So we are back in Israel as of yesterday afternoon, and still trying to get over the jet lag and exhaustion from around 36 hours of travel (I know, boo hoo. Try doing it with three restless kids!) and get our act together because Passover–the Jewish holiday requiring the most intense preparation–is next Friday night. (Ahhhhhh!)
Being in the States was many things for many different reasons, but one thing that I felt there this time was… strange. Back when I was a kid and still a new immigrant, going back to the USA was a huge relief. When surrounded by people speaking Hebrew, I didn’t even realize how much I was straining to understand even when I wasn’t trying. It was only when I was surrounded with English again that I realized how much easier that was. And as you mentioned, Americans are so nice and upbeat when interacting with strangers. This used to be so refreshing for me.
This time, though, it was kind of exhausting. Israelis have a pretty bad reputation when it comes to friendliness and politeness. They don’t mind if I walk around as my usual pensive, antisocial self. 😛 I have the unfortunate combination of being both extremely curious about people different from me, and extremely shy, if not somewhat socially anxious, so I usually end up wondering about them and making up stories about them instead of striking up conversations. (This is where Eitan comes in handy. He “interviews” people for me, and I listen. 😉 )
Moreover, I felt extremely self-conscious in my long skirts and covered hair, next to my boys with their kippot and payot. I am no longer used to being a Jew in a primarily non-Jewish place. This may sound strange, but it adds pressure, because it means I become a representative of the Jewish people to the world. We are supposed to be “a light unto the nations”. It makes it that much more important to me to present myself as being kind, respectful, and generally a good human being. This is pretty challenging when you have three energetic little boys who are not used to, uh, non-Israeli standards of behavior. 😛 By Israeli standards, my kids are pretty well-behaved, but by American standards–let alone European standards–they can be a nightmare. (…I don’t know what your standards are, that you think my kids are so great, but you’ve always been an odd bird. 😛 )
This is not just my own quirk, either. There’s a mitzvah known as kiddush Hashem, “sanctification of the Name”, that specifically involves presenting yourself as a positive example of the Jewish people to the world. Throughout history, the whole Jewish nation has always been judged by the actions of the few–usually for the worse :-/ and that can be dangerous to all of us.
Practically speaking, when in the US, I experience this “ambassadorship” fairly often. Most Americans have a vague idea of what Jews are and know to categorize us that way, and we had quite a few “Shalom”s and other friendly comments indicating recognition. Other Jews tend to feel an automatic kinship with strangers they recognize as Jews, so we had some of those approach us, too. At one supermarket checkout counter, an African-American lady asked what our religion was and when we told her we are Jewish, she said “I have so many questions for you”. We asked for her information and promised to be in touch. (My father-in-law took this upon himself and said he’s going to send her a link to this blog. If you’re reading, say hi!)
This made me want to wear Jewish symbols outwardly so people would know what they were looking at. I’ve been wearing that gold Chai necklace of my grandmother’s pretty much every day since she was diagnosed (there’s a picture of it in this entry about Jewish symbols), but not everyone recognizes the Chai. Of course, the USA is pretty much the only place in the Diaspora where I could even consider proudly displaying a Jewish symbol. (This is what happens when you do that in France. 🙁 )
I often feel the same way about being an Israeli. I sometimes get friend requests on Facebook from random people in all kinds of random countries, and when I ask them to what I owe the pleasure, often it’s because they love and support Israel.
I am willing and proud to take on this role, but especially during these tough political times, it can be a heavy responsibility. As soon as I set foot on Israeli soil, I felt it lift from my shoulders somewhat. Here, I still represent something–observant Jewish women, American olim (immigrants), settlers, what have you, but that’s less pressure than the entire Jewish people and the whole state of Israel. Sometimes I wish I could just blend into the crowd. But I’m always going to stand out… not only because of my religion, nationality, and personal choices, but also because of my unusually high sensitivity and empathy, and sometimes it can be a burden.
We thought of you as we flew over Barcelona on our way back to Israel. I told H we were flying over Spain, and he said, “So Josep might see the airplane!” I chuckled and said you probably wouldn’t, and even if you did, you wouldn’t know it was us 😉
Lots of love,
Blog readers: Yes, I still have an announcement, but give me a little more time to get settled 😉 In the meantime, have you ever felt that you are representing something to the world? What did that feel like?
