.

If you prefer to believe that we as a people possess this “special genius” to have developed these ideas for the first time–believe what you will.¬†Me, I agree that we are gifted, but¬†I call that gift “the Torah.” ūüėČ

Much love,


Why We Fast for Gedaliah

Dear Josep,

Welcome to 5776!

So, we partied for two days (and by “partied,” I mean prayed intensely, let our souls cry out with the call of the shofar, and yes, ate a ridiculous amount of food)… and¬†now, all of the sudden, we’re fasting. The day after Rosh Hashana is the¬†Fast of Gedaliah.¬†(I explained about it a bit in this post on Jewish fast days.)

I have to say that as a teenager I couldn’t make heads nor tails of this fast. I was told that Gedaliah¬†was a Jewish leader who was murdered by another Jew, but that didn’t seem reason enough to mourn it forever with an annual Jewish fast day. And, like, right after Rosh Hashana? Feels kind of incongruous, no?

I heard a number of attempts¬†to explain the significance of this event in school, but I didn’t really “get it” until I read¬†A History of the Jews by Solomon Grayzel (a book I have often been tempted to lend you,¬†by the way). He addresses this event in a relatively short passage, which I’m going to quote¬†here, but first a little historical background: We’re talking about the period circa 597 B.C.E. Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian emperor, conquered Judea and destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple, as the prophets had foretold. (More about the destruction of the Temple and its significance in Jewish history here.) ¬†The surviving Judeans (a.k.a. Jews) were taken hostage and brought to Babylonia, where they began to establish what would eventually become the thriving center of Jewish life for hundreds and hundreds of years. Here’s Grayzel:

Nebuchadnezzar had not intended to destroy Judea, but merely to make it impossible for the Judeans again to rebel. He knew that if the upper classes, or the leaders, princes and priests, were removed, the lower classes, the small merchants, the artisans, the peasants, would keep the peace. This portion of the population was therefore left undisturbed. Some sort of government was needed for Judea. Nebuchadnezzar, therefore, chose a member of a prominent Judean family, one of the nobles who had not favored the policy of alliance with Egypt, and appointed him governor. But this man, Gedaliah ben (that is, son of) Ahikam, a forthright, earnest, patriotic Judean, was murdered, soon after his appointment, by a jealous descendant of the House of David. Thereupon the men associated with Gedaliah in the government, fearing that Nebuchadnezzar would blame them for what had happened, decided to abandon completely the work of reconstruction and flee to Egypt. They compelled Jeremiah [the Prophet] to accompany them, and it was in Egypt that the old prophet uttered his last exhortations to return to the worship of God and the observance of Mosaic traditions. To this day the Jewish calendar commemorates by a fast-day the anniversary of Gedaliah’s murder, the day following Rosh ha-Shanah. For that day marked the final destruction of the first Hebrew Commonwealth. The Jews themselves completed what the Babylonians had begun.

Nebuchadnezzar, some say, took the flight of the Judeans to Egypt as a confession of guilt. He carried another group of Judeans into Babylonian exile as a punishment for having plotted against his¬†appointee. From every side the neighboring nations moved into Judean territory–the Ammonites from the east, the Edomites from the south, and the Samaritans from the north. They all pushed their boundaries forward into the defenseless land. Stricken, leaderless and bullied by the neighbors, the Judeans sank into national hopelessness.

In other words, when Nebuchadnezzar conquered Jerusalem and sent us into exile, it may have seemed that all was lost… but all was not lost.¬†Nebuchadnezzar did not intend to destroy Judea, and under his appointee–Gedaliah¬†ben Ahikam–we could have had a chance to rebuild Judea, Jerusalem, and the Temple. But we blew it. Jealousy and hatred overcame hope, and Gedaliah¬†was assassinated by a fellow Jew… on Rosh Hashana, no less. (The fast is the day after because we are not allowed to fast on holidays, with the exception of Yom Kippur.)

