Tag Archives: mitzvot

Family Plans: Contraception, Pregnancy and Judaism

Dear Josep,

When I signed up for my bridal counselor’s course, I remember joking that if nothing else, it would provide material and inspiration for the blog. Well, I was right! It already inspired this one, and now I want to write about a topic we’ve been discussing over the past couple weeks: family planning.

Can Orthodox Jews “plan” families?


In all fairness, can anybody? 😉 The term “family planning” implies that we actually have control over how many kids we have and when. On some level, modern medicine makes this possible–when all goes well. But there are so many things that are out of our control. There’s a woman in my community who had five kids and got an IUD to “close up shop”… and then got pregnant.

With triplets.

True story!

Conversely, I know several people who tried to have a baby for years and went through varying degrees of pain and suffering before finally having one. One woman I know went through years and years of treatments and lost many pregnancies (including two pairs of twins born too early) before finally giving birth to a healthy child.

So before I get into this I just want to put out there that we have so much less control over these things than we think we do, and it’s important to keep that in mind.

Now. Given that you are Catholic and probably know that there are issues with contraception in some religious circles, you may have wondered if we have similar restrictions.

Let’s start from the beginning.

Like, literally the beginning.

And God created man in His image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and rule over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the sky and over all the beasts that tread upon the earth.”

(Genesis 1:27-28)

“Be fruitful and multiply” is considered by traditional Judaism to be the very first mitzvah in the Torah. But like everything in Judaism, we have to work out the specifics! What exactly is the requirement here? Who is obligated? Under what circumstances?

So, according to the Sages, only men are obligated in this mitzvah. That may seem strange, since, I mean, most of the burden of creating new life falls on women as a matter of biology. The Sages explain that pregnancy and childbirth are dangerous, and the Torah does not command us to do something that would endanger our lives. Obviously, however, men cannot fulfill this obligation without women! But this difference has practical implications, as we shall see in a moment.

There is a debate about how many children one is required to have to fulfill the obligation. The generally accepted opinion is at least two–one boy and one girl. Obviously, we have no control over the gender of the child, and we’re only required to do what we can… but yes, technically this means that even a man with ten sons has not fulfilled the obligation!

In general, the attitude in Jewish law is that we should have as many children as we can. The Talmud points out that each child conceived is potentially an immeasurable contribution to humanity, and we never know what potentially great person we may be barring entry to the world by preventing a pregnancy.

Therefore, we are not supposed to use any form of contraception unless it is necessary.

But, obviously, there is a wide range of opinions on exactly what qualifies as a necessity.

On the most stringent end of the scale, you will find rabbis who rule that it is only permitted to use contraception when getting pregnant would endanger a woman’s health. This is why families in the ultra-Orthodox community tend to be so large. There has (thankfully) been increased awareness in the area of mental health in recent years, so even on the most stringent end of the scale, rabbis are recognizing anxiety, depression and the like as health hazards that qualify as reasons to prevent pregnancy.

Some rabbis rule that even without a specific diagnosis of a mental health disorder, the increased anxiety or depression the parents might experience from being overwhelmed is reason enough to use contraception. The couple’s financial situation may factor in on this as well, especially when having another child might compromise the quality of care the other children receive or, again, the mental health of the parents. Education is a factor too: Rabbi Moshe Feinstein famously ruled that young couples who are still studying in college may use contraception until they complete their studies.

On the most lenient end of the scale, some rabbis rule that no special reason is needed for contraception; that it is permitted as long as the couple intends to eventually have children.

Then there comes the question of what kind of contraception can be used. Not all forms are permitted. Firstly, there is a separate mitzvah prohibiting sterilization. So any form of contraception that is permanent, such as tubal ligation or vasectomy, is forbidden. (Though I think the former may be permitted under extreme circumstances. And of course any life-saving operation is permitted even if it may cause infertility.)

Secondly, because of the fact that it is men who are obligated in the mitzvah of having children, halakha is stricter about contraceptives that interfere with the male end of things. “Fortunately,” medicine has traditionally placed the brunt of the burden of childbearing or lack thereof on the woman anyway, so the most common forms of long-term contraception–pills and IUDs–are permitted, as well as other forms of hormonal contraception and spermicides. Barrier methods are more problematic, depending on the type, but some authorities permit the use of the diaphragm or cervical cap. Refraining from relations on the fertile days of the woman’s cycle is theoretically okay, but kind of a bummer for women who keep the laws of family purity, since it adds more days of abstinence to what was already practically half the month. So women who choose to practice fertility awareness (that is, charting their fertile signs) for contraception often end up using some other method during their fertile days.

So… the decision to prevent pregnancy is even more complex for a religious Jewish couple than it is for your average couple. No method is 100% effective; every single one has disadvantages, from minor inconveniences to severe health risks; and besides, we have to balance our cherished value of growing our families and expanding the Jewish people with consideration for our physical, emotional, and financial well-being–while having no way to know for sure how one will affect the other. I know from experience that it’s impossible to predict the effect a pregnancy might have on the family. There’s this generally accepted idea in mainstream society of two years or so being the ideal “spacing,” but it depends on so many things… the kids’ personalities, health issues, sibling dynamics, etc… and none of these things are static.

So it can actually be a really tough decision.

In Orthodox Jewish circles, family planning is considered a very private thing. So it’s seen as rather intrusive to just ask someone outright when they are planning on having kids, how many, when they plan to have the next one, etc. Personally I don’t really mind discussing it with people I trust, but most people can’t really comprehend how complex an issue it can be, and that can be kind of frustrating for me.

As you know, we also have a custom not to tell about a pregnancy in the first three months. In the Chabad community, the norm is to wait five months. But as I told you once, my attitude about this custom has shifted a lot over the years. The reason for the custom is that most miscarriages occur in the first three months, so there’s superstition around it. But there is also a practical explanation: if something happens to the pregnancy you don’t want to have to explain to people about it.

Personally? I found the secrecy in the first trimesters of my pregnancies to be a special kind of torture. Here I had this wonderful news that I couldn’t share with people, but also I was feeling horrible physically and couldn’t explain to anyone why or get the support I desperately needed. Even if I don’t believe in superstitions, it’s a societal norm, and I was concerned that people would feel weird about my telling them I was pregnant before 12 weeks or so.

