Archive for the 'Holidays' Category

Happy New Year for Trees!

In my last post, I wrote about how I’ve tried to make the secular new year a starting point for developing some healthier habits.  I’m proud to report that a little over 3 weeks in, I’m still going strong!  My husband and I went over our budget, I set aside time and money to dedicate to physical exercise, and I’ve found some great Torah to connect to, some of which I want to share with you today.

Today is the first of the month of Shvat, שבט, and this concept of Rosh Chodesh, or the “head” of the month, a new month, is also in this week’s Torah portion, Bo.  The very first mitzvah given to the Jewish people, even before they became Jews!, was to declare new months and to create a unique Jewish time frame.

in the jewish calendar, months are based on the moon's cyclesThe Hebrew word חודש, chodesh, comes from חדש, chadash, which means new.  The Jewish calendar is linked to the cycle of the moon, which waxes and wanes over the course of the month. Like I said in my last post, Judaism strongly encourages teshuva, reconnecting, renewal, and opportunities for new growth.

Last night I attended a shiur about the Torah portion and Rosh Chodesh Shvat, which focused heavily on the commentaries by Rav Tzadok HaCohen, the author of the Pri Tzadik. He says the type of renewal of the moon, a renewal after a disappearance, is actually a new thing – not the same as it is before.  In other words, just because we enter a new month, it doesn’t mean that it has to be the same as last month. We choose whether to carry the same choices and habits with us into this new era.  To clarify the point, he quotes the Gemara in Gittin 43a “A person does not truly understand the words of Torah until he has tripped over them.”  Struggling, learning, and relearning are all part of the game.  If you misunderstand then get it; if you learn something and then forget it – but then you learn it again – ah! Then it really becomes yours.

King Solomon famously wrote in Kohelet, Ecclesiastes, that “There is nothing new under the sun.” Everything loses its value as it becomes old, because a person has become used to it.  The moon, however, is constantly changing and renewing, and that is how we as Jews are to live.

While this wasn’t brought into last night’s shiur, this concept reminds me very strongly of the laws of Niddah, which regulate when a husband and wife can be physically intimate, and ways which they should act when they are separate. One of the thoughts behind it is that a relationship which is allowed to constantly renew itself can grow stronger.  It’s more exciting to be together after a time apart than to experience what inevitably becomes the same old, same old.  Of course this can’t solve all of the complex problems that couples face, but it’s known that today, just as in yesteryear, that if people perceive a relationship to be stale, they may be tempted to chase after something, or someone, more exciting.

Now that we’ve established how wonderful the new month is, let’s get specific about this month.  The first mishna in Mishna Rosh Hashanah explains that there are multiple new years in the Jewish calendar.  And there is a debate between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai over when the new year for fruit trees is.

According to Beit Shammai, the first of Shvat is when the new year for fruit trees is. He relies on when the moon is the most hidden, it is the most dark. And there is a line of thinking that we are most ready for renewal when there is the most obscurity, perhaps we feel further from God, we lack clarity and seek it.

Beit Hillel holds that the new year for trees is on the 15th of Shvat, Tu B’Shevat, when the moon is full.  One could also suggest that when things are most clear, when we feel most connected to our personal and national mission, when we feel closest to God, that we are ready to take on the next challenge.

That is an interpretation given over by Rabbi David Sedley about the possible reasonings behind the two opinions. As usual, the sages side with Beit Hillel, so in this case, Tu B’Shevat is held as the new year for trees.

But today is still Rosh Chodesh, a day of renewal, Hallel, and celebration. Tu B’Shevat is the time of year that we expect to see almond blossoms bud, the sap to begin to emerge in trees, and also for the majority of the year’s rainfall to have landed.  Thank God, it’s been a rainy last two weeks, and I’m glad that we have two more before most of it is locked in.

We know of course, that the moon does not actually go through cycles and that this is merely our perception of the shadows and reflection of the sun’s light on the moon, as viewed on earth.  Jewish thinkers too, have known that the waxing and waning of the moon can be easily calculated.  The fact that this phenomenon is a result of our perception only strengthens the concept, however.  Opportunities for renewal, or the lack thereof are a matter of perception.  Things can be the same as they’ve always been, or they can be different. We can be cynical about things remaining the same, or we can make resolutions to change. It’s up to us.

As we say in the special additional Mussaf prayer for Rosh Chodesh, may we be blessed with good things, happiness and joy, salvation, the ability to support ourselves, rich lives, and peace.


Should American Jews Celebrate Thanksgiving?