Over the holiday I was thinking a lot about the thread that connects our current actions back through Jewish history and forward to the destiny of mankind. I will be writing more about that in a future post, God willing. After learning about the circumstances of Gedaliah’s¬†assassination, it was very clear to me why we fast on this day. It was the final link in the chain of events that led to the Diaspora; to the execution of Divine Plan B, as it were. (See the post about the Three Weeks.) The nail in the coffin of Jewish sovereignty over our land… a coffin that remained closed and buried until 1948. Because even when we returned to Jerusalem and built the Second Temple, the majority of Jews remained in Babylonia. With the murder of Gedaliah, the center of Jewish spiritual life shifted from Judea to Babylonia… and stayed there for hundreds of years, all the way until the Middle Ages, when it shifted towards Spain. (After 1492, it shifted to Eastern Europe, and after the Holocaust–to the USA. Today, it finally seems to be slowly shifting back towards Israel.)

That’s all for now. See you when my stomach is no longer growling!




Dear Josep,

You may recall that the drive from Jerusalem to my home in Judea involves driving past a number of Palestinian villages. A section of the road coming from the other direction goes directly through one of the villages.

Now, for the most part, this area of Judea is pretty quiet. Some of the storefronts along the roads of this village display signs in Hebrew alongside the Arabic, and it’s because there is a lot of commercial interaction between the Israelis and the Palestinians around here. A majority of the construction workers who build the homes in our town come from that area, and¬†the¬†contractors get a lot of their building material from Bethlehem and Hebron. Palestinians are employed alongside Israelis at local businesses and farms, with equal pay and benefits. Our local supermarket is an oasis of coexistence, where Israelis and Palestinians shop side by side; it is Israeli owned, but most of the employees are Christian Palestinians from the local villages. The guy at the cheese counter¬†gives out Arabic lessons as he wishes a “Gutt Shabbos” (“good Sabbath” in Yiddish) to the American-Israeli settler. It’s a whole different Middle East than the one on the news.

Sometimes, however, especially during periods of general heightened tensions, there are problems. Problems in the form of rock or Molotov cocktail attacks on Israeli cars, for the most part. It generally¬†comes from the teenagers and kids. The hour or so between noon and one o’clock in the afternoon becomes notorious in these periods for rock attacks, because that’s when the kids are walking up the sides of the street to get home, restless after a day of sitting around in school. On one such occasion, a couple years ago, a teenager threw a rock at me.¬†It¬†made contact with¬†the windshield, cracking it on a direct¬†path¬†to my face. Mere minutes beforehand, I had stopped for one of his neighbors shepherding his sheep across the road. I had¬†waved at him, and he had waved back.


We live in such a paradoxical place.

At the time, I felt so helpless. They’re just kids, what are you going to do, run them over? Threaten them? On the other hand, rocks thrown at cars have killed Israelis on numerous occasions; it’s nothing to sneeze at. So I started thinking about creative ways to make myself a less obvious or desirable target. One idea I had was to keep an extra scarf in the glove compartment, and wrap it around my face like a hijab when driving through.

Okay, so on close inspection I could never pass for an Arab. But if they were close enough to be suspicious, I'd pass them before they could figure it out!
Okay, so on close inspection I could never pass for an Arab. But if they were close enough to inspect, I’d be gone¬†before they could figure it out!

I entertained the idea of finding someone to write a message in Arabic to hang in the window, like “Hi there! Please don’t throw rocks at me!” ūüėõ Or maybe finding a way to inscribe the letters TV, or UN, on the car.

The hijab idea made me kind of uncomfortable–you know I have a thing about honesty on principle–and the others seemed fairly impractical. But then I had an idea that was so simple, it was almost ridiculous.

Maybe when driving past the villagers, I could wave hello to them.

I figured that it could “humanize” me, appealing to the better nature of a potential attacker and making him think twice about throwing a rock at my car; and even if not, at least it could confuse him long enough for me to drive past before he realizes that yes, that woman did just wave hello to him, and no, he doesn’t actually know her, and yes, she is Jewish.

But as I contemplated trying it out, every time I had an opportunity to initiate a friendly gesture, I found myself paralyzed with fear. What if I needlessly draw attention to myself? What if that makes me more of an inviting target? What if it makes them think I’m mocking them? I think on a deeper level, I was afraid because waving is reaching out to them; it’s making myself vulnerable, and even if their rejection did not come in the form of violence, it felt like taking some level of risk. A wave hello means, “I acknowledge you, you are a person, I respect your right to be here,” and though I certainly¬†believe these things about my Palestinian neighbors… you know. It’s complicated.