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… 🙂
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.
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.
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!
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”:
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. 😛
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.
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.
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?!?!
…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. 🙂
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. 🙂
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 terumah, ma’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. 😉 )
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. 😛
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.
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:
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…
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:
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.
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).
Speaking of which…
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:
Because of how hectic things were for both of us around Rosh Hashana this year I never got a chance to tell you about what makes this Jewish year so special. You know, other than the fact that it’s a lovely palindrome (5775).
I know I have mentioned in the past (and I’m sure you have no recollection whatsoever) that there is a whole category of commandments that have to do with the land of Israel and its agriculture. (In Hebrew, mitzvot hatluyot ba’aretz.) But for two thousand years, there were no Jews working the land. The Jews who had been living here throughout history, in Jerusalem, Hebron, Tiberias, and Safed, were not farmers and lived mostly off of donations from Jews in the diaspora so they could study Torah full-time. As a matter of fact, no one was working the land for the most part. It was basically an infertile wasteland. When Mark Twain visited Israel in 1867 he described it as “a desolate country whose soil is rich enough, but is given over wholly to weeds… a silent mournful expanse…. a desolation…. we never saw a human being on the whole route…. hardly a tree or shrub anywhere. Even the olive tree and the cactus, those fast friends of a worthless soil, had almost deserted the country.” It is said that the Land of Israel only blossoms when the Jews are tending it, and whether or not you believe these prophecies, historically, this appears to have held true. In any case, when the Jews began to return to Israel in the 19th-20th centuries and tend the land again, it had been 2,000 years since the last time the commandments relating to the Land of Israel had even been relevant. Just like the revival of Hebrew, calling these commandments “back from the dead” and suddenly implementing them in a world completely different than the one in which they were last observed was quite a challenge. The most challenging of all, is the commandment of shmita.
“Six years your shall sow your field, and six years you shalt prune your vineyard, and gather in its produce. But in the seventh year shall be a sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a sabbath unto the Lord; your shall neither sow your field, nor prune your vineyard. That which grows of itself of your harvest you shall not reap, and the grapes of your untended vine you shall not gather; it shall be a year of solemn rest for the land.” –Leviticus 25:3-5
Shmita is that seventh year. (This year!) We’re not allowed to engage in our usual agricultural activity for profit. We’re allowed to tend plants to make sure they don’t die, but we’re not allowed to do things that improve production. And all plants must be hefker–public property. We must leave the gates open and anyone who is hungry may come and take whatever he wants.
Now I know what you’re thinking: “What?! You’re not allowed to sow fields, prune vineyards, or reap any harvest? You’re supposed to let anyone come and take whatever does grow? What are you expected to eat?”
Well, that’s exactly what the Romans said, and if I recall correctly, there is a record of a play they put on mocking those crazy Judeans. It involved a donkey (or was it a horse?) complaining that he had no grass to eat because it was shmita, and all the Jews were eating his grass, because they couldn’t grow any produce. Very funny, Romans. (They and the Greeks also thought the idea of a Sabbath–not working one day a week–was a riot. Who’s laughing now? 😛 )
Anyway. As with everything in halakha, things are not nearly as simple as they first appear. And especially given the universal halakhic concept of pikuach nefesh–according to which we are allowed to transgress almost any commandment if it endangers a life–and the fact that civilization has changed so dramatically in the way food is produced and distributed in the past 2,000 years, some creative solutions have been required to address this mitzvah. Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of the British Mandate, came up with a temporary solution that is similar to the “legal fiction” we use to solve the problem of businesses owning chametz on Passover (…don’t worry, we’ll get to that in a few months. 😉 ). Shmita only applies if the land is owned by Jews. Therefore, he proposed, the Jews could “sell” the land to a non-Jew, so it is technically owned by a non-Jew, and then work the land as usual. At the end of the year we would buy the land back. This solution is known as heter mechira, and the reason it is temporary is that it only works while the commandment of shmita is considered rabbinic and not Biblical. That is, it’s Biblical, but only applies as a Biblical commandment when a majority of the nation of Israel is in the land. That is not true yet, but it may apply already in the shmita following this one, given our population growth and the shrinking Jewish populations in the USA and Europe due to assimilation and emigration to Israel.
