A Christian at an Orthodox prayer service, Josep? Whoever heard of such a thing? 😉
Well, unlike you, today’s guest lives in a country where they don’t need armed guards interrogating people at the door. Jacquelyn Lofstad is a 19-year-old college student from Minnesota, United States, who was raised in a Baptist family. She’s a reader who stumbled across the blog through Google, and her submission of this letter was the first contact she made with me (which is a first–all previous guest letters have been by people I know from other contexts and/or who I cajoled asked to write one!). She also writes a blog of her own about the Old Testament and how it relates to Jesus and the gospels, partially inspired by a trip she took to Israel not long ago.
She decided to share with us about an experience she had recently: observing the Shabbat morning prayer service in an Orthodox synagogue. (For those of you who need more info on what Shabbat is, click here.) I think this is a beautiful counterpoint to our previous guest letter, which was about a Jew’s positive experiences in churches!
Recently, I had the privilege of celebrating Sabbath at an Orthodox Synagogue. The Jewish people are beautiful, dedicated, and tenacious in their faith. I was extremely blessed to be able to observe a Shabbat (sabbath) service.
I am a 19-year-old college senior from Minnesota, United States, studying music education and history. I was raised in a Baptist family but do not swear complete allegiance to any particular denomination. I just believe the Bible, want to honor God and love people in the process. After visiting Israel over spring break for a Bible study trip, I gained so much respect for the Jewish people’s tenacity and dedication to their faith. Also, I love the Old Testament and am frustrated that the church does not talk about it enough. Researching Judaism seemed like the obvious answer. Wanting to learn more, I contacted a local rabbi and asked to observe a synagogue service.
I entered the room during prayers and was handed a prayer book with English translations – praise God! My lack of education was clearly shown when I forgot that the Hebrew language and therefore the prayer books, read right to left!
One thing that struck me about the Hebrew prayers was how focused they were on God and God alone. So often I will only pray to ask for things. Their prayers focused on the glory, majesty, power, and love of Hashem (Hebrew name for God, literally translated as “the name”).
After the prayers, the Torah was brought out. The cantor and the congregation sang and chanted with joy as the Torah was lifted out of the arc in the front of the room and brought to the center of the congregation. The blessing of having the word of God IS something that we should rejoice over. The Torah in the center reminded me how God is a God for all people. He comes down, right into the middle of our lives. The word of God speaks right into the middle of our messy situations. The Torah reading for this day the “snake being lifted” in Numbers. They also read from the prophets on a yearly rotation – this week the men read from 1st Samuel.
The rabbi then spoke about a former rabbi who died at the hands of communist Russia because he refused to be transported on the sabbath. While he could have easily justified breaking sabbath to save his life, he decided not to because of the people that looked up to him. While I do not have the same sabbath convictions as the Jewish people, I also have people looking up to me. I need to take my actions seriously, because as a teacher, I will have people looking at my life as they make decisions.
After the service, which was over two hours (they are dedicated people), I was invited to the Kiddush lunch afterwards. The stew was cooked the night before and left on the stove because no cooking is done on the sabbath.
One lady told me about how she read a book about how a Christian converted to Judaism because she felt like Yom Kippur offered more room for grace than Christianity. This saddened me because we clearly are not showing/sharing the love and grace of God that well then!
I had a long conversation with another woman about Israel, Judaism, and many other things (Israel actually opened many doors for conversations so praise God!). She shared how it was difficult to get a job without working on Saturdays. I again was struck by how these people’s first priority was their faith. I can learn from this. I was then asked why many Christians don’t like Israel (This question was a bit stressful–19-year-old having to answer for all Christians 😛 ). I responded by saying that many Christians misunderstand both the heart of God and the Jewish people. At the end of our conversation, we thanked each other for sharing our perspectives–it was a really sweet moment.
I learned so much from this visit and hope I represented Christianity well. I am encouraging my friends and colleagues to be willing to experience new things and hear people’s stories. The world needs people who care. Be that person, because Jesus was that person. He heard people’s stories. He saw the beauty in diversity. And he was Jewish too 🙂
Are you a reader who has something interesting to share with Josep and me about religion or culture? Don’t be shy–be like Jackie! Submit a guest letter!
So, first of all, I don’t know if you heard about the crazy wildfire/arson thing last week, but if you did, you probably calculated correctly that there isn’t a whole lot to burn out here and that I was probably okay. Eitan was out hiking with a group on Monday, and one of the foreign firefighting aircraft flew low overhead; it was red and yellow, and he eventually figured out was probably from Spain. Thanks! 😉
Last night, though, a terrible tragedy struck our community. A 10-year-old boy was killed in an accident at the traffic circle down the street. We don’t know the family personally, but in a community like ours, we have multiple connections. Eitan and I attended the funeral this morning.
What can I say? How can I begin to describe what it’s like to watch a family say goodbye to their child?
The mother said that this was God demonstrating to her that it’s impossible to protect our children. He’d been wearing a helmet, crossing at the crosswalk. This is what is so rattling about things like these. We move through our lives thinking we have control and that if we just do everything right, everything will be fine. But it’s not true. That’s not the world God made.
“I’m sorry we couldn’t protect you,” the mother said.
Daggers in the heart.
I started writing the following poem before I left for the funeral, and finished it when I came back. It is a kind of exploration of a phrase Jews say when we hear bad news: barukh dayan haemet, “blessed is the True Judge.”
“Blessed is the True Judge”
We push it out disbelieving lips
We force it past our clenched jaws
“The Lord gave, the Lord took away
May the name of the Lord be blessed”
A child to rest.
