Category Archives: The Torah

Shavuot: On Covenants and Cheesecake

Dear Josep,

The Shavuot holiday coincides with a number of joyful events in my family. In 2008, Eitan and I got married 3 days before Shavuot. In 2009, I gave birth to H the morning before Shavuot. In 2012, I gave birth to R2 right on the day between our anniversary and H’s 3rd birthday! Understandably, the Omer “count-up” has special meaning for us every year. 🙂

So what is this holiday and what is its significance?

“Shavuot” literally means “weeks”; the word shavua comes from the root sh.v.a., ש.ב.ע, which means “seven”. But that same root also means “oath”. Remember how I said that Passover is like the birthday of the Jewish people, and that Shavuot is like the wedding anniversary? The 6th of Sivan is the day God gave us the Torah at Mt. Sinai. In the 50 days between the Exodus and receiving the Torah, we went from being slaves to prophets–every one of us.

In Rabbi Judah the Levi’s philosophical work The Kuzari, he puts forth an argument that is still used in theological debates when discussing the Divine origin of the Torah. (Rabbi Lawrence Keleman gives a wonderful class on this here.) He states that every other religion began through the revelation of a single human being–Islam had Mohammad, and Christianity had Paul. (Yes, Jesus before that, but Christianity as its own religion, as opposed to a Messianic sect of Judaism, basically began with Paul’s revelation.) The thing about individual revelations is that they are impossible to verify. You can either believe that Mohammad or Paul was a true prophet and had a true revelation, or not. A skeptic could easily claim that they were making it up or were clinically insane, and it is very hard to prove or disprove one way or the other.

It gets a little harder to dismiss when you make the outrageous claim that an entire nation stood at Mt. Sinai and personally heard God speak. We’re talking about around 3 million people. It is extremely difficult to argue that 3 million people went simultaneously insane. Or just got together and decided to make the whole thing up and tell their children and their children’s children that they personally heard God speak, and manage to pass that intact story down through every generation for 3,500 years.

Now, this is obviously not a flawless argument–there is no such thing when it comes to theology–but it is a fairly strong one, and certainly differentiates Judaism from the rest of the world’s religions. Only Jews would have the audacity to claim that our ancestors all stood at Mt. Sinai and heard God speak with their own ears.

According to Exodus 19-20, the nation gathered at the mountain on the 6th of Sivan, and God gave them the Ten Commandments. (Which, by the way, is a fairly inaccurate translation of that phrase. We have 613 commandments, not just ten, and these ten aren’t necessarily more important than the others. The Hebrew phrase, asaret hadeebrot, is more accurately translated as “the Ten Statements”.) The Israelites were so overwhelmed by the Divine revelation that they told Moses to go up to the mountain and receive the rest of the Torah for them. He ascended Mt. Sinai and received the Tablets of the Covenant.

The revelation at Sinai, as depicted in an illustration from a card printed by the Providence Lithograph Company in 1907
The revelation at Sinai, as depicted in an illustration from a card printed by the Providence Lithograph Company in 1907

So What’s the Deal with this Torah Thing?

In my “Introduction to the World’s Biggest Book Club“, I gave two definitions for the Torah, the first of which was: “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”.

Now, one might ask oneself, aren’t we talking about faith and a relationship with God? What about this dry, austere collection of legalistic rulings and restrictions is so important and inspiring to Jews that they were willing to sacrifice their comfort, safety, financial viability, and sometimes their lives for it, for 3,500 years?

Here’s where our wedding allegory comes back. The Torah is like a wedding contract. If you take a look at any type of prenuptial agreement, you’re most likely to encounter a bunch of boring legalese. Any kind of contract provides the framework, the boundaries, through which a healthy, prosperous relationship can grow.