Thanksgiving is one of those holidays Americans just don’t want to let go of.  What do I mean? Despite the fact that it’s pretty inaccurately rooted in history, it’s probably the most widely celebrated American holiday.  Flights are booked, schools are closed, a bird is pardoned by the President, and for a lot of families, it’s the only time of year that everyone gathers together around the dinner table, perhaps second only to Christmas.

The tie to Thanksgiving is so strong that a lot of American ex-pats living in Israel are participating in Thanksgiving dinners, or Thanksgiving-themed Shabbat dinners the following evening.  From a culinary perspective, Thanksgiving shouldn’t be such a big deal to observant Jews.  One of the lifestyle adjustments that stood out for me when becoming observant was consuming (and preparing) large meals each Shabbat.  Thanksgiving ain’t no thang for the Jewish homemaker, who whips together a lavish meal for 10 the day of.  Headlines about preparing for a Thanksgiving meal one month in advance seem laughable.

So what is it about Thanksgiving that speaks American Jews? The football? The shopping the day after?

Well, not so surprisingly there is disagreement about what Thanksgiving means and what Jewish participation in the American holiday should look like.  A terrific article by Rabbi Michael Broyde on My Jewish Learning discusses the differing halachic opinions on Thanksgiving celebrationPoskim have been concerned about whether it is appropriate to distinguish between “secular society,” “Gentile society,” and “idol-worshiping society” in modern American culture.  In short, the three main opinions are:

  1. Thanksgiving is not a Gentile holiday, yet “celebration” should be limited.
  2. Any form of involvement in Thanksgiving is prohibited, as it is a Gentile holiday.
  3. Thanksgiving is a purely secular holiday, and celebration can take any (halachic) form appropriate for secular observance.

Rabbi Broyde concludes that as long as Thanksgiving is celebrated in a completely secular way, it is permissible and even advisable to celebrate: “For reasons related to citizenship and the gratitude we feel towards the United States government, I would even suggest that such conduct is wise and proper.”

While the U.S. Government has not been perfect in its treatment toward Jews, there is a reason why it hosts the largest Jewish community outside of Israel.  The United States of America provided unprecedented opportunities for oppressed Jews around the world to practice their religion (or unfortunately to leave it behind) as they wished, and to climb the economic ladder.  Nonetheless, Jews have faced discrimination in the U.S., and the government did not act soon enough to take action when news about the concentration camps and the Holocaust reached its shores.  Still, I think Jewish-American success is something to be celebrated and to be thankful for.  I have strong doubts that if my grandparents and great-grandparents did not flee economic devastation and persecution in Europe to seek refuge in my native country, that I would be here today.

Being thankful is an intrinsic part of what it means to be Jewish.  The English word, “Jew” is a translation of the word “Yehudi”, יהודי in Hebrew, which literally means “one who gives thanks.”  Halachically, the first sentence one should say each morning upon waking begins: “Modeh ani…”, מודה אני…  which means “I am grateful”.  It is a statement of gratitude to God for the ability to wake and continue our lives into a new day.

I won’t be celebrating Thanksgiving this year.  For starters, today is a work day and I don’t feel in the spirit, as the day is not recognized much around me.  I suppose that in this way I feel more Israeli than American.  With Shabbat the following day, Shabbat stands out more in my calendar.  Secondly, I’m married to a Canadian, who doesn’t have the tradition of spending the last Thursday in November feasting.  But my thoughts are with the rest of my family, who will be gathered around the table in America without me.  I’m very thankful for them and all that they, and the U.S.A., have given me.

Now that I’ve established that it’s kosher to celebrate Thanksgiving in the U.S. (and probably also in Israel), here comes another question.  Should the meal in the U.S. end with “Next year in Jerusalem”?

The Shul You Go to and the 27 You Don’t Go to

one jew stranded on an island, two synagoguesThere’s an old joke about a Jew stranded on a desert island who builds two synagogues (shuls) — one he goes to, and one to not go to.  Nu, Jews like to kvetch, and despite the tremendous quality control in the traditional prayer service, a popular question to ask this time of year is “where do you go to daven (pray)?”

Though about 95% of congregations in Jerusalem by my rough estimate would qualify for what I would consider to be a traditional prayer service, people are very picky about where they pray.  During my first Yom Kippur in Israel, I was pretty stumped about what to do.  I didn’t have a membership anywhere, but the thing is, I didn’t need one.  That was freeing, comforting, but also a bit threatening.  There are shuls everywhere, and on Yom Kippur, all of Jerusalem stops in its tracks and pours into them.