Why did You give
Only to take?
Why did You nurture
Only to break
Our hearts into a thousand pieces,
Shattered like the vessels that broke
Because the world You made was too small
To contain You?
Be the True Judge
Perhaps it is not praise
Perhaps it is an accusation
Perhaps it is
Judge of Truth
Who takes a child in the height of his youth
Who forces a mother to bury her son.
Expand Yourself, O Holy One!
Magnify and sanctify Your own great name
In a world doused in tears and engulfed in flame.
Whisper in our ears
That You’re still here
That the pain has a purpose
That will one day be clear
That You do not hide Your face in vain.
Embrace us. Comfort us.
Heal our pain.
Lord full of mercy
Hear our prayer.
Don’t make us carry this.
It’s too much to bear.
Next week is Rosh Hashana (starting Monday night), and that Elul vibe is definitely in the air.
Accordingly, I began to think about my relationship with God. And I realized that it was in a pretty bad state. It came to my attention that I had been building resentment, and not allowing myself to express it, because I hate being angry and I have a tendency to try and suppress it or pull away from the object of my anger and grow cold.
There is a wide range of emotions towards God that are expressed in our prayer liturgy. When I’m feeling joy, gratitude, longing, or despair, I can find lots of things to say in the prayer book. Anger, however, is not one of those emotions. I was not really taught how to handle being angry at God. (Other than being told not to be angry, which obviously doesn’t help in the slightest.)
So for the past while… I haven’t really been speaking to Him. Even in various attempts I’ve made to try and get back into establishing a regular connection, I’ve been running away to the prescribed prayers, fulfilling my obligation without really saying what’s on my mind.
After spending Friday morning thinking about this, I was washing dishes, and a friend messaged me with some bad news. And I just got so mad at God. And I knew I had to say so. And all that came out was “I am so angry at You” between clenched teeth, and maybe some more muttering about how she has suffered enough.
And I have to say–even that little moment loosened something. And a day and a half later, on Motzei Shabbat, I got some good news. And the next day–more good news, and more. It felt like God was responding to me. Not giving me what I asked for exactly, but letting me know that He’s there and He’s listening and He does say “yes” sometimes.
I’ve mentioned before that they have a saying about Elul: “HaMelekh BaSadeh”–the King is in the field.
Well, I happen to have a field about a five-minute walk from my front door.
So yesterday morning, and this morning, I went out to the field to have a little chat with the King.
It is Rebbe Nachman of Breslov who recommends praying in the fields. He writes that “every blade of grass has its own song,” and that by listening to the song of the grass, your heart opens and you can join their song and serve God with joy.
He is also the Hassidic master who taught his followers to practice hitbodedut, literally “self-seclusion.” It’s a type of meditation that basically involves speaking to God freely and openly as though you are speaking to a friend. Rebbe Nachman recommends this practice in addition to the regular prescribed prayers, and he recommends doing it every single day.
The benefits of speaking to God freely are fairly obvious to people like you and me. But, says Rebbe Nachman, it’s not enough to speak to Him whenever you feel like it. You have to make it a practice–something you do regularly. This establishes a framework for the relationship, and things can happen within that framework that couldn’t happen without it.
I mentioned to you once that I have a sort of “system” of communication with my sister. It started after several years of living very different lives, very far away from each other, and seeing each other rarely. Every time we saw each other, there was so much to catch up on, and not enough time, and we felt like we were totally out of sync and unable to relate to each other’s lives. We would always part feeling frustrated.
So when we discussed this, she had an idea: to establish a weekly “sister update.” But we have to make it doable, she said, not something we’ll put off because it takes too long. Each update must have 5 items, but those items can be as short as “I have no idea what to say” or a silly picture, or as long as several paragraphs–doesn’t matter, there must be 5 of them. These updates would be due every Monday.
We have been doing this almost every week for about 5 years now.
At first it seemed trite and silly. We would tell each other about random things that were on our minds, worries about this or that, or an awesome recipe we had just discovered. (Food is a major topic of discussion in the Sister Updates, as befits any correspondence between a pair of Jewish sisters. 😛 ) But as the contact became regular, it also became familiar, and the e-mails started getting longer, sometimes spilling over into the rest of the week. And in the few times we have seen each other in those five years–I believe there have been three–we didn’t feel that frustration of not being in each other’s lives and having so much to catch up on.
Point is: the sister updates created a framework in which we were able to build a steady, regular communication. They made it possible for us to genuinely be involved in each other’s lives, even though we live on opposite sides of the planet and only see each other once every couple years.
Hitbodedut works the same way. Except that the relationship you’re nurturing is with God. And when you’re in constant dialogue with God, you live your life in a completely different state of awareness. You are able to feel gratitude for the smallest things, and you are able to receive comfort for every difficulty. You can pour out your heart and feel that someone is listening who loves you and wants the best for you. God is the Ultimate Therapist.
All you have to do is show up in His office, for five minutes a day.
…So why is it so hard?!
I’ve been telling myself I need to do this for years. And it is amazing how I’ve managed to weasel out of it. In all fairness, it’s hard to find those five minutes to myself. When I was a teen, I took advantage of my chronic insomnia and spoke to God while lying in bed. These days, though, I’ve got someone else in bed trying to sleep! 😉 And obviously, having little kids around makes it very near impossible.
I really hope I manage to find a way to institute it as a regular practice this time–field or no field.
I probably won’t update again before Rosh Hashana, so let me take the opportunity to wish you and all our readers a very blessed 5777. May the coming year bring us lots of good news and joy and laughter and meaningful connections with God and with our loved ones.