A good example of this is Shabbat. If you sat and read through those books I showed you about the laws of observing Shabbat, all you’d see is a whole bunch of things you’re not allowed to do. How stifling and restrictive! But as you saw yourself, all the “thou shalt nots” are not what define Shabbat. Shabbat is so much more than a bunch of restrictions. It is a time outside of time, a space to disconnect from our role as “creators” and enjoy our role as “creations”. We could not fully feel and enjoy this if we did not have a way to clearly differentiate our existence on that day from that of every other day of the week. The laws of Shabbat provide the frame; we fill in the picture. This is, of course, also true about marriage.

So what is the Torah? The Torah is our contract with God and our handbook to creating a just, moral, God-conscious society. God made a covenant with us to use the framework of the Torah to create a better society and raise the spiritual level of humanity to a point where God will be able to reveal Himself to all. He wanted us to do this by serving as an example to the rest of the world, being a “light unto the nations”, as it were. In return, He promised to give us the land of Israel–a land at the center of the world, where the paths of the leading civilizations at the time constantly crossed, meaning that they would all come in some kind of contact with us. He promised to bless us and protect us and provide for all our needs, as long as we kept our end of the deal.

…That didn’t exactly go as planned, but that’s a story for the Three Weeks and Tisha B’Av. 😉

Celebrating Shavuot

Shavuot is one of the Three Regalim–the Biblical holidays on which we were required to make a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem. Like the other Biblical holidays (Passover, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Succot and Shmini Atzeret), it is observed similarly to Shabbat, with restrictions on “acts of creation”–with the one exception of certain actions required for making food. (These are called “Yamim Tovim”, literally “good days”, or “Yom Tov” in singular.) In Israel Shavuot is one day long; outside of Israel, it is two days.

Other than that, there are no specific mitzvot associated with Shavuot. There is a custom to express our gratitude and love for the Torah by staying up all night learning Torah. (Eitan likes to note that this custom only came into existence when coffee became widely available…) Many synagogues are specially decorated with flowers and colorful cloths to cover the Ark (where the Torah scrolls are kept) and the Torah scrolls.

According to tradition, King David’s birthday and date of death were both on Shavuot. (It is said that dying on one’s birthday is a sign of great righteousness. Moses also died on his birthday.) For this reason, we read the scroll of Ruth during services on Shavuot, which tells the story of David’s great-grandmother–a Moabite convert to Judaism.

Another well-known custom of Shavuot is to eat dairy products. Tradition has it that this is because when the Israelites received the Torah, they were overwhelmed by all the laws regarding kosher meat, and decided to make life easier on themselves by just eating dairy until they were on top of the whole kosher meat thing.

Unlike in most areas concerning cuisine 😛 my Ashkenazi ancestors did dairy pretty well. Classic Ashkenazi dishes include blintzes (like fried crepes), bagels (traditionally eaten with cream cheese and smoked salmon), and cheesecake, the latter of which has become the classic Shavuot dessert.

Nom nom nom. by Michael Stern, under CC BY SA 2.0
Believe it or not, I was not a fan as a kid. My mom used to get cheesecake from the local kosher bakery for everyone else, and carrot cake for me; I assume because it was the other dairy cake they carried! I came around eventually–especially since Israeli cheesecakes are lighter and milder on the cheesy flavor–but I’m still kind of weird about cheese and sweet things. Especially the combination of chocolate with cheese. :-/
by Michael Stern, under CC BY SA 2.0

Shavuot falls on this coming Sunday, which means that us Israelis are in for a two-day Shabbat-Yom-Tov, and non-Israelis are in for a three-day extravaganza.

There will be cheesecake.

Lots of cheesecake.

(So Shavuot doesn’t exactly follow the formula of “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat.” But at least there’s the “let’s eat” part! 😛 )



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

Dear Josep,

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

(…Yes, apparently that happened.)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why yes there is. It’s called… matza.

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

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

So what’s the deal with unleavened bread?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bona Pasqua!



An Introduction to the World’s Biggest Book Club

Dear Josep,

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

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

The Torah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Tanakh

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

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

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

The Talmud

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

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

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

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

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

The Siddur

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

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

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

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

The Haggadah

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

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

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