But when I was 10 weeks pregnant with R2, a misunderstanding led to a rumor in my extended family that I was pregnant. (My parents and siblings already knew.) It was such an awful feeling that I had no control over this information; it was as if I had failed to keep a secret I didn’t even want to keep in the first place.

To top it off, I have two friends who told me about their pregnancies early on and then had miscarriages; if they hadn’t told me, I wouldn’t have been able to support them through it.

So in light of my experiences, I don’t think much of this custom and believe that parents should share their news whenever they darned well feel like it.

Now, as you know, ultrasound has made it possible to find out the sex of the baby fairly early on in the pregnancy. I think as a kind of holdover from the norms about maintaining the air of mystery around pregnancy, in the religious community it is far more common than in the secular world for parents to choose not to find out the sex of the baby. But more often, in the religious community parents will often find out the sex of the baby–and then not tell anyone what it is until the baby is born. Personally, I can’t really comprehend the point of this. If you are telling people you’re having a baby, why should you care whether they know what sex it is, especially when you, yourself, know?! On the contrary–let them know so they can plan for a circumcision ceremony if necessary, and/or buy you gender-appropriate gifts ahead of time!

People are weird.

So that’s all for this topic for now. Stay tuned, because in a future post I’ll be tackling a related, but more controversial issue: the Jewish attitude towards abortion. 😉



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”

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!



Counting Up: The Omer and Lag B’Omer

Dear Josep,

This part of the year is chock full of notable events on the Jewish calendar. The next one coming up is Lag B’Omer, which is pretty much the most obscure holiday we have. But before we get into that, let’s back up a minute and talk about the Omer.

What is the Omer? Well, the word itself refers to a certain offering that was brought to the Temple at this time of year (omer ha’tenufah, “the sheaf of waving”). But it also lent its name to something we call “the counting of the Omer” (sefirat ha’omer).

Remember how we mentioned that the Exodus was basically the birthday of the nation of Israel? Sometimes it is also compared to the “betrothal” between God and the Israelites. The betrothal, or engagement, is an initial commitment that takes place before the eternal commitment of a marriage, right? So if the Exodus was the “betrothal”, the giving of the Torah–the seal of the eternal bond between us and God–is the “wedding”.

When a bride and groom are looking forward to their wedding, they often count the days left until the big day. That’s exactly what counting the Omer is–only when we count the Omer, we count up, instead of down.

“And you shall count from the day after the day of rest, from they day that you bring the omer ha’tenufa, seven complete weeks. Until the day after the seventh week, you shall count fifty days”  — Leviticus 23:15-16

It just so happens that I got married on the 47th day of the Omer–the 3rd of Sivan, 3 days before Shavuot. So that year that feeling of counting up in anticipation was very tangible for me! (Not to mention that one of my sons was born on the 49th day and another on the 48th three years later. A lot to count up to each year! 😉 )

The “day of rest” referred to in the above passage is the first day of Passover. So we begin the night after. Since this is a mitzvah, we make a blessing first, and then count the first day: “Today is one day of the Omer.” “Today is two days of the Omer,” etc. Note that the passage says to count both seven weeks, and fifty days; so we mention both when we count. For instance, today is day 25, so last night the formula went as follows: “Today is twenty and five days, that are three weeks and four days of the Omer.”

So why are we counting up instead of down?

Good question. 😛

According to the Kabbalah, there 10 ways that God expresses Himself in the universe. These attributes or emanations are called sefirot. Does that word sound familiar? 😉 They are, from highest to lowest: Keter/Da’at (crown/knowledge), Binah (understanding), Chokhma (wisdom), Chesed (lovingkindness), Gevurah (might, discipline), Tiferet (beauty, glory), Netzach (eternity or mastery), Hod (splendor), Yesod (foundation), and Malkhut (sovereignty). These sefirot are arranged in a certain order, from the lowest and most material, to the highest and most spiritual. The lower seven are the ones that are expressed in our world.

The "sefirot" tree according to the Kabbalah. If you think this is complicated, you ain't seen nothin'.
The “sefirot” tree according to the Kabbalah. This one has eleven because it separates “keter” and “da’at” which are usually thought of as one. If you think this is complicated, you ain’t seen nothin’.

This is not the time or place to expound upon each one of these attributes, how they are expressed in the world and how we can recognize God through them. Kabbalah is a whole world unto itself and I don’t know much about it.

Anyway, each day of the Omer is associated with a different combination of sefirot. The first week is Chesed, lovingkindness, so the first day is “the chesed within the chesed“, the second day is “the gevurah (might/discipline) within the chesed“, etc.

The point of this is that it is an opportunity to examine the way each of these attributes is expressed through us. So for instance, today is “the netzach within the netzach“. Netzach can be interpreted as “eternity”, or “mastery”, or “endurance”. So on this day we can think about our endurance, our consistency, our fortitude, and try to improve these qualities within ourselves.

So let’s return to the question: why are we counting up? Because the idea is that with each day that passes from Passover to Shavuot, from the Exodus to the Revelation at Sinai, we rise up a spiritual level. Today, we are on “level twenty-five”–halfway there! Tomorrow, we will be on “level twenty-six”. When we reach “level fifty”, we will be ready to re-accept the Torah. Using the “chart” of the sefirot is one way that we can help ourselves ascend the spiritual ladder that is the Omer.

Now. All this is very exciting and you’d think that this would be a joyous time of year. Right?


Around the time of the destruction of the Second Temple, there was a rabbi called Rabbi Akiva. He is mentioned often in the Talmud as one of the greatest and most influential teachers of his time. He had thousands of students. And at one time, there was a terrible plague that killed of 24,000 of his students during the first 33 days of the Omer. The Gemara states that this plague was wrought upon the students “because they did not honor one another”. For this reason, during the first 33 days of the Omer, it is customary to be in a sort of symbolic public state of mourning. We don’t cut our hair, don’t shave beards, don’t buy new clothing and don’t have weddings.

Now… one might ask, why all the fuss and bother over a bunch of students who died two thousand years ago? Haven’t there been worse disasters in our history that might be more deserving of public displays of mourning? Heck, if we commemorated every major disaster in our history we’d be in mourning every single day of the year.