I know you enjoyed that post about King David in which I mentioned the book of Psalms, and I decided to treat you to a whole blog post on something I know is close to your heart: your favorite psalm. 🙂
But I want to start by telling you about an extraordinary place you should visit next time you are in Jerusalem. It’s called the Museum of Psalms; a tiny little gallery tucked in an alley off of Jaffa Road. The project on display is a collection of paintings, one for each of the 150 psalms, created by artist Moshe Tzvi Berger, a Transylvanian Holocaust survivor.
Berger is a Lubavitcher Hassid well-versed in Kabbalah, and the paintings are rich with symbolism and vibrant with magnificent colors. Here’s a 10-minute video about the museum, in which the artist talks a little about the paintings.
My in-laws discovered this place and brought me there a couple times. They bought a book called “Visions of the Psalms” that features all the paintings alongside the psalms represented by them, in both Hebrew and English, and some commentary by the artist. Here’s your page:
When they first took me to the museum, before E was born, I thought about buying you a print of that painting as a gift for his birth. But they didn’t have Psalm 23 available as a print. What they did have was Psalm 27… which happens to be my favorite.
The similarity between the paintings is no accident. The painting for Psalm 27 is almost a close-up of the painting for Psalm 23. The text that comprises the red goblet in both paintings is the same line from 23.
Psalm 23 is one of the most well-known. It is cherished, sung, and recited by Jews and Christians alike. Jews sing it during the services on Shabbat evening, and traditionally sing it during the third meal of the Sabbath, too.
This melody, performed here by Shuli Nathan, is the most commonly sung. It was composed by Ben Zion Shenker. (You actually heard us singing this in synagogue, but I couldn’t tell you what it was from the women’s section. 😉 )
Now that we have these colors and images and sounds in our minds… let’s take a look at the words of this psalm. We’re going to look at each verse from a literary and Biblical perspective, bringing in traditional Jewish commentaries when necessary. This is a typical way for Jews to study and analyze a Biblical text.
I think when we’re done, you’ll appreciate why studying the original Hebrew gives a lot more depth to the Psalmist’s words.
A Song of David…
Jewish tradition holds that these words were written by King David. This may or may not be true, but as I mentioned in the previous post on this topic, I feel that they really capture his spirit.
…God is my shepherd, I will not lack. In lush pastures He lays me down, by tranquil waters He leads me.
What an image this evokes. You can almost hear the gentle murmur of the clear water, smell the fresh scent of the lush green grass, and feel the sun on your face as you bask in its warmth. The Psalmist describes this as a metaphor for God’s presence in his life.
I think the painting of Psalm 23 above beautifully portrays this feeling. The “sun” is in the shape of the letter yud, symbolizing God. We see an island, or an oasis, floating in the midst of the blue–which, the artist points out in the video, is the color of mercy. The “cup” that “overflows” (a metaphor that appears later) is reflected on the tranquil waters. It is surrounded by lush trees–perhaps meant to recall the Tree of Life, a symbol for the Torah, as we have discussed.
The image in the painting reminds me of Ein Gedi, the oasis near Masada where David hid from Saul.
Many of the great figures in the Bible started out as shepherds–Jacob, Moses, and David himself. I was taught that the skills and temperament required for that job were what made these men suitable to become leaders.
When you think of a shepherd, you think of someone who is both tender and firm; someone who guides you and provides you with the opportunity to sustain yourself. He doesn’t bring the sheep their feed; he brings the sheep to the pasture, where they must graze themselves. I think this is an apt metaphor for our relationship with God.
He restores my soul; He leads me on paths of justice for the sake of His name.
Here we have moved from a very gentle image to a slightly harsher one, where we are talking about “restoring my soul” and “paths of justice.” We are also turning outward: “for the sake of His name,” and not necessarily for the sake of His love and tenderness towards me.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me…
This is the most famous verse from the psalm. We have gone from tranquil, lush pastures to “the valley of the shadow of death”–quite the contrasting image. What comes to my mind is the Jordan Valley, with the stark desert mountains of Judah and Moab towering over either side.
“With me” is not an exact translation of the word that appears in this verse, עמדי (imadi). “With me” is עמי, imi. The word imadi comes from the root ע.מ.ד., which means “to stand.” So the word means more than just “with me.” It means “standing with me,” or “helping me stand up.”
…your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
ע.מ.ד is also the root for the word עמוד, which means “pillar” or “spine.” We come across similar imagery in these words: שבט (shevet), “rod,” and משענת (mish’enet), “staff.”
Why are both these words mentioned, though? What’s the difference between a “rod” and a “staff”?
The word shevet implies justice and rebuke–a rod used as punishment. The word mish’enet comes from the root ש.ע.נ, as in להישען, “to lean”–something to lean on. A walking cane.
This image may be more subtle than the previous metaphors in this poem, but I think it is just as powerful.
The Psalmist finds both the “rod”–God’s harsh justice and perhaps even His punishment–and the “staff”–God’s mercy–“comforting.” You can understand why he might find the “staff” comforting. But the “rod”? What is comforting about the terrible things that happen to us?
The answer is in the first part of this same verse. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, You are with me. I know that even Your “rod” is the result of Your love for me.
You will spread a table before me, in front of my enemies; you have anointed my head with oil; my cup overflows.
The image here is of a man sitting at a table spread with great abundance, while his enemies watch in fury, unable to withhold this bounty from him.
If you’ve ever seen a Middle Eastern table spread, you’ll know that olive oil is a prominent feature. But God did literally anoint David’s head with oil. That’s how they crowned kings in Biblical times. God sent Samuel to Bethlehem to anoint David king years before David ascended the throne.