So… a couple months ago I was driving home and realized that I was going to be driving through the village at a time when school was letting out. I thought to myself, this time I have¬†to try it. But I was still scared. And as I drove up and saw a group of teenage boys–the most likely demographic for would-be terrorists–walking up the road, and felt my stomach clench, I thought, am I really going to have the guts to do it this time?

And then, out of the blue, something happened that had never happened to me before.

One of the teenage boys raised his hand, completely unprovoked–and waved at me.

Delighted, I waved back with a big smile, and then proceeded to wave at every single person I saw on the way down the hill. I got some waves, some smiles, some nods, and a few blank stares. But it felt amazing. That village has become a completely different place for me since that day.

And now when I’m driving along these roads, sometimes I’ll catch someone’s eye and feel paralyzed by fear. But sometimes, I’ll lift my hand and give a wave… and I’d say three out of five times, when I do that, they wave back.

A few friendly gestures are not going to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict or bring peace to the Middle East. But the only thing that will bring peace is for both¬†societies to learn to acknowledge each other’s humanity.¬†The Talmud teaches, “Who is respected? He who respects¬†others.” (Ethics of the Fathers 4:1)¬†And I’d like to think that maybe someday, a wave of my hand might start to change the way somebody thinks about Jews or Israelis.

Well, in the meantime, I’ll settle for preventing cracks in my windshield.



Between the Dire Straits

Dear Josep,

So, the Three Weeks.

I mentioned before that the 17th of Tamuz ¬†marks the beginning of a period of symbolic mourning for the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem. Practically speaking, what this means is that we observe the same customs¬†of symbolic mourning that we do during the first 33 days of the Omer: we don’t attend live concerts (and have varying customs on what kind of music we listen to), don’t buy new clothes, and don’t get haircuts (and men don’t shave their beards).¬†In Hebrew, the period of the Three Weeks is called “Bein HaMetzarim.” This is could be cleverly¬†translated into English as, “Between the Dire Straits.”¬†(Since you are not a native English speaker, I want to make sure you understand this: “Meitzar” is both a “strait”, as in a channel connecting two bodies of water, and a flowery Biblical word for trouble or distress. “Dire straits” is an English expression that means “very serious trouble.” Google translates the phrase¬†into Catalan as “dificultats.” Sounds like an understatement to me….) The Sages teach that this is a period during which “the Prosecutor speaks against us” (as in¬†Satan; see my section on the Jewish concept of Satan in The Vagueries of the Jewish Afterlife), meaning that God judges us more harshly. So we try to kind of “lay low” during this period, avoiding important business interactions or other endeavors that require Divine assistance.

From the first day of the month of Av (or if you’re Sephardi–which, um, I guess you are! :P–from the Saturday night before Tisha B’Av), the symbolic mourning intensifies. Ashkenazim call this period “the Nine Days.” Sephardim call it, “hashavua sheŠł•al bo,”¬†“the Week on Which It Falls.” We no longer bathe for pleasure or wash our clothes (unless it’s necessary for hygienic purposes), and we don’t eat meat or drink wine. (I guess you Catholics might call that “fasting.” ūüėõ ) We also do not build houses or move into new homes during this period.

“Tisha B’Av” means the Ninth of Av, and it is the saddest day in the Jewish year. On this day, the First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians, and then, by Divine poetry (or bizarre coincidence, for those who believe in such things), the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans on the same date several hundred years later.

The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans Under the Command of Titus, A.D. 70, by David Roberts, 1850
“The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans Under the Command of Titus, A.D. 70,” by David Roberts, 1850. {public domain}

It so happens that a number of other great calamities befell the Jews on this day on the Hebrew calendar, and during this period in general. The last Jew left the shores of Spain on Tisha B’Av in 1492. A number of disasters connected to failed attempts to restore Jewish sovereignty over Judea after the destruction of the Temple also happened on Tisha B’Av. So, too, with a number of critical events during the Holocaust. Heck, just last year, I was rudely awakened on the morning of Tisha B’Av by an air raid siren… :-/ Like I¬†said. Not a good time for the Jews.