So there are two other solutions. The first is the one that the ultra-Orthodox tend to use, because it avoids the entire issue of dealing with shmita: using only produce grown outside of Israel, or grown in fields that are owned by non-Jews. The second, and the one that I favor, is something called Otzar Beit Din. I can’t get into the details of how or why it works, but here’s the general idea: it takes advantage of the loopholes in the law to continue to grow, harvest and distribute produce (in ways that are different than usual, and therefore permitted) using a special alternative system. This year, this type of produce is sold at our local grocery store. And the special thing about it, is that produce grown in Israel during the shmita year has a special status: it is endowed with kedushat shvi’it, the “sanctity of the seventh year”. Just as this produce must be treated differently in the fields, it is treated differently in our kitchens. We are only allowed to prepare it in a way that is accepted–so for example, we’re not allowed to cook vegetables that are generally only eaten raw (like, say, cucumbers), or eat vegetables raw when they are usually eaten cooked (like, say, sweet potatoes). We are not allowed to throw it away or damage it purposely in any way while it is still edible, so we have a special garbage pail for only kedushat shvi’it fruits and vegetables, where we put scraps and stuff and only throw away when they have rotted on their own.
I favor this solution because I love feeling the connection to the land and its “additional” holiness during this year, and because I believe it is the closest to what was originally intended by this mitzvah. God clearly did not want us to starve. The purpose of this mitzvah is very similar to another “seventh” you already know about–Shabbat. To remind us that this land belongs to Him first and foremost, and that no matter what we have done to make the land blossom and bring forth produce, it all really comes from Him. When I hold one of these “holy bananas” in my hand, it feels, even more than usual, like God Himself put this in my hand, smiled, and said, “Enjoy.”
There is much, much more to say about this topic, but it is very complicated and legalistic and not being a farmer myself there’s a lot I don’t know about it. But since the month of Shvat begins in a few days, I will probably elaborate some more on the other mitzvot hatluyot ba’aretz, so stay tuned. 😉
Wishing you a Chodesh Tov (a good month) and a refrigerator full of goodness. 😉
P.S. …If you’re asking yourself what on earth Batman has to do with any of this, you’re missing this cultural reference. 😛
You may have noticed that in many of my explanations about the way we perform certain commandments, I mention that we say a blessing beforehand, that always starts with the same formula: Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who…
Reciting blessings is as regular a part of daily life as prayer. (Well, technically, it is, in itself, a form of prayer.) Most of the blessings I’ve mentioned are the kind we recite before performing a mitzvah. But there are other categories too, and in this e-mail I will address the different kinds of blessings. But first, what do I mean by “blessing”? These “blessings” are short statements that express gratitude for something. So why are they called “blessings” and not, I dunno, “thankings”? And even stranger, why do they all start with the statement, “Blessed are You”? Isn’t it we who are blessed by Him? The Catholic “grace before meals” prayers I have seen usually include some form of “Bless us, O Lord”, not the other way around!
Well, first things first: what does the word “bless” mean anyway? In Hebrew, the root that means “bless” is ב.ר.כ, b.r.kh, and the sages explain that it means “to increase” or to “bring down Divine abundance”. When I “bless” you, I am asking God to increase your health, wealth, happiness or whatever it may be, to shine His light on you… in essence, to give you more of Himself. So what could it possibly mean for me to “bless” God for creating the apple I’m about to eat?
The key to understanding this is to recognize the purpose of these blessings. It is not merely to show gratitude. The purpose of a blessing is awareness.
When I hold an apple in my hand and say, “Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who creates the fruit of the tree“, what I am really saying is a lot more than just “thanks for making this apple”. What I am saying is, “Your presence in this world has been made that much greater, has increased, through this fruit you created that I am about to enjoy”.
I am declaring that whatever it is I am making the blessing for–whether it’s a food I’m enjoying, a roll of thunder I heard, or a mitzvah I am about to perform–is increasing God’s presence in the world, through my recognition of His role in creating or commanding it.
So we’re back to what I have always said is the main theme of Judaism–channeling the Divine into the mundane and revealing the spiritual through the physical. Through this worldly experience, I experience God; and when I declare that recognition, I make His presence in the world that much more known.
Very simply put: in this apple, I see God.
There are three main types of blessings.