I stayed over at friend’s house in the eclectic neighborhood in Nachlaot.  She knew that the service at the Inbal Hotel would have its doors open to all visitors, so we went there for Kol Nidre.  It was by far not the closest option, so during the walk over, I was able to appreciate the silent streets and all the other people, most of whom were dressed in white, off to their shul of choice.

The next morning and throughout the day was an adventure in finding a shul that matched my brand new Artscroll machzor.  In addition to struggling to bridge the discrepancy between my prayer book designed for a North American congregation, I was also trying to figure out what the prayers were saying, doing, and where the world the congregation was at, because it was my first time at an Orthodox minyan for the holiday.

I’ve had all sorts of various Yom Kippur adventures in the two years since then, and I just have to believe that despite the social pressure to find the “right” place to daven, I’ve been in the right place, where I needed to be, having the experience that I needed to have.

Despite all of the similarities between the prayer services at all of the Yom Kippur services I’ve been to here, it’s still striking how different the feel can be.  And that, I think, is why such an emphasis is placed on where to go.  We are a people who toil, squabble, and fuss over details.  The six books of the Talmud, expounded upon in 60 tractates of Gemara, and expounded upon in additional commentary, explore the how of Judaism.

Having coming from communities in the United States, where the choices of congregations were limited to one or two, or at best a few, not to mention the tremendous membership fees, I initially didn’t understand the scope of synagogues in Jerusalem.  To me, you picked a place, and you prayed!  But by visiting different synagogues on Shabbat throughout the year, I gradually began to feel that some places were less welcoming, some blasted in the heat in the winter, some places blew through the prayers so fast I nearly got whiplash, and some were longer than synagogues in the U.S. (I didn’t move here for that!), and I too was developing my list of shuls I don’t go to.

One of the things I appreciate about coming to Israel is giving up some of the luxury of choice.  I found something as simple as buying laundry detergent in the United States to be exhausting.  Instead, I gained the opportunity to choose from a variety of congregations in which to pray.

When overwhelmed by variety or pressure to find the “perfect” place, I think it’s important to remember that while pulling apart differences with a fine-tooth comb, there is a big picture.  No matter where I pray, I can start with:

מה טובו אוהליך יעקב, משכנותך ישראל – במדבר כ’ד, ה

How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel. (Numbers: 24: 5)

This prayer, as part of the series of morning blessings, is a reference to “tents of learning and prayer”.  This “tent” can also be the Jewish home, by the way. This verse is the first sentence of a paragraph which expresses reverence for the synagogue, which takes the place of the Holy Temple.  The great thing about a tent, though, is that you can put it up yourself, or with the help of some friends, and you can take it wherever you may go.

May we be blessed with the ability to connect to God from our “tent”, wherever we may be.

Why Wish For A Sweet New Year?

apples and honey for a sweet new yearOn Wednesday night, we’ll be dipping apples in honey as a siman, or symbol, of a desire to have a sweet new year.  But of all the things that the Jewish people could yearn for, why is sweetness the quality we wish for our lives?  What does it mean for the new year to be “sweet”?

In order to try to answer the question, let’s broaden the theme.  It’s not just the new year that we sweeten with honey.  It has been a common practice to form the letters of the Aleph Bet in honey as young children are first learning them, so as to make the study of Torah a sweet activity.  Additionally, in the first year of marriage, many new couples have the custom of drizzling honey on challah, as opposed to dipping it in salt, a tradition other homes commonly follow.

The Land of Israel is described multiple times in the Torah as the land “flowing with milk and honey”.  Milk and honey are also among two of the substances that the Torah is compared to in Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs), “milk and honey are under your tongue” (4:11).

The thing about sweetness is that it is a taste that wears off quickly.  But it also leaves you wanting more.  Today, when I meet new olim or baalei teshuva, I see how the new start gives them a “sugar high”, and I recall my initial enthusiasm.  I say “recall” because I am no longer connect to the experiences in the same way I did when they were fresh.  How can I make them new to me again? How can I prevent a “sugar crash” and find the energy to keep things going when it’s no longer so novel, so exciting?

The thing about honey is that it is not only sweet; it is also sticky.  Perhaps the idea is to be “stuck” to the sweetness, stuck to the desire for more.  The “sweetness” that attracts a person to Torah, to Israel, and to a spouse initially can eventually wear off.

May we find this year not only the sweetness of the new, but also the “deveykut”, of clinging on, when things return to the seemingly ordinary, and find the more subtle tastes palatable too.