So as I elaborated in my letter about Jewish fasts, Tisha B’Av is a major fast day, meaning that we refrain from eating, drinking, washing for pleasure, wearing leather shoes, anointing ourselves with oil, and sexual relations, from sundown to nightfall the next day. We also sit on low stools, like mourners sitting shiva, for the first part of Tisha B’Av (until midday, at which point the Temple had already been destroyed); nor do we¬†greet each other, because we are not allowed to greet mourners, and we are all mourning on this day. On the evening of Tisha B’Av, after the usual evening prayer service, the book of Eikha (Lamentations) is read in the synagogue while everybody sits on the floor. It was written by Jeremiah the Prophet and describes the desolation in Jerusalem after its conquest by Nebuchadnezzar. Then a series of¬†Kinnot¬†(poetic lamentations) are read.

Listening to Lamentations on Tisha B'Av evening at the Kotel. SAIMI [CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons
Listening to Lamentations on Tisha B’Av evening at the Kotel.
SAIMI [CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons
At midday on Tisha B’Av we begin a gradual process of emerging from mourning. We may sit on normal chairs from midday onward. After the fast ends at nightfall, we continue to observe the mourning customs of the Nine Days, until midday on the following¬†day, the 10th of Av. The reason for this is that the Temple was still burning until midday on the 10th. Then we fully emerge from mourning. (This year, the 9th actually falls on Shabbat, and we are not allowed to fast on Shabbat, so the fast is observed on¬†the 10th. That means that this year, we will fully emerge from mourning as soon as the fast ends.)

So. Obviously, this destruction-of-the-Temple business was seriously bad news for the Jews. One might ask: why? Why don’t we fast to commemorate other great disasters in Jewish history, like the Holocaust, or the Cossack massacres, or the Crusades, or the expulsion from Spain, or… sheesh, take your pick, we’d be fasting every day of the year! :-/

First of all, before you can understand why the destruction of the Temple was such a big deal, you have to understand why the Temple was such a big deal. I elaborate on this in¬†my letter about the history and significance of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, ¬†so if you haven’t read that one yet, now is the time to do that.

In any case, in that entry, I wrote:

The Temple was the place where God and man embraced, where the limited physical reality of human existence touched the eternal. The very physical work that involved the service of the Temple‚Äďthe sacrifices, the contributions, the incense, the rituals‚Äďwere a way to tangibly connect with God. And that is why, originally, our entire religion, our entire service of God, centered around the Temple.

When God gave us the Torah, He had a vision for us. He would be our God, and we would be His people. The Holy Temple would serve as a meeting place between humanity and the Divine, not only for the Jewish people, but for the world in general. We were to serve as a model nation, showing the world what a society could look like if it follows God’s word. We were to be a “light unto the nations;”¬†to spread morality and knowledge of God throughout the world. God promised us that if we kept His commandments and stayed loyal to Him, He would bless us and protect us, and make us a “nation of priests.” A majority of the book of Deuteronomy is a speech that Moses gives the nation¬†of Israel in which he goes over the commandments again, along with God’s promise. But, God said, if we failed to keep the commandments, and strayed to worship other gods, He would curse us, and send us scattered from the land.

Basically, God presented us with an Ultimate Plan for the Redemption of the Universe. The plan was, we inhabit the land and set up a model kingdom right in the heart of the world, on the crossroads between Asia, Africa and Europe, where most world civilizations would have the chance to come in contact with us, and thus influence them to give up idolatry and immorality and embrace God and Godliness.

Unfortunately, we failed to create this model society. We succumbed to the temptations to be like other nations, to serve other gods, including our own “evil inclinations”, and eventually God had to fulfill His promise: He destroyed our kingdom and our Temple. We lost our direct connection to Him. According to Judaism, there has been no prophesy since the destruction of the First Temple. The last of our prophets was Malachi.

The rest… I’m going to step¬†my current¬†self aside and give¬†my 20-year-old self the stage. This is an excerpt from a ridiculously long letter I wrote to you eight years ago on Tisha B’Av, July 24th, 2007.

So you see… it’s not really the destruction of a building I’m mourning as I sit here close to the floor with my face unwashed and my stomach empty. It’s the destruction of a certain kind of relationship. When we were in this land with our Temple, we were so close to God. We were living as a “light unto the nations”, a kingdom to shine as an example to the nations of the world and let them see how a fair and just society can look like. But we blew it.

My eyes fill with tears as I write this. We blew it. We failed. We broke the covenant. And God could not let us live here, together, any longer. He had to disperse us among the nations, where we would be hated and persecuted for two thousand years. Where we would be massacred and expelled and tortured and ridiculed¬†throughout the centuries. Don’t you see?