Blessings of Enjoyment
These are blessings we make over something we enjoy with our senses. The most common ones are, of course, blessings over food. We recite blessings both before and after eating. There are different blessings for different categories of food–bread (“…who brings forth bread out of the ground“), grain products that are not defined as bread (“…who creates different kinds of sustenance“), wine (“...who creates the fruit of the vine“), fruit (“…who creates the fruit of the tree“), vegetables (“…who creates the fruit of the ground“), and everything else (“…from whose word all came into being“). If that sounds complicated, wait until I tell you that bananas and pineapples are halakhically “vegetables” because they are non-perennial plants… or that food can switch categories according to how it is prepared or eaten (for instance, orange juice). And don’t even get me started on what defines a grain product as bread, or why we say “the fruit of the vine” for wine, but “the fruit of the tree” for grapes! The point is that to make the correct blessing, you have to have a basic awareness of how that food came to be on your plate. And making the blessing gives you an opportunity to reflect on this process. The apple came from a tree, which grew from the ground, thanks to sunlight and water and nutrients from the soil, and it’s God who made all this happen.
“After” blessings are also divided by category: the long birkat hamazon (“blessing for sustenance”/”Grace After Meals”) for after eating bread or a meal with bread (this is the blessing we made after the meal on Shabbat), a shortened version called me’en shalosh for grain products that are not bread, or fruits that fall under the category of the “Seven Species”. These are the seven species referred to in Deuteronomy 8:8; the fruits that the land of Israel is especially celebrated for. Those are: wheat, barley, grapes, dates, figs, pomegranates and olives.
The last “after blessing” is boreh nefashot. It’s one of the most disregarded blessings because it is so short, but in my view, it is one of the most beautiful and meaningful. It goes like this: “Blessed are You…who creates numerous souls and their deficiencies; for all that You have created with which to maintain the life of every being. Blessed is He, the life of worlds.”
The profundity of this blessing lies in its first section: “who creates numerous souls and their deficiencies“… why would we be thanking God for creating a deficiency? Because the very reason we are thanking Him for giving us something to eat, is that He created hunger. If we were not hungry, we would not enjoy the fulfillment of that lack. Take this idea beyond physical sustenance, and you will have a lot to think about. 🙂
Enjoyment blessings are also made on smelling something pleasant. These ones are very specific too, ranging from pleasant scents from flowers and trees, to the scent of herbs, to the scent of fruit, to the most specific–balsam oil. This, too, is a moment to pause and reflect on where this pleasant experience comes from, and using it to channel Godliness into the world.
Another blessing in this category is shehechiyanu: “Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who has granted us life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this occasion.” This is the blessing we make over new experiences (such as wearing new clothing), or occasions that are rare enough that we especially enjoy them when they come around (such as holidays, or eating the first fruit of a season).
Blessings for Commandments
Jews consider the Torah to be the greatest gift of all, and as I’ve mentioned, the act of performing a mitzvah is an act of channeling Divine energy into the mundane. This is a very appropriate time to declare God’s increased presence in the world through this act.
Blessings of Experience
They are called “blessings of sight” or “of hearing”, but I would call them “blessings of awe”. These are the blessings we make when we see or hear something that reminds us of God’s presence in the world. For example, when I hear a roll of thunder, I recite: “Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, whose strength and might fills the world.” When I see a streak of lightening, or experience an earthquake, or see an especially mighty mountain or river, I recite: “…who performs an act of creation.” When I see the Mediterranean Sea for the first time in 30 days, I say: “...who created the Great Sea.”
There is a special blessing for seeing a rainbow, which refers to the story of Noah: “…who remembers the covenant, and is faithful in His covenant, and keeps His promise.” The promise and covenant being: “And it shall come to pass, when I bring clouds over the earth, and the rainbow is seen in the cloud, that I will remember My covenant, which is between Me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh.” (Genesis 9:14-15)
There is another special blessing that we make on flowering fruit trees, only during the month of Nissan (your birth month!): “…who has made nothing lacking in His world, and created within it good creations and good trees for the sons of Adam to enjoy.”