Well, it’s a good question. And you know how we Jews sometimes like a good question better than we like a good answer? 😉 The answer is not very neat and easy to explain. People can take it in all kinds of different directions. One article I read went through the historical details of exactly what happened with the hypothesis that these students had the potential to reverse the destruction of the Temple and bring on the era of the Messiah, but that because they didn’t honor one another, they failed to do so and created an extremely unfortunate turning point in our history. This is the best explanation I have heard, and it’s worth taking a look at the article; lengthy, but worth it. 😉

So what is Lag B’Omer then? “Lag” is simply the number 33. Hebrew letters are also used as numerals, so 33 is ל”ג, which, sounded out, says “lag”. The 33rd day commemorates three things:

1) The end of the aforementioned plague;

2) The death of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, to whom the Zohar (the book of the Kabbalah) is traditionally attributed, so it’s a big day for Kabbalists;

3) The rebellion of Bar Kochva against the Romans (after the destruction of the Second Temple) began that day. (The rebellion eventually failed, but… the same way we feel pride about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which also eventually failed, we also feel pride about Bar Kochva’s uprising.) To communicate the beginning of the rebellion, Bar Kochva’s men lit bonfires to be seen by their colleagues…

And that is why Lag B’Omer is the most polluted day of the year in Israel.

Firing up Lag B'Omer in Tel Aviv. צילום: אורן פלס [CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons
Firing up Lag B’Omer in Tel Aviv. These people are serious.
צילום: אורן פלס [CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons
Because it has become a custom to light bonfires in honor of Bar Kochva that night. Now, Israelis love bonfires. It’s a big part of traditional kibbutz culture, and fits right in with the general Israeli love of being outside. (And didn’t I mention that Jews have a thing for fire? 😛 ) So this custom is a big hit even among totally secular Israelis.

Lag B’Omer is next week, so all the kids are hard at work collecting bonfire wood, hoarding it, and guarding it ferociously from other kids. When I was an older kid/young teen, I enjoyed going to bonfires with my friends, roasting meat and marshmallows in the flames and staying up late hanging around the fire.

But then I grew up, got sick of dealing with all the smoke, and became a curmudgeon along with my asthmatic husband 😛 so this is the only night of the year we keep all our windows closed and the air conditioner on all night. :-/



Tweet No Evil: The Power of Speech in the Age of Social Media

Dear Josep,

I recently saw a TED talk by Monica Lewinsky–yes, that Monica Lewinsky1–that I found really important and inspiring. She talks about cyberbullying and the “culture of humiliation”, and how the global response to the scandal in which she was involved made her the sort of “patient zero” of this phenomenon. What I find inspiring is her courage in forgiving herself for a mistake that was rubbed in the entire world’s face, reclaiming her narrative, and then going on to speak up for the victims of similar shaming campaigns and try to turn the world into a more compassionate and forgiving place. It’s a worthwhile 20 minutes:

Why am I talking about Monica Lewinsky and cyberbullying on a blog about Judaism?

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’at devarim, speech that is directly harmful or abusive to the person to whom you are speaking; hotza’at shem ra, libeling; and the most well-known, lashon hara, gossiping or speaking negatively about people behind their backs.

Much as these things seem self-evident as part of being a decent person, it is actually very hard. We have a drive to speak negatively about others, for a whole variety of reasons, and especially that last one–speaking about people behind their backs. It can be hard to draw the line between negative speech that is necessary and negative speech that just feels good. For example, if someone has wronged you and you feel hurt, it’s okay to talk about it with someone you trust if you need to get it off your chest and get some support, but it’s not okay to go on and tell everyone you know just for the sake of feeling self-righteous. Because these boundaries are a little blurry, it is an often misunderstood and even maligned mitzvah, especially compared to “big” mitzvot like keeping kosher and Shabbat.  As a kid, I remember it being used against me by other kids as an attempt to shut me down, and not always in a justified context. Unfortunately, even in ultra-Orthodox communities, this mitzvah can be under-practiced and under-appreciated… and also sometimes misused to excuse covering up cases where speaking up is the proper thing to do, such as cases of abuse. Especially in communities that are so careful about things like women’s modesty and holding to the highest standard of kashrut, it is tragic when shmirat halashon is not properly observed. The effects of misusing speech are devastating.

Speak no evil, hear no evil. Image is cropped from this image by japanexperterna.se.
Speak no evil, hear no evil.
Image is cropped from this image by japanexperterna.se.

King Solomon writes in Proverbs: “Life and death are in the power of the tongue”. In the Talmud, the Sages say, “One who embarrasses his fellow in public–it is as though he has spilled blood.” Speech is what elevates humans above animals. It is what allows us to share our ideas, building off of each other to create, develop and advance in science, technology and philosophy. It is what allows us to share our emotions and thoughts, making it possible to build relationships, improve ourselves and others, support others, and heal each other. Words change the way people think, the way they feel, the way they see the world. Speech is a gift that has immense power. And like everything that has immense power, that power can be very constructive… and also very destructive. And in this day and age, when we are so connected and our words and images can be spread globally in the blink of an eye, we have to be especially careful about what we say. We often have no idea what effect our words could have.

The mitzvah of shmirat halashon is not only to avoid speaking negatively, but also to avoid listening to negative speech. Listening to and internalizing speech is what gives it its power, even if we don’t actively spread the negativity. Simply allowing it into our minds and souls contributes to its damage. Simply hearing something negative about another person will change the way you think about him or her, even if you’re not sure you believe what you heard.

I think that at a deeper level, the problem of negative speech stems from difficulty with another concept that is not a mitzvah but a middah (positive character trait/ethic) that we are encouraged to develop: judging others favorably (dan l’kaf zchut). Judging people favorably does not mean excusing their behavior or turning a blind eye to their negative traits. It means giving the benefit of the doubt and assuming the best–because there is always so much we don’t know about the situation or the person–and focusing on the good aspects of that person or group.

When we truly judge everyone favorably, there is simply nothing negative to say.