I find it beautiful how this image seamlessly blends in with the previous one, the table spread with goodness, and the one that follows–the overflowing cup.
However. Remember the Hebrew word that means “the anointed one”? Mashiach/Messiah. That is not the word that is used here. The word is דשנת, dishanta. The root ד.ש.נ can just mean “to oil” something, but it can also mean to make something fertile, or full of enjoyment and satisfaction.
The word often translated as “overflows” is רויה (revaya), from the root ר.ו.ה/י, which means “to quench,” or “soaked.” This is along the same lines as the word dishanta.
So this whole verse brings us back to the sense of sustenance and bounty.
May only goodness and kindness pursue me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of God for the length of days.
Here the Psalmist turns to God with a request: let me feel this abundance of goodness all my life. May only goodness and loving kindness follow me.
“The length of days” is a direct translation of לאורך ימים (l’orekh yamim), which has been traditionally translated as “long years” or “a long time.” The King James Bible translates it as “forever.” Perhaps King James read Maimonides on this: Maimonides says that “the house of God” here means the World to Come, and “the length of days” would then mean “eternity.”
The word translated here as “dwell” is שבתי, shavti. But that’s not really the simple meaning of the word. ישבתי (yashavti) would mean “sit” or “dwell.” Shavti would normally be translated as “return.” I think it is traditionally translated as “dwell” because that makes most sense in context. Radak (medieval commentator David Kimhi) suggests that it means “I will be tranquil”–relying on a verse from Isiah that uses the root to mean tranquility (and he also interprets the word I translated as “restore” above, yeshovev, the same way).
But begging pardon from the Sages, I will venture my own suggestion: maybe שבתי is from the root ש.ב.ה/י, as in שבוי (shavui), which means “captive.” “I will be captivated in the house of God for the length of days.”
Here’s my reasoning: in the first part of the verse the Psalmist used the word “pursued” to describe being surrounded by goodness and kindness. Maybe he is finishing off that metaphor here by implying that he has “fallen captive” to the goodness and kindness that pursued him, and here–in the house of God–is where they hold him for eternity.
Just a thought.
Psalm 23 and Psalm 27
I think the reason the paintings are “twin” paintings is that they both discuss similar themes. Here is a quote from Psalm 27 for comparison:
“God is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? God is the stronghold of my life; from whom shall I be frightened? When evildoers draw near to me to devour my flesh, my adversaries and my enemies against me, they stumbled and fell… One [thing] I ask of the Lord, that I seek; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to see the pleasantness of the Lord and to visit His Temple…”
A trust in God, a desire to draw closer to him, and a sense that He has provided us with an abundance of blessing… I think these are the things that appeal to us about these psalms.
I was walking home from dropping my kids off at preschool the other day, lost in thought, when I bumped into one of my neighbors. I greeted her, but it turned out she was praying as she walked. We’re not allowed to interrupt prayers with speech; I mean, we’re having a conversation with God, it would be rude to interrupt! She was praying the first section of the Shaḥarit (morning) prayer, known as “Birkot HaShaḥar,” “the morning blessings.” So to make it clear why she was “ignoring” me, she lifted up the pamphlet she was reading from and said the end of the blessing out loud, and I answered “Amen.” (I wrote about blessings and answering “Amen” here.) Then she asked me if I was in a hurry, or if I would like to answer “amen” for all the rest of the blessings. I said I would be delighted to, and she began to read.
Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, Who opens the eyes of the blind.
I thought of my visually impaired son who would have been completely blind had he not undergone surgery as a tiny baby. Amen.
Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, Who clothes the naked.
She looked down at the clothes she was wearing and smiled. Amen.
Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, Who releases the bound.
She gave a shake, enjoying the free movement of her body. Amen.
Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, Who straightens the bent.
We both stood up a little straighter. Amen.
Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, Who spreads the earth upon the waters.
I focused on the sensation of my feet on the ground. Amen.
Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, Who has provided my every need.
I thought about the miraculous and healthy functioning of my body. Amen.
Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, Who firms man’s footsteps.
I felt grateful for my solid shoes. Amen.
Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, Who girds Israel with strength.
I thought about wrapping the waistline of my skirt around my hips that morning. Amen.
Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, Who crowns Israel with splendor.
I recalled the sensation of wrapping my scarf around my hair that morning. Amen.
Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, Who gives strength to the weary.
I remembered how tired I had felt when I first woke up that morning, and how strength and energy had settled into my bones. And especially for me, this is no small matter; I have very low energy and tend to be tired and fatigued, and thanks to God and the medication I take, getting out of bed each morning is no longer a colossal task.
Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, Who removes sleep from my eyes and slumber from my eyelids. And may it be Your will, Lord, our God, and the God of our forefathers, that You accustom us to the ways of your Torah and attach us to Your commandments, and do not bring us to the power of error, nor to the power of transgression and sin, nor to the power of challenge, nor to the power of scorn, and may the evil inclination have no control over us. And distance us from an evil person and an evil companion. And attach us to the Good Inclination and to good deeds, and compel our nature to be subservient to You. And grant us today and every day grace, and kindness, and mercy in Your eyes, and in the eyes of all who see us, and bestow kindness upon us. Blessed are You, Lord, Who bestows kindness upon His nation, Israel.
Amen, amen, amen.
We say these words every morning. Most of the time I mumble through them, troubled by other thoughts, unable to focus and really experience the profound awareness and gratitude they are meant to bring me. I was so grateful to my neighbor for letting me take part in her prayers that morning. Thanks to her, time slowed down and I was able to really zoom in and focus on each of these simple, everyday miracles that we usually ignore. It flooded me with a sense of blessing and gratitude.