Another blessing of note is Birkat HaGomel; a blessing we say when we have been saved from a potentially life-threatening situation, such as surviving a dangerous illness or childbirth. We are required to say this blessing in front of at least ten people, because when God performs a miracle, we have an obligation to spread knowledge of it as much as we can. (This concept–pirsumei nisa, “publicizing the miracle” in Aramaic–is familiar from the holiday of Chanukah. We display our chanukiyot in a prominent window facing the street for this reason.) The person who was saved says: “Blessed are You, Lord, Our God, King of the Universe, who bestows kindness upon the culpable, for He has bestowed kindness upon me.” Those in attendance answer, “Amen. May He who has bestowed kindness upon you, always bestow kindness upon you.”
There are blessings for seeing an especially wise person; for seeing a king; for seeing a group of 60,000 Jews gathered in one place (it has to do with the number of Israelites gathered at Mt. Sinai); for seeing a place where a miracle happened for the Jewish people (such as the Red Sea, the walls of Jericho, or the Jordan river crossing); for seeing a place where a miracle happened to that individual or to his parents; for seeing especially beautiful people or creations, or for seeing especially unusual-looking people or creations… and for hearing good news, (“…hatov h’hameytiv“, “...who is good and does good“), or bad news (“…dayan haemet“, “…the True Judge“).
There is even a blessing for going to the bathroom! “…Who created man with wisdom and created within him many openings and many cavities. It is exposed and known before Your Throne of Glory, that if one of them were to be ruptured or one of them were to be blocked it would be impossible to survive and to stand before You for even one hour. Blessed are You, Lord, Healer of all flesh who acts wondrously.” As we are painfully reminded every time we have a stomach virus, properly functioning personal plumbing is definitely something to be grateful for!
…Basically, as the rabbi in Fiddler on the Roof says, there truly is a blessing for everything.
Or should I say… in everything.
Because the whole purpose of making a blessing is to look deep into the world we live in, and find God in it.
When one hears someone else recite a blessing, s/he is required to answer “amen”. Ever wonder what the word “amen” means? The root of the word in Hebrew, א.מ.נ, a.m.n., is the same root as the word, אמונה, emunah, “faith”. Basically, it is a statement that means, “What you say is true”. When you answer “amen”, it is as if you had made the blessing yourself; you are confirming the declaration of the increase of God’s presence, and thus, increasing awareness of God’s presence yourself.
And now, of course, a blessing from me to you: may you always find God, even in the most mundane and unlikely places.
And a joyful Three Kings’ Day! 😉
Blog readers: Which is your favorite blessing? If you could create a new blessing for something that doesn’t have one yet in Jewish tradition, what would it be for and how would you phrase it?
So, Shabbat is something you are a little familiar with, having seen it–or at least part of it–first-hand. But I don’t think I’ve ever really explained it top-to-bottom, and given its centrality in observant Jewish life, I believe a proper e-mail is in order.
First of all, as you know, the commandment to “observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy” is not only a Biblical commandment, it is one of the Ten Commandments. There are two reasons listed in the Bible for keeping the Sabbath: “as a remembrance of the Act of Creation”, and “as a remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt”. That first reason has fairly straightforward to the concept of a day of rest. In Genesis, it says that God created the world in six days and then rested on the seventh. Of course, in the mainstream Jewish interpretation we do not take any of that literally. For one thing, how could there be “days” before the sun itself was created (on the fourth day)? For another, how could a God who has no body or needs of any sort “rest”? What does that even mean? Did He continue creating afterwards? Not that we know of, right? So why do we say He “rested” on the seventh day–what about the eighth, and the ninth, and every day after that?
We must conclude that we are not talking about the kicking-up-your-heels-with-a-glass-of-lemonade-on-a-Sunday-morning kind of rest. And that’s good, because if what we’re supposed to do on Shabbat is “rest”, why aren’t we allowed to do something ridiculously easy like flip a light switch, or relaxing, like playing music?
So here’s the thing. In Judaism (and in most spiritual practices) we believe that the physical world that we see, touch, smell, hear and taste, is just one aspect of the universe, and that there is a parallel spiritual world as well. One of the central concepts of Judaism is channeling the sanctity of the spiritual world into the physical world. We do this through observing the Torah–God’s “guide book to life”, which practically speaking means observing the commandments. So in a way, the act of keeping a mitzvah is a space in the realm of action where the Divine and the mundane interact.