I’ll give you an example that I found especially distressing. A couple years ago, there were a number of cases of parents accidentally leaving their babies or young children in a hot car, that ended in tragedy. Facebook was full of awful comments, blaming the parents, calling for severe punishment of these “criminals”. This really upset me, because in most cases like these, the parents are actually completely responsible and loving parents who had one fateful moment of absentmindedness with terrible consequences. Here is an excellent article on the topic, which I think anyone who has an opinion on this should read; but I warn you, it is an emotionally difficult read, especially as a parent.

We all make mistakes. I cannot imagine the agony those parents must have been experiencing. As a parent, my heart clenches and I get sick to my stomach just thinking about it. They need support in their grief and guilt, not people making nasty comments, rubbing their mistake in their faces, and calling for punishment. When I tried pointing out to people that these parents deserved our support and empathy and not our criticism, the responses were… not encouraging. I wrote the following in my journal:

It scares and saddens me that I live in a world where people’s automatic defense mechanism in these cases is to be cruel, angry, and to punish, rather than to be kind, compassionate, and try to help. It makes me wonder about our justice system, where our response to wrongdoing is so focused on punishment instead of reeducation and rehabilitation.

And it angers me that when I show compassion for parents like these, I get responses like “Stop your crocodile tears, you probably agree with those teenagers who think the Boston Marathon bomber was ‘too pretty to have committed a crime’. Your false compassion cheapens the life of a child who died a horrific death.”

Because making a tragic mistake as a parent is apparently morally equivalent to committing premeditated murder out of senseless hatred. And apparently, it is impossible to have compassion both for the parent and for the child.

I just haven’t been able to stop thinking–and occasionally crying–about this.

Social media intensifies the phenomenon of negative speech and magnifies its ugliness. And I don’t just mean the kind of high-profile “shaming campaigns” and cyberbullying Ms. Lewinsky is talking about. Every time we share an article, a status, or a spoken remark that ridicules someone, every time we make a disparaging comment or use disrespectful or extreme language to describe an individual or a group (excluding, of course, individuals or groups that have proven themselves unequivocally to deserve those descriptions), we are using the gift of speech for harm.

The Torah calls on us to use our speech to build, rather than destroy. To use it, as Ms. Lewinsky urges, to cultivate a culture of empathy and compassion instead of a culture of humiliation, criticism and punishment. Not only to speak constructively, but also to close our ears to negative speech, and drown it out with kind and encouraging voices.

I try to be careful about how I speak and write, and I try to think ten times before saying or writing anything that is harsh or critical. But every once in a while I will hurt someone with my words. I think the blessing-and-curse of being highly sensitive and empathetic makes it easier for me to be aware of the effect words have on others, and that also makes this issue particularly important to me. But I am no saint and I struggle with avoiding negative speech just like the next person. It’s not an easy trait to cultivate, but I think it is of far greater importance than most people realize.



1. If you were not old enough to be politically aware, or were otherwise living under a rock, during 1998, here you go.

Blog readers: Do you remember when someone’s speech, positive or negative, had a deep and lasting impact on you? Please tell us about it in the comments. (And as per the halakhot of shmirat halashon, if your story casts someone in a negative light, please avoid details that reveal that person’s identity to someone who might know him or her.)

Also: if you are interested in learning more about this topic, cultivating constructive speech and avoiding destructive speech, I have a friend who runs this daily e-mail service, “Protect Our Speech”, that sends one short e-mail lesson per day about shmirat halashon. You can subscribe by sending an e-mail to protectourspeech-subscribe@yahoogroups.com. You can also find the lessons on Facebook under the “Protect Our Speech” community.

Circumcision. Wait! Don’t Run Away Screaming!

Dear Josep,

This Sunday we attended a circumcision ceremony for our friends’ firstborn son, and it reminded me that this was one of the topics we originally agreed on discussing last year. You said we should save it for last among those topics, because it is “delicate”, and I will stick to my promise of no gory details 😛 I have a fairly funny memory of when you first brought it up eight years ago, in the context of what is required for a conversion. I was like “…Do I seriously have to talk to this 24-year-old male Christian about circumcision?! How did I get my 19-year-old religious Jewish female self into this?!” Well, eight years, a husband, and three sons later, I am well over being shy about it 😛

These days, circumcision has become one of those hotly debated early-parenting topics, alongside breastfeeding, birth choices, and vaccines. As I tentatively learned more about this debate, I understood that people circumcise their sons for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with religion–health-related, social, or aesthetic. There was a period in history in which all boys were circumcised in the USA as a matter of public health policy. The health benefits, at least according to the current recommendations by the American Academy of Pediatrics, outweigh the risks of the procedure, but not by enough to recommend that it be done universally. Obviously, it is extremely daunting to imagine carrying out an irreversible surgical procedure on your son, even more so on his most sensitive parts, and many parents feel that it is cruel to do this without the child’s consent. I totally hear that argument and it very well may be that if I weren’t Jewish and didn’t believe God required it, I might not have done it myself. On the other hand, it is a fairly simple procedure when the child is a baby that becomes more complicated and difficult when he is older, so it’s more complex than just waiting to let him decide. The debate taps into all kinds of deeper issues, like what it means to be responsible for your children vs. respecting their autonomy, what it means to protect your children from harm, etc. Fascinating topic, but we’re not going to get any further into it than that here.

Because the fact is that I feel kind of outside of the debate. I circumcise my sons for one reason and one alone, that has no logical basis and therefore is basically non-debatable: “God said so.” Genesis 17:10: “This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your seed after you: every male among you shall be circumcised.” (I mean, you can argue about the divine origin of the Torah, and whether God exists and all that, but that’s a whole different conversation!)

Circumcision is one of those mitzvot that I feel test me and my commitment to Torah the most. It is really hard to stand there while someone intentionally hurts your tiny eight-day-old son, and listen to him cry in pain, and you can’t do anything to comfort him. Of course, as the mother of a child who underwent 3 surgeries in his first 4 months of life and several more since, I have become a lot tougher about things like this. Sometimes you have to let someone hurt your child for his overall well-being. I believe circumcision is essential for his spiritual well-being, so I grit my teeth and get it done.