I awoke to the sound of a thunderclap this morning, followed shortly thereafter by the drumming of hail and the shouts of the neighbors frantically trying to bring their furniture back in from their succah so they wouldn’t get ruined by the rain. I couldn’t help but smile.
Yesterday was Shmini Atzeret, and one of the special things that happens on Shmini Atzeret is that we begin to mention rain in our daily prayers. We will continue to pray for rain until the second day of Passover, in the spring. You might be wondering, why bother changing the wording of the prayer twice a year? Why not just pray for rain all year? The answer has to do with the unique climate in Israel.
During the dry, brutal heat of a Middle Eastern August, many among us (especially those of us who grew up in cooler climates) begin to ask ourselves why God had to promise us this land of all places, and not, say, Switzerland.
Or if it’s gotta be in the middle of a godforsaken desert, couldn’t it be one with some oil?
In all seriousness, though, the question of the location of the Promised Land is a good one, and has been discussed and debated by the Sages. One suggestion is that Israel is located right smack in the center of the map, on the crossroads between Africa, Asia and Europe.
One of the reasons it’s such a war-torn piece of real estate is that it’s an important point along all the trade routes between those continents.
Why is this important?
Because, the Sages say, God wanted us located somewhere where we would come in contact with all these civilizations, influencing them with our culture. We have discussed (including in my previous post) how Jews have impacted the world astronomically out of proportion to our numbers, and the central location of our land may have something to do with that.
Another reason given for God having chosen this spot, is that at least up until a very few years ago, the area was completely, 100% dependent on rainfall for successful agriculture. We don’t have major rivers like the Nile, the Tigris or the Euphrates, and the only major freshwater lake is the Sea of Galilee. “What about the Jordan River?” you may ask. You didn’t get a chance to see it when you were here, did you?
We get most of our water from underground springs or from the Sea of Galilee. So droughts due to little rainfall were a constant concern for thousands of years. I remember observing a public fast day while I was in middle school because of a severe drought we were having, and growing up always fretting about saving water and “red lines” in the levels of the Sea of Galilee.
Why would God purposely give us a land where our survival, until only very recently, was so dependent on the whims of nature?
Well, it’s not really the “whims of nature” we are dependent on; it is Him, and His will. And being dependent on rain makes us turn to Him constantly for sustenance. It’s the difference between someone leaving a coffee machine on the counter so you can make yourself a cup, and someone you love bringing you a cup of coffee because you asked for it. It facilitates the kind of intimacy God wanted to have with us. “The Egyptians can have the Nile,” He said. “I want you to talk to Me about your needs.”
In recent years, the government finally solved the problem once and for all by building desalination plants along the Mediterranean and through wide-scale water recycling programs. We no longer live under the constant threat of water shortage. (Here is an article in the Times of Israel from February 2013 called “How Israel Beat the Drought.”) I am, of course, very happy and grateful about this, but there is something in me that laments the loss of that particular aspect of the relationship, and the sense of hope and blessing that would come with a year of good rainfall.
The climate in Israel is characterized by hot, dry summers with no rainfall at all–from around May until September–and cool, rainy winters (well, rainy by Middle Eastern standards…), from around December until March. The months in between are the transitional seasons, which are usually characterized by temperate weather interspersed with dramatic ups-and-downs–heat waves and sandstorms that last a few days and then “break,” often with a cool wind and some rainfall.
So the reason we only pray for rain from around September to around April is because, as we read in Ecclesiastes this past Shabbat, “for everything there is a season.” Rain in its time is a great blessing. Unusual weather–even rain in the summer–can damage crops and upset the delicate balance of Israel’s ecosystem. I should note that this does not only apply to Jewish prayers in Israel; Jews all over the world follow this same prayer pattern. We have been praying for the fertility of the Land of Israel for thousands of years, even on the rare occasion when not a single Jew lived in the Holy Land.
The lack of rain from May to September makes it that much more precious when it returns. There is nothing quite like the first rain of the season here in Israel, and Israelis celebrate it with the same childlike delight you see around the first snowfall in colder countries. I am no exception. 😉
I began to really appreciate rain around the time of the first rainfall in the year 2001. Yes, this was shortly after September 11th, and a particularly meaningful and “cleansing” Yom Kippur I experienced as a 14-year-old. It was around that time that I began to develop a close and personal relationship with God, and as I opened my window and breathed in the scent of the soil drinking in the rain for the first time in months, I looked up at the sky and felt that each raindrop was sent directly to me as a gift from Him. I would go outside barefoot, laughing in pure pleasure and welcoming the shower as I waded through the puddles. I would sit in my parents’ car outside, listening to the rain drum on the roof and watching it drip down the windows all around, feeling safe and warm and loved. Each raindrop felt like a kiss from God… and, well, I would kiss Him back. To this day, I instinctively kiss every raindrop that falls on my lips.
I wrote in a previous entry that I have a habit of looking for God in the weather. I most often find Him in the rain.
I will leave you with a song I love by Yonatan Razel (brother of Aaron Razel, of Krembo Song fame, and the more celebrated of the two for his appeal to a general audience and not just a religious one). It’s the first song on his latest album, “Bein HaTzlilim” (“Between the Sounds”), called “Tikun HaGeshem,” the “Prayer for Rain.” It is adapted from the traditional prayer for rain recited in Sephardi synagogues on Shmini Atzeret. Something about what Razel does with the music really captures the magic of the beginning of the rainy season here.