Teshuvah Disclaimers

We are approaching Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.  The last month of the Jewish calendar, Elul, is supposed to be a time of closeness to God, when we do a chesbon hanefesh, a self-assessment of how we have acted over the past year.  Jewish law and thought gives a lot of weight to teshuva, literally, a “return” to God, through a correction of ways we have transgressed.  The 10 days in between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are known as Aseret Yimei Teshuvah, the 10 days of Teshuvah, where we ask forgiveness from our fellow (wo)man for our misdeeds and say special versions of the prayers, placing special emphasis on God as melech, the king who assesses us and rules over our fates.

But what does one actually do to carry out this self-assessment?   And how?  It’s mostly about taking an inventory of our traits, much like a storekeeper takes an inventory of his wares.  Ideally a person does this every day.  So what are we to add during this time?  The answer, as I understand it, is that although we are to assess ourselves throughout the year, now is the time to particularly pay attention.

And for people like me, it’s dangerous.

In taking out the scorecard, assessing things that I did well and things that I did not, times that I stopped and helped somebody, and times that I got impatient and rude, my mind tends to block out the good and remember the bad.  Additionally, should someone give me a compliment for a success, I tend to think that it was God that really guided me through it and that I in fact, did very little.  On the other hand, when I struggle, fall short of a goal, or make someone else upset, I think it’s all my fault, rather than letting God have a piece of that too – understanding that challenge was part of His plan for me as well.

I’m accused pretty often of being too hard on myself.  It’s seems like a funny character fault in Western society that is teeming with self-help books and a Jewish culture that emphasizes self-improvement and doing good deeds.  But a lot of mussar, or self-improvement texts are not designed for someone like me, or women in particular, who tend to fall more often into the self-critical category than self-aggrandizing.  If mussar is depressing rather than helpful or uplifting – stay away, I’ve been advised.

The Kotzker Rebbe taught that a person should have a piece of paper in each side pocket. On one should be written, “The world was created (just) for me”. On the other, “I am (originated from only) dust and ashes”. So the key is knowing which piece of paper to take out!

There is another trap that I fall into, and that is to compare myself to others.  That is when it is time to recall a  story about Rav Zushya, an early Chassidic master. He was on his deathbed, and a number of students were there to share his final moments. Rav Zushya told them that he was scared, afraid even, of God’s final justice. “I am not afraid that God will ask me, ‘Zushya, why weren’t you like Abraham?’ but rather, ‘Zushya, why weren’t you a Moses?’ I can answer Him, ‘But you didn’t make me with the abilities of an Abraham or Moses.’ But what if God asks, ‘Zushya, why weren’t you a Zushya?’ What can I answer?”

Being better than someone else is a never-ending challenge, because we have incomplete information.  I don’t really know what someone else’s journey is all about!  I find that as I overcome my own challenges, new ones, and usually more complex ones, crop up.  Being my best self is enough of a game of Whack-a-Mole.

So my blessing to you readers is that you should have the proper intuition to know which piece of paper to take out when, to reach your potential.

Av: Bring Some Peace on to Us and to the World

We’re a week into the heavy month of Av, the month where a number of tragedies befell the Jewish people, the most central of which is the destruction of both Temples on the ninth of Av.  In preparation for this, “The Three Weeks” leading up to Av 9, or “Tisha B’Av” are a time marked by limited celebration (no concerts, for instance), and it gets ramped up in “The Nine Days”, the first nine days of the month, where we do not eat meat or drink wine (except on Shabbat), some men do not shave, and we are to turn our hearts toward Jewish unit and bringing tikkun repair.  Tisha B’Av itself is a day of fasting and reciting kinot, or liturgical lamentations.

Few things are without debate in Jewish history in practice.  But this much is clear-cut – the Second Temple was destroyed because Jews could not get along with each other.  “Why was the Second Temple destroyed? Because of sinat chinam, senseless hatred of one Jew for another.” (Talmud: Yoma 9b)

The popularly held solution is that we need ahavat chinam, abundant love for fellow Jews. But this isn’t so simple when the hatred, or scorn, disapproval, or rejection comes from a place that seems to make sense!  Until I moved to Israel I did not understand how diverse the Jewish people really is.  Though few in number, we divide into much more than the widely noted Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox movements.

Splinter groups, factions, followers of this rabbi and that.  Throw politics into the mix and oy va voy, fire!  There are Jewish residents who don’t believe in the State of Israel and refuse to serve in the army, Jewish mothers whose sons died in order to protect a safe home for the Jewish people; those who reject the State on the grounds that it isn’t governed fully by Jewish Law, and those who think it’s a big enough sacrifice in the name of religion that public buses don’t run on Shabbat and holidays; there are ultra-Orthodox men who do not work so that they can study Torah all day, sending their wives (who are also often raising many children) into the workforce and/or receiving government assistance in order to live, and there are fellow Jews who believe that the Jewish way is to study Torah and work, arguing that to choose to live on handouts is not only a rejection of Torah but an unnecessary drain on society at large.