As I wrote about that awful Shabbat last year without power, “Some mitzvot (commandments) are very hard to follow. Ultimately, our willingness to stay committed despite how difficult it is can bring us closer to Him, and Him closer to us. It is an eternal sign between us. Most times, it is a bed of petals. Occasionally, it is a bed of thorns. Ultimately, it is all roses.” (Incidentally, yet another snowstorm is being predicted this weekend, and we are braving staying at home… wish us luck :-/ )

Why would God ask us to do something like this? Well, circumcision is like kashrut in that it’s a chok, the type of mitzvah without a logical explanation or given reason. So the answer is that we don’t know. Some sages teach that making a permanent physical mark on a part of the body that embodies our most base desires, is a symbolic expression and reminder to “master” those desires. The Maharal of Prague (Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel) teaches an idea that I really connect to:

In Genesis 1:26, God says, “Let us make man in our image”. There are many commentaries trying to explain why God used the plural in this statement. My favorite explanation is that God created us incomplete; the completion of our own creation is in our own hands. That is, He is inviting us to become a partner in our own creation. By making good choices and striving to be better and to seek Him, we complete ourselves. The Maharal explains that circumcision is a physical manifestation of this idea.

So what about women then, I hear you ask?

What, childbirth isn’t enough?! 😛

No but seriously, the Maharal says that women are created more whole spiritually and therefore do not need this physical completion.

On to the practicalities. What does a circumcision ceremony look like? (Wait!!! Don’t run away! I will stick to my promise of no gory details! 😛 I’m not going to describe the procedure itself, I’m going to describe the ceremony around it.) (Okay? Are you breathing? Good. 😛 )

The circumcision is performed on the eighth day of the baby’s life, barring any medical reasons to postpone it. In essence, the ceremony involves welcoming the baby to the Jewish people. So it begins with the congregation saying the words: “Barukh haba”; “Welcome”. Though the obligation for circumcising one’s son is on the baby’s father, the procedure is usually carried out by a man called a mohel. There are mohels who are also doctors, but for the most part these are guys who have trained specifically to do circumcisions. I have heard that even gentiles sometimes prefer to have a mohel perform it because they are more experienced and well-trained in this particular procedure than most pediatricians. The mohel is also sort of the “master of ceremonies” and leads the congregation through the ceremony.

So the father brings the baby into the room–usually on a decorative pillow.

“This is comfy, but why are you holding that knife?”
By Zivya (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Some verses are recited responsively by the father and the congregation, and eventually the baby is placed on someone’s lap, who is seated on the “Chair of Elijah”. (This is usually a grandfather, uncle, or other loved one, who the parents wish to honor with this role. There are lots of symbolic “honor roles” in the ceremony–who gets to pass the baby between the mother and the father, who gets to recite which blessing, etc.) The mohel performs the procedure–making a blessing beforehand, because it’s a mitzvah–and then someone else reads a prayer blessing the baby and the parents, and announcing the baby’s name. You see, it is customary to wait until the brit to call the baby by his name, because he is not considered a part of the community until he has been circumcised. There is an idea that the parents have “divine inspiration” when they select the name for their children that borders on prophecy. We believe names have deep significance and affect the child’s destiny. As you know, we put a lot of thought into our sons’ names. Usually, by this time, the baby is already calm. After the blessings have been recited, the baby is handed back to the mother. A festive meal follows. (…Of course. Because no Jewish event is complete without food!) In Ashkenazi communities, it is customary to serve bagels, because they are round, symbolizing the life cycle.

….Don’t think too hard about the symbolism. Moving right along. 😛

The Sephardi/Mizrahi circumcisions I’ve attended involved a full-out feast with plenty of meat. In one I attended last year, the son of a couple of friends of North African descent, there were large platters of sweets and candies going around, and lots of songs I didn’t recognize. But there was the same spirit of joy, lots of singing and clapping and dancing. It’s really a joyful event, of welcoming a new baby into the community, and celebrating the new parents and/or big siblings.

So what about girls, I hear you ask? How are girls welcomed into the Jewish community?

Well, yes, there’s much less pomp and circumstance around it. A female baby’s name is usually announced during a Torah reading in the middle of a prayer service–on Monday, Thursday, or Shabbat. (I was born on a Monday before dawn, and my mother says my father went straight to prayer service and announced my name right then.) It is customary to hold a simchat bat, a “celebration for a girl”, which is basically just a party. Some people make it more like a brit by reciting verses and waiting to announce the name on that day. I attended a really beautiful simchat bat like that once. But it’s not really required by halakha, so people often put it off until the baby is a few months old, or indefinitely 😛 Speaking of putting off religious ceremonies for babies, I am waiting to hear about your traditions around baptism. 😉

See? That wasn’t so bad! 😛




Blog readers: Tell us about how babies are welcomed into your communities!

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.)

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

Note: this is the 2nd post in a 3-part series on kashrut. Click here for Part I, and here for Part III!

Dear Josep,

Welcome to Part II of the Great Jew Food Tirade! (Here is Part I in case you missed it.)

In this part we’re going to talk about plants.

Now, if you can recall what my plate looked like while you and the rest of the press team were happily devouring your “pimp salmon” 😛 you will remember that fruits and vegetables, as a general rule, are just fine within the laws of kashrut. So why am I writing an entire section on them? Well…

Mitzvot HaTluyot Ba’Aretz (Commandments Connected to the Land of Israel)

Observant Jews indeed wander freely through the produce aisles of supermarkets in the USA and Europe. Ironically, it is actually in the land of Israel that we have to be more careful. Because while there is no problem inherent to any plant, when the land is owned by a Jew and is located in Israel, there are a number of commandments that apply that must be observed for the plants to be okay to eat. These are the mitzvot hatluyot ba’aretz, which I mentioned briefly in the entries about shmita (which is one of them) and the Jewish New Years (because Tu B’Shvat is used to calculate “fiscal years” for these commandments).

I am not going to elaborate on what all these commandments are, because there are a lot of them and the details will probably bore you. But they basically split into two categories: mitzvot that involve giving to the poor (such as leaving fallen grapes or stalks for them to collect, leaving a section at the corner of the field unharvested for them to harvest, etc.), and mitzvot that are connected to the Temple service (such as bikkurim, bringing the first fruits to the Cohanim at the temple; terumah and ma’aser (tithing); challah (which is probably where the name of the Shabbat bread came from), separating a portion of the bread dough for the Cohanim) or other issues of sanctity (such as the prohibition against crossbreeding plants or eating fruits from a tree in the first three years after it is planted).