This is my translation of the lyrics:
Prayer for Rain
The living Lord shall open the treasuries of the skies He shall blow His wind, and water shall pour down
With the rains of Your will, bless the nation Trapped like a bird in the snares of despair In the merit of the Father of Many, who prepared a feast And said, “Please let a little water be taken”2
Remember Your mercy, Creator of the celestial lights Command Your clouds to scatter light In the merit of the Sweet Singer King Who said, “Oh, if one would give me water to drink”3
The living Lord shall open the treasuries of the skies He shall blow His wind, and water shall pour down
With the rains of blessing, bless the earth With the rains of song, prune the earth
With the rains of life With the rains of blessing With the rains of redemption…
The living Lord shall open the treasuries of the skies He shall blow His wind, and water shall pour down
Wishing us all a year of abundance and many, many God-kisses. 🙂
1. That’s the skyline of Dubai, a city in the oil-rich United Arab Emirates, where Josep has spent more time than anyone should ever have to.↩
2. This is a reference to Genesis 18:4, when Abraham was visited by three “strangers” (who turned out to be angels), and offered them “a little water” and “a morsel of bread,” and when they agreed, prepared a whole feast for them. From this story, we learn about Abraham’s exemplary hospitality, and the principle of “say little, do much.”↩
3. A reference to Samuel II 23:15, the story about when King David was doing battle with the Philistines near Bethlehem, and expressed a desire to drink from the well of Bethlehem. Three “mighty men” went and broke through the Philistine camp to fetch the water for their king, but when they brought it, he refused to drink it and spilled it on the ground as an offering to God, in regret over having his men risk their lives to get it for him.↩
This letter is from my dear friend Abi. Abi has been involved lately in interfaith dialogue specifically between Muslims and Jews, and peace and dialogue initiatives addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A mutual friend of ours joked recently that “Abi is to Muslims what Daniella is to Christians…”
(…I think she was referring to things like, me posting ranting tirades in defense of the Pope and Catholicism on Facebook, and then joking with my Catholic friend about it in Yiddish.) (…What? You should be asking more questions about the Catholic friend speaking Yiddish than about me defending the Pope. 😛 )
Ahem. Anyway. Abi’s letter is about interfaith prayer, and I felt it was fitting since I have been covering the topic of prayer, and in honor of Ramadan, which began last night. Speaking of which, we have a great upcoming guest letter on Ramadan, so stay tuned! 😉 I also have another, related story that I will share after her letter.
Chodesh tov, Ramadan kareem, and enjoy!
I’m Daniella’s friend Abi and like Daniella I am also a Modern Orthodox Observant Jew. I find your relationship with Daniella inspiring and I wanted to share with you today some thoughts about interfaith prayer.
I recently saw this video about an organized event bringing Jews and Muslims to pray together. Here is the video.
Watching it reminded me of a wonderful experience I once had in my college in Jerusalem. I would always look for an empty classroom in the break to pray the afternoon prayer, mincha. (There is actually a synagogue on campus but it was locked most of the time.) Often people would come in in the middle of my prayers if they had a class there after the break and sometimes I would get very distracted, so I always hoped nobody would come in.
On one such afternoon, I had already started praying and I noticed out of the corner of my eye a female student walking in. I was hoping she wouldn’t distract me by talking on the phone and that more people wouldn’t come in. But then she knelt down and prostrated herself and I realized that this was a Muslim woman and that she was joining me in prayer.
It felt very special to be praying side by side, in different ways, but to the same G-d. My kavana (intention and focus on prayer) intensified and I felt so grateful to this woman for joining me. I can’t quite describe the feeling that washed over me but I felt very connected to my prayer and to G-d at that moment.
She finished before me and she left and by the time I had finished she was gone. I really wanted to thank her for having the courage to join me and tell her how much it meant to me, but I didn’t know where to find her.
Listening to the joint prayers on the video reminded me of that feeling of connection to G-d and to each other through prayer.
I pray that we learn to love ourselves, each other and G-d, and find many ways to connect.
Thanks for listening,
I hope you are well,
So here’s my story, which is actually my husband Eitan’s story. Eitan is a rabbi and tour guide, and a couple weeks ago he was guiding a very special “interfaith” group of college students from the USA–mostly Christians, but a Muslim and a Jew as well. He had a similar experience to Abi’s when the Muslim girl asked to pray the afternoon prayer him while they were in the Old City, and they did, Eitan facing the Temple Mount and the student facing Mecca. But that’s not what the story is about; it’s about the stop they made in the White Mosque in Nazareth. The man who received them and showed them around was an Arab Muslim in his 70’s. When asked if Shia Muslims were also allowed to pray at the mosque, he said, “Sure, Muslims of any denomination can pray here. Jews can pray here too.” He told of a time 50 years ago when he was close to his Jewish Moroccan neighbors, and their families would eat from the same serving plates. “Nowadays everything is politics,” he lamented.
He then showed the group how he uses his prayer beads. Eitan remarked that it made sense to have something to fiddle with while one prays to aid concentration, and joked that he should get something like that to play with too. The man said, “Here, take mine!” And he gave Eitan his prayer beads.
They hugged, and Eitan says when he turned back to his tourists, there wasn’t a dry eye in the group.
Inshallah (God willing–Arabic), od yavo shalom aleinu (peace will yet come upon us–Hebrew).
Blog readers: Abi, Josep and I would love to hear about any experiences you may have had of connection to people of different faiths. You can share with us in the comments, or write your own guest letter!
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….
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…
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 ḥazzan completes each blessing.