The destruction of the Temple is the root of all Jewish suffering.

If we hadn’t ruined it, if we hadn’t been so stupid, none of that would have been necessary to teach our lessons to the world! We wouldn’t have needed to suffer so much to spread our ideas! All of it, all those coincidences on Tisha B’Av, and all those massacres during the Crusades, and the Spanish Inquisition, and the expulsions from everywhere, and the pogroms, and the Holocaust–all of it was part of the Divine Plan B, implemented¬†after we messed up Plan A.

So what now? It seems that God is knocking on our door again, by some miracle giving us back the Promised Land and Jerusalem… but again, the world is poised against us. Will we mess it up again? Or will we somehow succeed in taking this chance to reestablish that role we’ve been missing for 2,000 years?

Right now I feel the urgency of this question as our government and our society slide downhill. God doesn’t need a Jewish people in its land with leaders who lie and cheat and sexually abuse.1 He doesn’t need a Jewish people in its land selfish and divided. I do believe, with all my heart, that bringing us back to Israel was the beginning of the process of redemption… but I’m so afraid of the shaky ground on which we stand. What if He has to destroy this process and go through it all over again?

So we fast and we pray and we hope that we are strong enough, that we are ready to be what He wanted us to be. The whole purpose of the Jewish faith is to hone us into a model society, one that is loving and helpful to all others, that supports those who need support, that trusts in the One God and believes only in Him. On Tisha B’Av we long to become that society… without more suffering. Without more slaughter and bloodshed and hatred. We mourn the days that we had the chance to be that way, and we pray for a second chance in the days to come.

And that, my dear friend, is the meaning of Tisha B’Av.

May we all merit to see the redemption of humanity soon–whatever you believe that may mean. (And if you’re wondering what¬†I¬†believe that means… stay tuned. ūüėČ )

Much love,


1. A few weeks before I wrote the excerpted letter in 2007, then-president of Israel Moshe Katsav resigned from his presidency after being accused of rape and sexual harassment. He was eventually found guilty, and he is currently serving a maximum sentence of 49 years in prison.‚Ü©

Processing Grief: Jewish Mourning Customs

Dear Josep,

Today is the 17th of Tammuz. Well actually it’s the 18th, but that’s what we call this fast, which was delayed by a day because of Shabbat. It marks the beginning of the Three Weeks, the period of mourning for the destruction of the Temple.

But before I talk about symbolic mourning, I should first talk about actual mourning. So, um, yes, this is gonna be a downer. Pour yourself a glass of wine, ’cause I can’t–I’m fasting. ūüėõ

As you know, my grandmother passed away at the end of March. My family is very blessed in that¬†this was our¬†first experience of needing to figure out the laws of mourning–aveilut–and how my mother was supposed to observe them. The¬†shiva¬†(explained below) was cut short because of Passover, and my mother’s family is not the slightest bit religious, so the matter presented a number of¬†issues.

But as a general rule, the customs around death and mourning in Judaism are designed to lead the mourners through a gradual process of grief and healing, and many report that this is helpful to them. I have to say that because of the circumstances surrounding my grandmother’s death (as I elaborated in that entry), the lack of context I had for really grieving for her was really difficult, I’d say even traumatic for me.

Anyway. Here’s how it goes:


In Jewish law, we bury our dead as soon as possible. The reason for this is¬†kavod hamet–“honoring the dead.” According to Jewish beliefs, it causes the disembodied soul¬†a lot of anguish and shame¬†to see its former body lying there exposed. In general, covering something is a sign of respect in our culture.

This is also the reason there is a lot of sensitivity around archaeology and the discovery of ancient Jewish cemeteries; we prefer to leave bones where they are and not expose them unnecessarily, and if there is a need to exhume them, this must be handled with utmost care and they must be reburied as soon as possible.

Jews are traditionally buried wrapped only in simple linen cloth. Coffins are not usually used, and if they are, the body is still completely wrapped in a shroud, again, out of respect for the dead. Men are usually buried with their tallit (prayer shawl–see Prayer, Part II).

There are a number of prayers that are standard for funerals. It is customary to read Psalms, and the rabbi or leader of the funeral recites¬†E-l Maleh Rahamim, “God, Full of Mercy”, the prayer for the dead.

The close family members also perform¬†kriya, a symbolic rending of one’s clothes to express their grief.


