Tag Archives: God

Circumcision. Wait! Don’t Run Away Screaming!

Dear Josep,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what about women then, I hear you ask?

What, childbirth isn’t enough?! 😛

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See? That wasn’t so bad! 😛

Love,

Daniella

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

The Sabbath Keeps the Jews–Even When It Seems Like It Doesn’t

With the big snowstorm of the season brewing as I type this, I wanted to share this piece I wrote about the crazy blizzard we had last year, which I also sent to Josep at the time. Stay warm, everybody!

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Dec. 15th, 2013

So.

As those of you who live in the Middle East know, we had some seriously crazy weather over the weekend. And this time the title “Snowpocalypse” is not nearly as ironic and silly as it was when we used it to describe the snowstorm in January. This one was the worst and coldest storm in modern Israeli history. We’re talking over half a meter of snow (about two feet) in Jerusalem, and even more in higher elevations, in Judea, Samaria and the North. Haifa got snow for the first time in 22 years. This part of the country was in total lockdown, and to make matters worse, damage from the winds caused a lot of disruptions in electricity so tens of thousands of people were without power during the coldest nights of the year. Thousands of people had to be rescued and evacuated, emergency shelters were set up, the Israel Electric Company declared a state of national emergency… total chaos.

Look like the Rocky Mountains? Nope. This was the Jerusalem Forest in 2013.
Photo credit: Dror Feitelson Pikiwiki Israel

And if that doesn’t sound bad enough, the worst of it had to be on Friday evening. We had no power for two and a half hours before Shabbat, making Shabbat preparation difficult to say the least; the power mercifully came back on very low tension juuust long enough before Shabbat for me to take a warm shower and for us to enjoy a warm and well-lit evening meal with our neighbors. Shortly after we came back upstairs to put the little one to bed, the power went out again, and stayed off for about 18 hours.

Did I mention that all our heating devices run on electricity? And that we are not allowed to light fires or turn on any electric devices (including battery-powered ones) on Shabbat–except in life-threatening situations?

If you’re wondering how cold it was, let’s just say our milk didn’t spoil even though the refrigerator was off for 36 hours.

We were okay overall, and the kids were mostly happy in several layers of clothing, though they kept waking up during the night because of the dark and cold and forcing us to climb out from under all our blankets to calm them. I was the most miserable of all of us. What can I do, I am used to Shabbat being about festivity and warm food and good company and good cheer. All four were significantly missing during the day as we struggled to stay warm and keep the kids from going crazy. We were supposed to have a guest over for lunch but she understandably stayed under her blankets. Eitan delivered some food to her when we finished eating, for which she was very grateful.

We didn’t even get to play in the measly inch or so of snow we got out here by the desert because we had no way to get warm afterwards!

Concerning the commandment to keep the Sabbath, God said, “Between Me and the People of Israel it shall be an eternal sign” (Exodus 31:17). Lighting the candles to signify the beginning of Shabbat always gives me the sense of “handing it all over to him”, knowing that now He is taking over, I have no more control, and I am keeping Shabbat as a sign of my love for Him and trust in Him. This Friday I was strongly reminded of the sense of extreme vulnerability–and helpless sort of hope–that I felt when I lit the candles through the cracked open, chained door to the balcony in the youth hostel in Barcelona seven years ago. The same sense of “Well, I have no idea how this is going to turn out, but God, I’m just going to have to trust You”. The electricity was still on at the time but we knew it might turn off any moment, and I just felt so grateful to have my shower and warm food waiting for us. Tears welled in my eyes as I watched the snow flutter down outside the window where our candles glowed. My four-year-old asked me what I was doing. I said I was watching the snow. He asked why. I said, “Because it’s beautiful.” I put my arm around him said, “You know… Hashem is always telling us that He loves us. He tells us all the time, by constantly giving to us. Keeping Shabbat is our way of telling Him that we love Him back.”

On the list of Most Challenging Shabbatot Ever, this one definitely outranks the one in Barcelona (for goodness’ sake, maybe I was hungry and upset, but at least I was warm, there was Ben & Jerry’s involved, and I didn’t have screaming kids to deal with!). I spent most of the time without power being cold, desperate and miserable. You know what? Being a Jew is hard. It means being totally committed to an intense and sometimes very demanding relationship with Someone whose communication with you is often very hard to interpret or even notice, and who very often doesn’t answer your requests in the way you would like or ultimately think is “right”. But at the end of the day, I know that it is worth it. I know that He knows what He is doing better than I do. And I know He’s really looking out for me, and giving me what I need–just enough pain and suffering for me to learn and grow, and more nurturing and abundance and goodness than I sometimes know what to do with. I don’t always get it, and sometimes I get angry, but as with all the relationships I’ve been reflecting on in the last couple of years, I’m learning that anger and disappointment are inherent and indispensable parts of a deep and meaningful relationship with someone, and not only do they not destroy everything, sometimes they can even have constructive power.