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 ḥazzan‘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.
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:
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.
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 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:
So I was going to write a post about prayer. But then, as often happens, I found out I was writing two posts. The first one is about the concept of prayer in Jewish thought, and the second will be about the formal Jewish prayers and the structure of Jewish prayer services.
We’re going to define prayer as the act of speaking to God. In Judaism, we have formal prayers that we are required to recite daily and/or in various situations (blessings, for example). But there is also “spontaneous” prayer–speaking to God whenever you like, asking Him for things you want or need, thanking Him for good things that have happened to you, or generally sharing your thoughts and desires with Him. In Judaism we divide prayer into three elements: shevaḥ (praise), bakasha (request), and hodaya (thanksgiving). Jewish prayers usually contain all three of these elements, and usually in that order. Spontaneous prayer can be in whatever language you like, but all formal prayers, across the globe, are conducted in Hebrew (or sometimes Aramaic), for reasons we have already discussed. In Judaism, you have to really speak the words to pray. Intention, or thinking the words, is not enough. Even during “silent” prayers, we must whisper the words to ourselves loud enough so that we can hear ourselves.
But… why talk to God at all? If you think about this a little, it’s actually a pretty good question. If we believe that God is Ultimate Good, and that everything that happens in the world–even things that seem terrible–is for the ultimate good of all existence, why bother asking God to intervene? He’s going to do what’s best for us anyway, isn’t He? And doesn’t God know our thoughts? Why do I need to verbalize for Him what I want? He’s supposed to know them already.
To be honest, I still struggle with this question, but my struggle is more personal than theological. It is very difficult for me to ask for something when I know the answer might be no. And as you know from knowing me personally, it is very difficult for me to send a question, request, or sensitive statement out into the void and get no response. Even wanting something I know I might not be able to have can be very painful for me. So putting that desire into words, and offering it up to this invisible, omniscient, omnipresent Being who will never give me a clear and obvious response, puts me in an extremely vulnerable position. And Judaism–as you will see in Part II–requires us to ask for things we probably can’t have every day, several times a day. Every single day we pray for the redemption and the coming of the Messiah, not just “eventually”, but “mehera“–“speedily”; “b’karov, beyamenu“,“soon, in our days”. And though we are supposed to believe it is possible He will come any minute, realistically many of us don’t think the world is ready for it yet. There have been times in my life that I simply could not say these words anymore. I couldn’t say them with intention and really open myself up to wanting God to answer, when I knew that He probably wouldn’t. I couldn’t take the constant sense of rejection and disappointment, feeling like I was pleading in vain and repeatedly banging on the proverbial gates of Heaven, with no answer.
Well, to address the theological question, we will need…. a little Hebrew grammar lesson! 😉
The word “to pray” in Hebrew is להתפלל (lehitpalel). Hebrew has a number of verbal conjugations that can give the same root different meanings. For instance, using the root נ.ק.ה., you can say “לנקות” (lenakot), “to clean”, or “להתנקות” (lehitnakot), “to be cleansed”. The latter conjugation is reflexive, meaning that the object and the subject of the verb are the same (“to ___ oneself”), much like one of the uses for the se pronoun in Spanish (going with the example above: lavar vs. lavarse).
The conjugation used in the word להתפלל is reflexive. “To make oneself pray”; orarse.
What does this mean?
The idea is that praying is not something you do to God. It is something you do to yourself. It is something that affects, changes, and refines you spiritually. And maybe, in so doing, you can change your part in the situation enough that God will change how He chooses to conduct matters in a way that is easier for you.
Sometimes this is a vague theoretical idea, but sometimes it is very real. How many times have you prayed for strength, only to discover that the very act of praying gave you strength? I don’t know about you, but this has happened to me a lot. In my elevating myself spiritually, by connecting to God in this very personal and–for me–vulnerable way, sometimes I can make myself worthy of an easier path to wherever He has been leading me. And sometimes, prayer gives me the strength to handle it when God’s answer is “no.”
In Judaism we believe that every single prayer makes an impact, but we don’t always know what the impact is. Sometimes we are disappointed because He doesn’t answer our prayers the way we would have liked. Sometimes it feels like He’s not listening. But we believe that He is always listening, and He always answers–sometimes with “revealed good”, and sometimes with “hidden good” (which may look like evil or hardship to us).
Many people have experienced crises of faith because of disasters that happened to them despite their prayers. But seeing God this way is limiting Him. He is not a soda machine where if you punch in the right code, He’ll give you exactly what you asked for. God doesn’t always give us what we ask for, but He always gives us what we need. Sometimes what we need is terribly hard and excruciatingly painful. True faith in God is believing that He always gives us what is truly best for us on a cosmic and spiritual level, even if our limited human capacity for understanding cannot fathom the purpose of some things that happen.
As I mentioned briefly in this post, there is an idea in Judaism that the strength of one’s prayers increases during key moments of joy in their lives, such as on one’s wedding day, during childbirth, on a birthday, etc. These moments are also moments of spiritual transformation and renewal. There is also an idea that people who are closer to God spiritually have greater “spiritual power”, so their prayers are more likely to be answered; and that when you pray for someone else, your own prayers for yourself are answered first. All these strengthen the idea that it is not the request itself that can make an impact, but the spiritual process happening within the person making the request, and the impact that spiritual change has on the rest of the world.
Prayer is sometimes referred to as “avodah” in Hebrew, which means “work”. Sometimes prayer is as easy as telling your son “I love you”. Sometimes it’s as hard as asking someone you have hurt deeply to forgive you. Either way, in the moments that we connect and open ourselves up to Him–we allow Him into our lives, and that helps us grow and inch closer to our potential and our purpose in the world.