There are a number of “meeting points” between the spiritual and physical worlds according to Judaism. In the realm of space, for example, there is a physical place where the Divine and the mundane meet. That place is (was…) the Temple, and by extension, the city of Jerusalem, and the Land of Israel. Their holiness is in that they have a central role in channeling the spiritual into the physical.
There also exists a “meeting point” in the realm of time. That meeting point is Shabbat.
To Jews, Shabbat is a time above time. It exists on a different plane than the rest of the week. The rest of the week, we have a mission in the world–to act as partners in God’s creation, to take the raw materials He has given us and build the world into a better place. You know how in the story of man’s creation in Genesis, it says that man was created “in God’s image”? Christians take that in an entirely different direction… but in Judaism, what we believe this means is that God made us like Him by giving us the ability to create. While other animals also have a limited capacity to create things, they do not do so with the intention of creating something new, but rather to sustain themselves. We have an aspiration to become greater than we are and make the world greater than it is. This is what defines us, and this, we believe, is why we are here.
On Shabbat, something changes. We step back from our role as creators, and recognize that we are also a creation. God’s creation. If you will, it’s sort of like an office party where we toast the Boss to acknowledge his role in making this all possible. 😉 So all the things we are prohibited to do on Shabbat, are acts of creation. We are supposed to use that time to focus on everything God gave us and helped us create–family, friends, good food and wine, studying Torah, and otherwise “basking in the Divine light”. In our tradition, Shabbat is “a taste of the World to Come”–both in the sense of the Messianic era, and in our idea of Heaven. A time when we will no longer have to partner with God in creation; where our work will be complete, so we can finally rest and enjoy being creations of God.
So what, practically, does this look like? Well, you’ve seen part of it, but to be comprehensive I’ll take us chronologically from lighting the candles to the havdalah ceremony.
Bringing In Shabbat
I elaborated upon the Shabbat candles in this entry, so I won’t go into their significance here. The lady of the household is usually the one who performs that ritual. We wave our hands in front of the flames in a beckoning gesture, three times, to signify “bringing in” Shabbat, and then we cover our eyes and make the blessing: “Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to light the Sabbath candles.” It is customary for the woman to then pray for her family and herself, as this is considered an auspicious time for prayer.
Then evening prayers are held at the synagogue. I should note, by the way, that morning, afternoon and evening prayers are not only held at the synagogue on Shabbat, but every day. Men are obligated to pray three times a day in a minyan, a quorum of ten men. The Sabbath prayers are longer and more festive. The synagogue we took you to holds prayers in the style of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, which means that it has a lot more singing and dancing than most services. In any case, the regular evening prayers are preceded by a collection of Psalms and special songs. This section of prayers is called Kabbalat Shabbat, “the reception of Shabbat”. The most famous of these songs is Lekhah Dodi, a poem written by Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz, a Sephardi Kabbalist who lived in Safed in the 16th century. It compares the Sabbath to a bride coming to meet her groom (the nation of Israel). The poem is really beautiful; Wikipedia has a good translation of the lyrics under “Text”. The melodies you heard were ones composed by Rabbi Carlebach, but I thought you would be interested to know about the melody sung in most Sephardi synagogues. It is an ancient Moorish melody brought to Israel by refugees from Spain–meaning it is actually older than Lekhah Dodi itself. Here is a beautiful rendition by Ehud Banai. He is singing Psalm 95, which is the opening Psalm to Kabbalat Shabbat, and then Lekhah Dodi.
The Evening Feast
After we come home from synagogue, as you know, it’s time to eat! We are required to eat three festive meals on Shabbat–one at night, one in the morning/afternoon following prayers, and one towards sunset. The meal opens with the kiddush ceremony, a prayer recited over a goblet of wine. Kiddush means “sanctification”, and reciting this prayer over wine is sort of a declaration of the holiness of the day. Why over wine? Because the presence of wine and bread are required for any meal of “distinction”–a se’udah, or feast, which is often required as part of fulfilling a major commandment. Aside from the holidays, we are also required to have a se’udah following a marriage or a circumcision ceremony. Any significant moment in Jewish life is celebrated with a feast. Which brings me back to what I’ve been telling you about Jews all these years… we’re all about the food! 😉
So the head of the household makes kiddush and all those present answer “amen” and have a sip. Next we must wash for bread. We wash our hands before eating bread all the time; this is not a special Shabbat thing. Like I showed you, we pour water from a cup over our hands, three times for each hand, and then recite a blessing over washing hands (which I spared you 😉 ). Because washing hands is supposed to occur right before eating bread, we are careful not to speak (except for the blessings and “amen”) until we have eaten it, so there is no hefsek, or “break”, between washing and eating. And that is where my beautiful challahs come in:
It is not, of course, required that they be home-baked. 😉 I just happen to love baking them. It is also not required that they be braided, or as sweet and delicious as mine are 😛 (Though that is the Ashkenazi custom.) What is required is to use two full loaves of bread to make the blessing. They symbolize the manna God gave the Israelites in the desert; every day, each Israelite would get one portion of manna, but on Friday, they would get two, one for Friday and one for Shabbat.