Now, the ones connected to the Temple are no longer relevant; some of them are observed sort of symbolically (like terumahma’aser and challah), but they still must be observed for the produce to be considered kosher.

For fields owned by non-Jews or located outside of Israel, these commandments are not relevant.

However, there are other problems associated with products produced in non-Jewish settings…


So, for instance, you have known for a long time that there is such a thing as kosher wine, by which one would logically (and in this case, correctly) deduce that there is such a thing as non-kosher wine. But think about this for a minute. We’re talking about 100% pure crushed grapes, fermented in barrels that hold nothing else. Grapes are inherently kosher, and given that the mitzvot hatluyot ba’aretz are not in the picture, what could possibly be non-kosher about wine?

According to the Talmud, there are a number of things that must be avoided under the general prohibition of idolatry. One of them is drinking wine that used for some kind of ceremonial practice by idolaters.

Buuut, I hear you say, that would explain why you couldn’t drink wine made in, say, India. But what about wine made by Christians or Muslims, who are, for the most part, not considered idolaters? (“For the most part” because the concept of the Trinity makes us go :-/ . But the sages who actually lived among Christians did not consider it idolatry. That’s a topic for another e-mail. 😛 We have no such debate regarding Islam.)

So, the sages extended the prohibition to include all non-Jews and non-observant Jews, pretty much because you don’t really have any way to know what their beliefs about the wine are, and because of the severity of idolatry, we need to be extra, extra careful about this. Idolatry is one of the only three commandments that we are not allowed to transgress even if it means our only other option is to die. The other two are murder and sexual immorality.

Digging through my archives, I discovered that you actually provided another answer to this question when we first discussed this issue many years ago. I told you that our editor-in-chief in Spain had asked why we still observe this law about wine if there is no longer idolatry in the Western world. You said: “I disagree with [her] about the idolatry thing. Maybe we don’t have idols like in the old times, but there’s still a lot of idolatry with things like the TV, supermodels or superstars, money, fame, sex… And it’s caused by the same basic principle: the emptiness of the soul. When you’re full of God, you don’t need anything more. So you don’t have to put the TV at the center of the house, or the sex in the center of your life. The old people put other gods instead of Him in the center of their lives because they had empty souls. That’s what I think.”

Well, I’m definitely not arguing with that. 😉

In any case, not so very long ago, you couldn’t get really good kosher wines. (Ever heard of Manischewitz? If not, good.) Today, though, there are some really great wineries in Israel and abroad that produce a wide selection of good kosher wine. Like, for instance, the one you bought us last time you were here, which we finally opened a couple days ago. (And is, by the way, delicious. Thank you. 😉 )

L'chaim. (Thanks for this, BTW. It's delicious. :) )

Baking and Cooking by Gentiles

Another issue that comes up here is bread that is baked or food that is cooked by a gentile. This is a rabbinic restriction based on the idea that it is difficult to trust someone who does not keep kashrut himself or see any importance in it, to be careful enough about it when cooking for you.

There are ways around this. According to Ashkenazi custom, it is enough for a Jew to light the fire for the food to not be considered bishul nochri (food cooked by a non-Jew). That’s how kosher restaurants are able to employ non-Jews in the kitchen.

Another restriction I should mention here, even though it concerns an animal product, is chalav nochri. The Sages ruled that we may not consume milk produced by non-Jews (…that is, their cattle…) out of concern that milks of other, non-kosher animals might be mixed in. The famous American rabbi Moshe Feinstein ruled that this is no longer a concern in places of modern industry where there is strict regulation and supervision, and you can be certain that what you’re getting is cow’s milk. (This is actually not true in all Western countries, by the way… including Spain. I was told that I couldn’t rely on this ruling regarding even plain milk in Spain.) Most Americans hold by this ruling, but many Israelis don’t, because of the wide availability of chalav yisrael (milk produced by Jews) in Israel. The Rabbinate of Israel holds that derivatives of chalav nochri (a.k.a. avkat chalav nochri), such as powdered milk, are okay, but not straight milk. So there was a big scandal in recent years about the Rabbinate removing Haagen Dasz ice cream from the shelves, even though it is certified kosher by the Orthodox Union in the USA, because of this difference in halakhic observation. (Ben & Jerry’s, the other really good foreign, kosher brand, has its own factory here that uses chalav yisrael, so we can still buy decent ice cream. Fortunately, Eitan and I are American and hold by Rabbi Feinstein, so we can eat Haagen Dasz too. 😀 )


In all of the above, beside the practicalities of trusting non-Jews with kashrut… I also see an agenda on the part of the sages to make it more difficult for Jews to get socially intimate with non-Jews. Jews not being able to eat at non-Jews’ tables makes it harder for them to develop the kinds of relationships that could lead to conversion, intermarriage, and assimilation. That may not be so politically correct, but assimilation is the biggest threat to Jewish continuity in the modern era, and… well, this is a topic for a different e-mail. 😛

Little Friends

So the last issue to do with eating fruits, vegetables, and grains, is the fact that we are not allowed to eat bugs (see part I), and therefore they must be thoroughly checked to assure that no creepy crawlies have found their way into our food.

Now, someone who has peeked ahead and knows the 1/60th rule that I will explain in the next entry, might ask: unless we’re talking about the kind of bug that would make any housewife run screaming, we’re talking about tiny, almost microscopic creatures, that are certainly less than 1/60th the volume of the food.

I refuse to post a picture of a bug. Have a puppy instead.
Photo credit: Andrea Schaffer under CC BY 2.0

So why aren’t they batel (“nullified”)?

Because they are a briya shleima, a “whole creature”. Meaning, that because it’s the bug’s whole body, it cannot be nullified.

But then how do we ever eat anything?! What about microscopic bugs?!

So this rule only applies to bugs that can be seen by the naked eye. If you need a magnifying glass, let alone a microscope, to see it–it doesn’t count.