May all your prayers be answered with revealed good.
Most people who know the basics about Judaism know that our holy book is what we call the Torah. But there is a lot of confusion around this because we have a lot of holy books! The Bible, the Talmud, the prayer books, and a whole slew of rabbinic literature from throughout the centuries.
So in this letter we’re going to make some order in this chaos.
This is kind of confusing because the word “Torah” is used to refer to a few different things. It literally means “instruction”, and for the most part, when we use it, we’re referring to the entire body of teachings and Jewish law, starting with the Bible and all the way down to the rabbinic literature being written at this very moment. When we say that we believe God gave us the Torah at Sinai, what we mean is that He gave us the Written Torah (which is the first five books of the Bible), and also an Oral Torah, which is meant to be taught from teacher to student and father to son. We’ll elaborate more on the Oral Torah later.
As I mentioned, though, sometimes the word “Torah” is referring to the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. This is also called “the Chumash”, which translates well as “the Pentateuch”. The Torah was first written down as scrolls. During the beginning of the Second Jewish Commonwealth in Judea, the leaders of the reestablished Jewish community, Ezra and Nehemiah, established a law that the Torah scroll should be read publicly three times a week. They divided the Torah into weekly portions for this purpose. They did this because Jews at the time were poorly versed in Torah and were forgetting how to speak Hebrew. (They spoke Aramaic.) That custom stuck and is still practiced in every observant Jewish community today. The weekly portion is read from the Torah scroll on Mondays, Thursdays, and Shabbat, during prayer services. This is how it looks in an American Ashkenazi synagogue:
This is how it looks at a Sephardi service at the Western Wall:
Ashkenazi scrolls, as you see in the video, are generally wrapped around two handles, and covered with a decorative cloth when not in use. Sephardi scrolls are kept in a special case of wood or metal, wrapped around rods that are turned while the scroll is still in the case.
You will notice that they are chanting the words of the Torah in a kind of singing way. This is called “cantillating”. There is a very specific system of notes designated for this purpose, which is marked in the Chumash when it is in book form.
In scroll form, it must be written using the same special calligraphy and parchment that we use for the mezuza.
The word Tanakh is a Hebrew acronym for the words Torah, Nevi’im (Prophets), and Ketuvim (Writings), which essentially make up the Jewish Bible or as y’all prefer to call it, the Old Testament. This is the hardcover book I gave you.
I should mention here the other important scroll in Jewish life: Megillat Esther, the Scroll of Esther, often referred to as simply “the Megillah”. It appears in Writings, and is read from the scroll during the holiday of Purim, which is coming right up. 😉
So remember this Oral Torah I mentioned that was supposed to be passed orally from teacher to student? The reason we needed it was that we needed a system to interpret the Written Torah. There are places in the Torah where God says “do X as I have described to you”, and there is no description in the text. That is referring to this Oral Law. In fact, there is a law that we are not supposed to write down this law, because it is meant to be a “living Torah” that is dynamic and shifts with the new needs and issues of each generation.
But, there was a problem. After the destruction of the Second Temple, the great Torah scholars were being killed and teaching Torah was illegal under the Romans. Under these circumstances, it was decided that the Oral Torah must be written down to preserve it for future generations. Rabbi Judah the Prince, an important figure at the time, compiled the teachings into a volume that was completed around the year 200. This book was called the Mishna (which means “teaching”).
Another volume was eventually compiled of analysis and commentary on the Mishna, and this was called the Gemara (which means “study” in Aramaic). These two volumes together, the Mishna and the Gemara, comprise the Talmud (which means “study” in Hebrew).
There are two versions of Gemara; one was compiled in Israel and completed around 350-400. This is called the “Talmud Yerushalmi”–the Jerusalem Talmud. Another was compiled in Babylonia, where the biggest and most important Jewish community was at the time, and it is called the “Talmud Bavli” (the Babylonian Talmud). The latter is the one most widely studied. It is also much longer and more comprehensive.
The rest of rabbinic literature is basically analysis and interpretation of the Talmud. Except….
The Siddur (which means “order”) is the Jewish prayer book, which you have seen yourself at least twice. 😉
It has been compiled over a long period. Formal prayer was institutionalized by Ezra and Nehemiah for the same reasons mentioned above–mostly to preserve the Jews’ Hebrew. All traditional Jewish prayer is in Hebrew. The prayer they wrote was the Shmona Esrei, a collection of eighteen blessings that we are supposed to say three times a day. Over time a lot more was added onto it; we read the Shema prayer (discussed in the letter on mezuzot) with blessings before and after, and before that, more blessings, poems, and Psalms. There is a different order of prayers for the morning, afternoon, and evening prayers, and additional or alternative prayers for Shabbat and holidays. The High Holiday prayers are so different and long that we have a separate book or books for that, called the Machzor (which means “cycle”, referring to the annual cycle of the holidays).
It is also very common to find a book of Psalms on the shelf or in the pocket of an observant Jew. It’s part of the Tanakh (in Writings), a collection of poem-prayers traditionally attributed to King David.
The Haggadah (which means “telling” in Hebrew) is a book exclusively read on the first night of Passover during the Seder (the Passover ceremonial meal; I’ll elaborate in a later letter). It was compiled during the Mishnaic and Talmudic periods, and the text has remained the same for hundreds and hundreds of years. There are a number of precious ancient Haggadot that were created hundreds of years ago and still have the same text we use today.
Turns out, we are known as the People of the Book for a reason… 🙂