There is an old saying that more than the Jews keep the Sabbath, the Sabbath keeps the Jews. I used to understand this to mean that the magical atmosphere and time to focus on what’s important–our relationships with God, our families and our friends–is what gave us strength to face each difficult week throughout the centuries. But I think it is more than that. Some Shabbatot are neither magical nor joyous. 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.

Shabbat: A Sacred Space in Time

Dear Josep,

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:

Behold my challah-baking prowess!

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. 😀

Shabbat Day

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.

And also our nicest things. A majority of stuff categorized as "Judaica" is for use on Shabbat. Pictured here are a pair of candlesticks (with the blessing for the candles inscribed on the shaft), a board for slicing the challah, our kiddush cup, and one of our prettiest challah covers (cloths used to cover the challah while kiddush is being made).
And also, use our nicest things. A majority of stuff categorized as “Judaica” is for use on Shabbat. Pictured here are a pair of candlesticks, a board for slicing the challah, our kiddush cup, and one of our prettiest challah covers (cloths used to cover the challah while kiddush is being made).

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 besamimBesamim 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!

Love,

Daniella
***

Blog readers: Anyone want to volunteer an explanation for the fingernails thing? Anything else you’d like to add or ask about Shabbat?

On the Doorposts of Your Home: All About Mezuzot

Dear Josep,

So before I explain about mezuzot, I must first begin with the Shema prayer. Something tells me you have heard of it. 😉 Here is a translation of the full text of the first paragraph of the prayer:

“Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words which I command you today shall be upon your heart. You shall teach them thoroughly to your children, and you shall speak of them when you sit in your house and when you walk on the road, when you lie down and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign upon your arm, and they shall be as a reminder between your eyes. And you shall write them upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates.”

—Deuteronomy 6:4-9

That last verse is the source for the mitzvah of mezuzah.

So first of all: what is the Shema? Why is it so important? And why did God command us to say these words morning and evening, to bind them “as a sign upon your arm” and “a reminder between your eyes” (that’s the mitzvah of tefillin, which I’ll hopefully get to in a future e-mail!), and to have them hanging at every doorpost?

The crux of the prayer is the opening verse. It is our declaration of allegiance to God, and our belief that He is one. The rest of the paragraph explains how that allegiance manifests in our daily lives.

Okay, so we declare our allegiance to God. “The Lord is our God”. Why “the Lord is one”? What does his oneness have to do with our allegiance to Him and love for Him?

Well, first there’s the obvious: we were the first nation to believe in the oneness of God, and this was our unique characteristic at the time. And though this may seem totally basic in a world so strongly influenced by the three monotheistic faiths, it’s actually really not that intuitive an idea. When we look at the world all we see is contrast. Everything is defined by its separation and distinction from everything else. A tree is not a rock. The sky is not the sea. Dark and light. Good and evil. These things are so mutually exclusive that it doesn’t make sense at all that they could be all truly part of one unified thing. But they are. They are all God. This is a very difficult concept to grasp. So difficult, that the ancient peoples assigned different gods to the different forces in the world. This made sense. Even the Christians felt a need to do this to some degree. Mainstream Christianity assigns all evil in the world to a being separate from God—the Devil—because God is supposed to be pure good; how could evil come from Him as well? But according to the concept of the Shema, this is a mistake. The good and the evil in the world are both a part of God, and all are part of the same reality, which is all ultimate good. This is very hard to understand.

But that concept is central to our mission in this world, and thus central to our identity as the Jewish people. Our mission in the world is to help reveal God’s oneness and goodness. To lead the human race in its pursuit of Him, so that together, we can bring the world to a point where He can bestow His goodness entirely. The message of the Shema is our raison d’être.

And that is why we surround ourselves with its words. We recite it morning and evening. It is the first prayer we teach our children, and the last prayer we say before we die. (This is why you hear stories of Jews crying it out when facing death.) We bind it—physically or mentally—to our arms and minds when we pray (tefillin again!). And, yes… we hang it on every doorpost.

If you look at the first verse of the Shema in a Torah or mezuzah scroll, you will see that the last letter of both the first and last words of the verse are enlarged:

The mezuzah scroll. Note the beautiful calligraphy; it is actually a requirement that this scroll be especially written by a scribe, a sofer, who has learned this special calligraphy that we use for holy texts (namely: the Torah, mezuzah scrolls, tefillin scrolls, and the Scroll of Esther for Purim). The letters must be perfect, otherwise it cannot be used. We have to have our scrolls checked by a sofer from time to time to make sure they are still kosher.