So the head of the household makes the blessing over the challah and then distributes it to the family and guests, and then we are free to proceed with our meal. Beyond the wine and bread, there is no specific requirement for what the meal should contain, though it is customary to serve meat, as it is festive. It is customary to sing special songs about the Sabbath during the meal, and to discuss ideas from the Torah.
Speaking of guests, hosting guests is actually a mitzvah, and it is common to invite friends, neighbors and family over to share the meals on Shabbat and holidays. It’s like a dinner party every single week. 😀
In the morning, there are services at the synagogue, during which the weekly portion of the Torah is publicly read. That practice goes back to the days of Ezra and Nehemiah and the Jews returning from the first exile, in attempt to familiarize all Jews with the Torah, even those who couldn’t read. Studying Torah has always been a value of utmost importance for Jews, which is why we had such an exceptionally high literacy rate throughout history.
After the service, we have the second feast. In American congregations, it is common to have the kiddush at the synagogue with wine and refreshments, and then to continue the meal at home starting from the challah. Israelis tend to have prayers earlier and go straight home for kiddush and the meal.
The afternoon is spent enjoying friends and family, reading, napping, and/or studying Torah. There is a specific mitzvah to enjoy oneself on Shabbat, so we try to set aside the best food and (permitted) entertainment for that day.
Se’udah Shlisheet and Havdalah
Towards evening, there are afternoon prayers, and then the third meal–se’udah shlisheet. This meal does not require wine or whole loaves of bread, and in a pinch it doesn’t even have to include bread, so naturally it’s a lighter meal. We usually just have more challah with spreads. It is customary to sing songs with sort of sad melodies during this meal, to express our sadness that Shabbat will soon be leaving.
When three stars have emerged, it is time to pray the evening prayers, and then to “make havdalah”. Havdalah means “differentiation”, and the ceremony marks the end of Shabbat and the beginning of the new week. It is recited over yet another goblet of wine, starting with some verses from Isaiah: Here is the Lord of my salvation, I shall trust and I shall not fear; for my strength and my song, He has become my salvation…” And some other verses from the Tanakh. Then, the blessing is made over the wine.
Next comes the blessing for besamim. Besamim means “spices”; we smell something pleasant, like cloves or cinnamon, to sort of “ease the sadness” of Shabbat leaving. Next, the blessing over the candle. It is customary to then look at the reflection of the light on our fingernails. The idea is that it would be improper to recite a blessing for something and then not use it, so we use the light of the candle… to examine our fingernails. I have no idea why that of all things became the custom. I’m sure someone has a very profound Kabbalistic explanation somewhere. 😛
Next comes the final blessing: Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who differentiates between holy and mundane, between light and darkness, between Israel and the nations, between the Seventh Day and the Six Days of Action. Blessed are You, Lord, who differentiates between holy and mundane.
The candle is then put out, usually by spilling a little wine onto a plate and putting the flame out with it. And that’s it, the new week has begun! We sing a song asking for God’s blessing for the coming week, and for Elijah the prophet to come and announce the coming of the Messiah.
…And then, to clean up the mess. 😛
Well, I’d say this qualifies as a Daniella Standard Size E-mail! If you’re confused or wish for an elaboration on a certain aspect, you know how to find me–and don’t forget, you still owe me a full Shabbat. 😉 (I certainly won’t forget. You know I never forget anything. 😛 )
Feliç Any Nou!
Blog readers: Anyone want to volunteer an explanation for the fingernails thing? Anything else you’d like to add or ask about Shabbat?