Still, you can imagine, checking for bugs can be incredibly labor intensive and frustrating. For some kinds of fruits and veggies it’s no big deal–fruits, including fruits that are generally thought of as vegetables (like cucumbers and tomatoes), only require a once-over to make sure they don’t have wormholes or something like that. By contrast, leafy green vegetables must be pulled apart, soaked in water with soap or salt or vinegar, and then examined–leaf. by. leaf. (I should mention that there are different standards, and some are more lenient–allowing to check a representative sample, for instance, but checking each leaf individually is the mainstream view.)

One way of getting around this problem is growing the plants in special conditions where bugs are extremely unlikely to come in contact with the vegetables. In Israel, Gush Katif vegetables are grown hydroponically, meaning in that they are grown in greenhouses, detached from the soil:

Photo credit: Ryan Somma under CC BY-SA 2.0
Photo credit: Ryan Somma under CC BY-SA 2.0

The environment is carefully controlled to assure that no bugs will get in. In this case, we are permitted to eat the produce without checking for bugs (but most authorities still require a thorough soaking and rinsing before use). There is also an opinion that frozen vegetables are not a problem because any bugs that may be in there will explode in the freezing process (…) and therefore are no longer “whole creatures”. This is not exactly reassuring, but our bug-free standards are way more OCD higher than pretty much anyone else’s, and you have to draw the line somewhere…

So that concludes Part II! Stay tuned for the third and final installment. 😉



Missed Part I? No problem! Click here to read Jew Food, Part I: Vegetarians, Avert Your Eyes.

Jew Food, Part I: Vegetarians, Avert Your Eyes

Note: this is the first installment of a 3-part series on kashrut. For Part II, click here; for Part III, click here.

Dear Josep,

One of the very first topics we discussed to do with Judaism was kashrut. A little reminder, pulled from the post about how we met:

At lunch that day, while I picked at my sliced cucumbers, he asked me, “What if we went to my house and I bought kosher ingredients and cooked for you?”

I looked over at this person who had literally just offered to bring home a random girl from another country, whom he had known for a grand total of 72 hours, and cook her a meal. I shook my head. “No… all the pots and pans would have to be kosher…”

“What if I bought a new pan?”

He couldn’t be serious.

“That’s very nice of you to offer… but it’s not just the pans… it’s all the utensils and the oven and everything…”

“Is there a way to make them kosher?” he insisted.

I smiled ironically. “Uh… yeah…. but trust me, that’s not going to happen.”

“Why not? What would I need to do?”

“Just trust me. You don’t wanna know.”

“Tell me. I want to know.”

I eyed him skeptically, eyebrows raised. “You really want to know?”


I shrugged. “Okay… you asked.” Thereupon I launched into a long, rambling explanation of how one kashers a kitchen, which for the uninformed among you, is a long, painstaking, arduous process that involves a lot of scrubbing, boiling water, and otherwise heat-treating everything. The goal of this tirade was to illustrate just how crazy an idea this was, and I assumed that after a few sentences his eyes would glaze over in boredom and that would be that. As predicted, everyone else who had been listening quickly lost interest and began chatting among themselves as I rambled on. But when I glanced at him somewhere in the middle of expounding upon mugs and soapy water in the microwave, he was still watching me as though I was giving him a thrilling play-by-play of the latest Barcelona vs. Madrid soccer game. I skidded to a stop and exclaimed, “Why are you even still listening to me?”

For reasons I can still not fathom, you are still listening to me, and I think it is high time I gave you a proper explanation of this whole crazy business called kashrut. Or, in the immortal words of the guy at the supermarket in Barcelona upon being asked where the kosher section was: “Jew food.”

This is such a broad topic we are not going to cover it in one entry. We’re going to start with a general overview and then get into detail about animal products. In Part II, we’ll talk about the various issues involving fruits, veggies, and grains, and in Part III we will talk about the nitty-gritty details, like how to make vessels or dishes that were kosher, non-kosher, and vice versa, as a somewhat more organized recap of that rambling speech I gave you eight years ago. 😉


What Is Kashrut?

Kashrut is the observance of the dietary laws of Judaism. The adjective is “kosher”, and these words come from the Hebrew root כ.ש.ר, k.sh.r., meaning “proper”, “fit”, “appropriate”. “Non-kosher” is also known in Yiddish as treif, from the word treifa in Hebrew, which means “carrion”.

The rules of kashrut are derived from the Torah, and it is one of the very basic commandments that–along with Shabbat observance–draws the line between observant Jews and non-observant Jews.

There is no reason given in the Torah for why these laws must be observed. Many sages have tried to explain it in various ways, but ultimately, this is what we call a chok–the type of commandment that has no known reason. In other words, a “Because I Said So” commandment. 😉 We observe it out of loyalty to God and the belief that there is Divine reason behind it, even if we humans don’t or can’t comprehend it.

For a practice with no obvious explanation, it is fairly remarkable how strongly kashrut has held within the Jewish community. Many people who don’t consider themselves religious make some effort towards kashrut, such as avoiding pork and shellfish. As you know, many of the practices that survived in families of crypto-Jews were practices to do with kashrut–checking eggs for blood, separating milk and meat, separating the fat from the meat, etc. This is testimony to the deep importance and significance of this mitzvah.

At its very basic, kashrut involves:

1) Only eating meat, milk, or eggs produced by animals that are designated as kosher, and then, only if they are slaughtered in a certain way;

2) Not eating forbidden parts of animals (namely: blood, certain parts of fat, the sciatic nerve, and a severed limb from a live animal);

3) Complete separation of dairy products and meat products;

4) Eating only produce that has been grown and harvested in accordance with the agricultural laws (if the land is in Israel and owned by a Jew. Otherwise those laws don’t apply), the laws regarding tithing (separating portions to give to the poor, and in the days of the Temple, to the Cohanim and the Levites) and properly checked for insects (as per item #1);

5) Other “fences” put in place by the rabbis to prevent various issues or commemorate practices which are no longer practiced without the Temple, which we will get into as they come up.

This may sound simple enough, but if you are really committed to keeping these laws to the letter, some difficult questions are going to come up. For example: how do we eat meat but not the blood, especially in an organ such as the liver, which is completely saturated with blood? Is it okay to eat a piece of kosher meat that was cooked together with a piece of non-kosher meat? How many measures must we take to make sure our food is bug-free before resigning ourselves to the fact that we aren’t going to catch everything? What counts as “meat” anyway in terms of separating from dairy? Does poultry count? What about fish?