I have briefly mentioned Kaddish before, and here is the place to elaborate. Kaddish is a prayer in Aramaic. It appears during the prayer services in a number of forms, most of them recited by the hazzan, the¬†prayer leader¬†(it can only be recited in the presence of a¬†minyan, a quorum of ten men). Sometimes, however, it is recited by anyone in the congregation who has lost a parent over the past year. This is known as the Mourner’s Kaddish.

So what is this prayer and why is it something that mourners traditionally recite?

Here’s a translation of the Ashkenazi version of the Mourner’s Kaddish:

Glorified and sanctified be God’s great name (congregation answers: amen)

Throughout the world which He has created according to His will; may He establish His kingdom in your lifetime and during your days, and within the life of the entire House of Israel, quickly and soon;
and say, Amen. (congregation answers: amen. May His great name be blessed forever and to all eternity.)

May His great name be blessed forever and to all eternity.

Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored, adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He. (congragation answers: Blessed be He.)

Beyond all the blessings and hymns, praises and consolations that are spoken in the world; and say, Amen. (congregation answers: amen.)

May there be abundant peace from Heaven, and life, for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen. (congregation answers: amen.)

He who creates peace in His celestial heights, may He create peace for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen. (congregation answers: amen)

A beautiful prayer, for sure. But what does all this praising God have to do with mourning?

I heard two interesting answers to this question. The first one is that when someone dies, they are unable to continue to perpetuate the good and Godliness that they were able to in their lifetime,¬†and when their loved ones say¬†Kaddish, a very holy prayer about the might and glory of God, they “fill in” some of¬†the vacuum of goodness that that person left behind.

We have a concept called¬†ilui neshama, the “raising of a soul”. We believe that we, the people who were affected by the departed, can continue to perpetuate his or her good in the world, by doing good deeds in his or her merit. We believe that this assists the soul in its¬†process of “spiritual cleansing” that occurs in the afterlife. Reciting Kaddish is one very important way to “raise a loved one’s soul”. People also teach or study Torah classes, put together charities, and other things like that in memory of someone for this purpose.

I think there is a very profound idea there about the effect we have on other people and how that effect we have on them, in turn, affects us and our spiritual “health”. The living loved ones can carry on the legacy and positive influence of a soul that has departed.

Another explanation for why the Kaddish is recited under these circumstances,¬†is one that my mother heard from her meditation teacher and rabbi (she calls him her “Meditation Rebbe”), Rabbi James Jacobson-Meisels. He talks about the line, “beyond all blessings and hymns…” The word for “beyond” (or more accurately, “above”) in Aramaic is “l’ayla,” and during the holiest time of the year, the Ten Days of Repentance, we repeat this word during Kaddish: “l’ayla u’l’ayla,” “above and beyond.” Rabbi James teaches that the Kaddish is about God’s vastness and greatness and holiness and kindness, above and beyond anything we can imagine or describe; beyond all blessings and hymns that are spoken… we have no words for the greatness of God and His love. In the context of this greatness, Rabbi James teaches, what is my grief, and what is my sadness? A small blip in the general experience of God’s universe. Maybe, he says, the Kaddish is recited to help give us that perspective.

Sitting Shiva

“Shiva” means “seven”. (Remember Shavuot, shavua, sheva? “Sheva” is the feminine form; “shiv’a” is the masculine form.) This refers to the custom of spending seven days in intense mourning following the burial of a close family member. It is called “sitting” shiva, because part of the custom is to sit on low benches, stools, or the floor (as opposed to chairs or couches), and to stay in the “shiva house”¬†for the duration of the shiva. (Ideally, the shiva should take place in the house of the deceased, and all members of the immediate family should try to stay there for the week; but if this is problematic, the home of one of the mourners is fine, and the other mourners can come sit there most of the day and then go home to sleep.)

Ideally, the mourners should not have to leave the house at any time during the shiva. I’m sure you are familiar with how painful and difficult it is to “put on your public face” and walk out of the house when you are dealing with something very difficult. We don’t want the mourners to have to do this. The community must come together and run their errands for them.¬†Their friends, neighbors and other family members do the shopping, cooking and cleaning for them. (When there is a shiva house in our community, someone sets up a Google Doc excel sheet to schedule meals to bring to the mourner’s home during the week. Almost every time I’ve tried to sign up it was completely full by the time I got to it.) This custom compels the community to embrace and support the mourner.