These two letters spell the word עד, ed, which means “witness”. Our mission in the world is to bear witness to God’s oneness.

Okay, so that’s the first paragraph of Shema. What about the second paragraph? It reads like this:

“And it will be, if you will diligently obey My commandments which I command you this day, to love the Lord Your God and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul, I will give rain for your land at the proper time, the early rain and the late rain, and you will gather in your grain, your wine and your oil. And I will give grass in your fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be sated. Take care lest your heart be lured away, and you turn astray and worship alien gods and bow down to them. For then the Lord’s wrath will flare up against you, and He will close the heavens so that there will be no rain and the earth will not yield its produce, and you will swiftly perish from the good land which the Lord gives you. Therefore, place these words of Mine upon your heart and upon your soul, and bind them for a sign on your hand, and they shall be a reminder between your eyes. You shall teach them to your children, to speak of them when you sit in your house and when you walk on the road, when you lie down and when you rise. And you shall inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates—so that your days and the days of your children may be prolonged on the land which the Lord swore to your fathers to give to them for as long as the heavens are above the earth.”

—Deuteronomy 11:13-21

Very similar to the first paragraph, but with one major difference: this one talks about the consequences of not loving God and following the commandments. In Judaism we talk about two motives for loving God: ahava and yir’a, love and awe (sometimes translated as fear, but awe is a better word for it). Both are important components of our service of Him, but love, obviously, is the highest level. The first paragraph of Shema corresponds to ahava. It is unconditional. We love God with all our hearts and all our souls and therefore we perform these commandments. This is really ideal. But when we are not on that level, we need the second paragraph of Shema, which corresponds to yir’a, so we perform the commandments out of fear of the consequences. The concept of Divine reward and punishment is very complex and I won’t get into it now, but suffice to say that according to many Jewish philosophers such as Rabbi Chaim Luzzato, it is not as simplistic as it seems here. (…And there’s another topic for another e-mail! 😛 Apparently I’m never going to run out!)

There is a third and final paragraph of Shema, but it is less relevant here because only the first two paragraphs are included in the mezuzah.

So what is the mezuzah? The word “mezuzah” actually means “doorpost”. The mezuzah itself is a scroll of parchment on which the first two paragraphs of the Shema are inscribed on one side, and the word Sha-dai is inscribed on the other. Sha-dai is one of God’s names in Hebrew, associated with kindness, and it is also an acronym for shomer dlatot yisrael, “Guardian of the doors of Israel”. The scroll is rolled up from left to right with the words of the Shema on the inside. It is then affixed to the doorway. As you know, usually it is placed inside a nice protective case, one which has the letter ש or the word Sha-dai on it. Archeologists always know they have found a Jewish building when they see an indent carved into the doorway to hold the mezuzah.

The purpose of the mezuzah is, of course, to help us maintain an awareness of God and of our purpose in the world, every time we enter or exit a room.

“Psst! Hey Jew! The Lord is One! You may now carry on.”
Photo credit: 00dac, CC BY 3.0

The minimum halakhic requirement is to place one just on the main entrance of the home, but most of us affix a mezuzah in every doorway (except the bathroom, out of respect for the holy text), and also in buildings people don’t live in, like office buildings. There is a custom to kiss it as we walk past; most of us do this by touching it and then kissing our hand. (You probably saw me do this a few times…) This helps us maintain an awareness of it. Though it becomes something of an automatic reflex. Whenever I’m in a place with a doorway that doesn’t have a mezuzah, I find myself automatically reaching for a mezuzah that isn’t there! I call this “Phantom Mezuzah Syndrome” 😛

The mezuzah is affixed to the upper third of the doorway, on the side that, upon entering the room, is to the right. The Ashkenazi custom is to affix it tilting towards the interior of the room; the Sephardi custom is to affix it vertically. Why the difference? Well, because, of course*, there are differing opinions on the proper direction. 😉 According to one opinion, it should be vertical. According to the other, it should be horizontal. Sephardim go by the first opinion; Ashkenazim go by a compromise of both!

When affixing a mezuzah, the following blessing is recited: Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who sanctified us with his commandments and commanded us to affix a mezuzah.

And with that, my friend, I bless you that only goodness, harmony and peace should cross your doorways, and awareness of God and His love for you should ever be in your mind.

Have a peaceful St. Stephen’s Day and a restful weekend.

Love,

Daniella

***

*You will find within these letters many references to the irrefutable truth behind the classic joke, “Two Jews, three opinions”. 😉

Blog readers: What surprising places have you seen mezuzot? What physical objects in your life help you focus on what’s really important to you?