And this, my friend, is why a huge chunk of rabbinic literature is devoted to answering these questions and setting down the principles on which to answer further questions. And this is also why we need rabbis. Rabbis are basically experts in Jewish law. Because you can’t expect your average Joe (-seph?) to know all the details of these laws, you have these experts in every community who have studied the laws thoroughly and can answer questions that arise on a day to day basis. That is the main function of the observant rabbi.

So, let’s get to it:

Which Animals Are Kosher?


Most people know that Jews can’t eat pork. Pigs are one of the animals listed explicitly in the Torah as not being kosher. But the pig is actually the last in a list of four animals that are mentioned explicitly: the camel, the rock-badger (also called the hyrax), and the hare. All other mammals are ruled out by exemption.

Kosher mammals must meet these two criteria: 1) They must have split hooves:

Clockwise starting at upper left: goat hooves (kosher), horse hooves (not kosher), cattle hooves (kosher), pig hooves (split, but not kosher)
Photo credit: DRosenbach, under CC BY-SA 3.0

2) They must chew their cud.

Chew their what?

…Right. So, there are certain herbivores that have a curious way of digesting food. Plants are pretty hard to digest because of all the fiber. So these animals have multiple stomachs, and the food gets swallowed, brought up again, and chewed multiple times before it is fully digested. This multi-chewing process is called “chewing one’s cud”.

Practically speaking, this means that cows, sheep, goats, and deer are kosher. (So are… giraffes. There’s an urban myth that the reason we can’t eat them is that their necks are so long we don’t know where to cut it to slaughter them in the kosher manner, but that isn’t true. We don’t eat them for the same reasons everyone else doesn’t…) Pigs are specifically mentioned as non-kosher because while they do have split hooves, they don’t chew their cud. Camels, hares, and rock-badgers chew their cud, but their hooves are not split.


In principle, kosher fowl do not have “criteria”. There is a list in the Torah (Leviticus 13-20) of birds that are not kosher, and all others are assumed to be kosher. The problem is that over time, the names referring to specific birds have been forgotten, so we aren’t sure what some of them are. The sages came up with a number of criteria that the kosher birds seem to have in common, such as the structure of the foot and the presence of a crop (a little pocket of skin for storing food before it enters the stomach), etc. One obvious thing that kosher birds have in common, is that none of them are birds of prey.

Probably a good thing. I wouldn't want to mess with this guy.
Back off, buddy. I’m treif.

Kosher birds commonly eaten are: chicken, turkey, goose, and duck. Quail, pigeons, doves, and swans are also kosher.


Kosher seafood is once again identified by two criteria: it must have fins and scales. So commonly eaten fish like salmon, tuna, carp, mackerel, sardines, perch, etc., are fine. Exotic fish like swordfish and sharks are not (they don’t have scales), and neither are shellfish of any kind (no shrimp, lobster, or crab).

Okay but seriously, with all due respect, WHAT is appetizing about these marine cockroaches exactly?!
Photo credit: Elapied

Speaking of which…

Creepy Crawlies

In our Western world this makes us all go “uugghh”, and indeed, most bugs, worms, etc. are not kosher. Frogs, snakes, and lizards are also included in this category (“shratzim“=creatures that creep on the earth). But, there are certain kinds of locusts that are kosher. I am told they are a delicacy in some parts of the world. I am not sold. :-/

Kosher Slaughter: Shechita

Very simply, kosher animals must be slaughtered by slitting their throats quickly, with a very sharp knife, in a way that strikes major blood vessels leading to the brain, leading to immediate and irreversible loss of consciousness. This must be done very precisely so as to cause minimal suffering to the animal, and therefore shechita is a craft that must be studied carefully for one to be able to slaughter an animal in a way that renders it kosher. The purpose, obviously, is to slaughter to animal in a way that is as humane as possible. A certified Jewish ritual slaughterer is called a shochet.

What is the difference between shechita and dhabiha (slaughter in accordance with the laws of halal)? For meat to be halal, the name of God must be invoked before the slaughter. It so happens that there is a blessing Jews recite over the mitzvah of shechita, meaning that the name of God is usually invoked, and that is why many Muslims feel comfortable eating kosher meat. There is a whole Wikipedia article comparing and contrasting kashrut and halal.

Preparing Kosher Meat

So once the animal is dead, the blood of the animal must be covered with earth, and then the blood must be removed from the meat. This is done through a process of salting, which is where “kosher salt” got its name. A more accurate name would be “kashering salt”, as its purpose is to kasher (=make kosher) the meat. All salt is kosher.

I am told that kosher meat is thus drier and saltier than non-kosher meat.

As to our question about livers before, salting is not enough to remove the blood from liver, and therefore liver must be broiled in a way that draws out the blood. Other meat can be kashered this way too.

Milk and Meat

One very common question among newcomers to Judaism–or skeptics–is, how on earth did we get from “don’t cook a kid in its mother’s milk” (Exodus 23:19 and 34:26, and Deuteronomy 14:21), to waiting several hours after consuming any kind of meat, until consuming any kind of dairy?! This is one of the prime examples of the importance of the Oral Torah, the oral tradition passed down from generation to generation through the sages and rabbis, that we believe has its source at Mount Sinai along with the Written Torah. Through the oral tradition we know that this phrase refers to all cattle meat and all milk. There are a number of different explanations given for why the Written Torah specifies “kid in its mother’s milk”, but this is one of the things in the oral tradition that the rabbis are in completely unanimous agreement about, which as you know, isn’t to be taken lightly! 😉

The sages did expand cattle meat to include all other kinds of meat and poultry–but not fish or locusts.

Why do we wait between eating meat and milk? That also has a number of explanations, but it also comes to demonstrate the severity of this practice and how very careful we are to maintain this complete separation. There are different traditions about how long to wait, ranging from one hour to six hours. We wait three.

That’s quite enough for now! Stay tuned for Part II. 🙂




Don’t miss the other two posts in the Jew Food series:

Part II: The Vegan Section (Well, Sort of)

Part III: In Which Things Get Ridiculously Complicated