Other customs for mourners include: covering the mirrors (to symbolize turning inwards and away from physicality), not shaving or cutting hair, refraining from eating meat or drinking wine, refraining from marital relations, not wearing leather shoes, and not washing for pleasure.

Making a Shiva Call

It is not only customary, but a mitzvah, for members of the community to come to the shiva house and pay a visit to comfort the mourners. Nichum aveilim, comforting mourners, is a very important mitzvah in Judaism. It can be a very difficult one, too. A few years ago, the husband of a friend from our community died very suddenly and tragically. He was a young guy in his early thirties, with a successful baking¬†business and three young kids. The enormity of the tragedy was just unfathomable. As a young mother myself, with three young kids, and a husband more or less his age, I was deeply affected by this death, and I knew that if I went to the shiva I would just fall apart. But I knew that I should go anyway. I sat on one of the benches opposite my friend, and just cried and cried. When time came to go, I went over to her, and I was so overcome with sadness I could hardly force out, in a voice so strained it came out a most inelegant squeak, “I have no words. Only tears” before dissolving into sobs again. I felt awful because I was the only one crying at the time, and I feared that my deep sadness just reopened the wounds for everyone there. But the shiva is exactly the time and the place to fall apart, and I hope that my expression of grief at least gave some legitimacy to the inexpressible feelings of others who were there. In any case, my friend, who seemed completely drained of tears at that point, asked me if I remembered when he had brought us food they had cooked us when R2 was born. I told her that I remembered, and kissed her hands, and rose to leave and compose myself.

When visiting a shiva house, there are some important rules about protocol. The most important one is that you must not speak to the mourner unless he or she specifically expresses a desire to speak to you.¬†Someone who is grieving should have the liberty to choose if and when he or she wants to speak, and about what. Often, the conversation at a shiva involves speaking about the person who passed away, telling stories about him or her, passing around pictures and sharing memories. This helps the mourners process the loss. But if they prefer to sit in total silence–they should be able to do that, and still experience the love and support of the community. There are no words to comfort someone who has just experienced a loss.

When leaving a shiva house, it is customary to approach the mourner, and recite the following traditional statement: “May the Omnipresent comfort you among¬†the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” This expresses our sense of family and collective mourning and loss.

When the shiva is over, the comforters who are with the mourners at the time accompany them on their first symbolic walk out of the house. This is the gradual transition back to normal life, and we don’t want the mourners to have to do this alone.

The Shloshim

After the shiva, there is a period of lighter mourning. It is called the “shloshim”, the “thirty”, because it usually lasts thirty days (including the seven days of shiva). They still do not shave or cut their hair during this time, and avoid social events, especially ones during which music is played. The purpose of this is also to ease the mourner out of mourning and back into normal life. It is expected that during this period someone who has experienced a loss will still have periods of intense grief, and the circle of family and friends should be supportive of this.

When mourning for a parent, the period of lighter mourning lasts a year. There are a number of explanations for this, and I think it makes sense that the mourning for the person who gave you life, and your expression of gratitude towards him or her and carrying on his or her legacy, should be more intense and last longer than mourning for another family member. Kaddish is recited through that year.

Annual Remembrances

Every year on the date of the loved one’s death, there is a custom to visit the grave site, light a candle, and recite prayers.

Yehrtzeit candle. More on those in "A Nation of Pyromaniacs"
A memorial¬†candle. More on those in “A Nation of Pyromaniacs”

In Yiddish, this is called the¬†yehrzeit. My grandmother’s first¬†yehrzeit will be on the 11th of Nisan, which will fall on April 19th next year.

There is also a special prayer, called Yizkor¬†(“He will remember”)¬†to commemorate the dead during prayer services on Yom Kippur, Shmini Atzeret, the last day of Passover, and Shavuot. Usually, members of the congregation who don’t have someone to pray for during this prayer leave the synagogue while it is recited. This was the first year that my mom said the prayer, and it was very soon after the loss, so it was pretty tough. But she told me she had a friend there to hold her hand and hug her and get her through it.

*sigh* Heavy stuff. It’s a tough time of year for the Jews. In the next post, I will finally address the significance of the Three Weeks, the Nine Days, and Tisha B’Av.

May we know only joy and good news.