All of the groups of people described above strongly identify themselves as Jews and strongly believe that following a different path bodes destruction for the Jewish people.  It’s not just civil disagreement, but hatred that I hear pouring from the mouths of one group about the other.

At a Tisha B’Av gathering at the Jerusalem Cinematheque last year, there was a panel discussion on how different segments of Jews might be able to open dialogue.  Though Israel is the heart of the Jewish people and the focal point for ingathering of the exiles, this panel made me realize how infrequently I actually see Jews of all backgrounds in the same place, working toward a united goal.  Instead, we remain divided by neighborhood, occupation, yeshiva, dress code, hangouts, etc.

dove with olive branchI surely don’t have a solution, but particularly during this month, I try to understand the severity of the problem.  I’d like to focus on a subtle way that this is underscored, in a passage that Jews of most denominations are familiar with:

עושה שלום במרומיו.  הוא יעשה שלום עלינו ועל כל ישראל וימרו אמן.

Bring peace into our midst.  He will create peace for us and all of Israel.  And we say amen.

This is said three times daily at the end of the Shemonah Esrei, or the Amidah pray said traditionally three times daily.  It’s also sung in Jewish day schools and sleep away camps in a “Kumbayah”-type melody.

And as I wrestled with Judaism anew in my early twenties, it used to bother me.  “Why are we praying only for peace to Israel, Jews?  Isn’t that a bit elitist?  Exclusionary?  What about world peace, or Israeli-Arab peace?”

I asked this recently at the Shabbat table, following Birkat HaMazon, the prayer after a meal which includes this line too, and my father-in-law provided an answer that speaks to the theme of the month of Av.  He explained that it’s only until we resolve all of the internal Jewish conflicts that Jews can go on to create peace amongst other nations, can have the full strength to fulfill our mission of creating tikkun, or repair in the world.  In other words, we need to clean up our side of the street before we worry about other messes.

There is wisdom to this, for its known that when a person is sick, she has difficulty caring for others.  It’s not selfish to preserve one’s personal health!  Furthermore, the laws of Tzedakkah or charity dictate that we give to our families first, then our local communities, and then larger communities, and so on.  It’s not elitist or inappropriate to put that which is closest to you first.

For this month at least, focusing on the common bonds among the Jewish people seems a large enough goal.  May you have a safe and meaningful fast or day of reflection!

The Biggest Tikkun

I’m still making my way through Eim Habanim Semeichah, and apropos to the holiday of Shavuot which is coming up on Tuesday night, the section of the book that I read today included discussion of Tikkun Leil Shavuot, a sort of “restitution” or “repair” on the night of Shavuot.

Throughout the Jewish world and certainly throughout Jerusalem, places of worship and study will host all-night learning extravaganzas, often with special guest teachers.  There are several reasons cited for this customs.

In Eim Habanim Semeichah, Rav Teichtel brings the explanation of the Magen Avraham, who wrote that we stay awake on the night of Shavuot, a holiday that celebrates among other things the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, in order to rectify the sin that the Israelites committed by sleeping through the night prior to the giving of the Torah.  If the rabbis introduced such a custom to rectify a minor infraction, how much greater must we change our behavior in order to rectify a major infraction such as the sin of spies, who told the Israelites that the Land of Israel was unsafe for habitation.

Rav Teichtal says that we should make up for this “bad debt”of trusting in the spies by making a tikkun today and returning to Israel.  Though they were sent with the expectations that they would return with such glowing reports about the wonders of the Land that the Israelites would be eager to come, they instead turned them to scorn the Land.

Torah study is considered to be equal to all of the other mitzvot combined.  The thesis of Eim Habanim Semeichah is that living in Israel is essential to Jewish life, perhaps a value that even exceeds strict observance of all other commandments.

I wonder what Rav Teichtal would have to say about the situation we find ourselves in today.  Some representatives of Jewish communities actively send glowing reports about the “land flowing with milk and honey,” technology, beauty, and scholarship.  Unfortunately it is also Jews who are behind some of the largest smear campaigns against Israel, declaring it an oppressive, apartheid state, that was founded on and is a world leader in human rights abuses.

Taking all of these considerations into account, it seems to me that there is a tikkun to be made in Torah learning and there is also a tikkun to be made not only in physically coming to Israel but also in hasbara, an explanation of why Jews have a legal and historical right to come to the Land of Israel and to set up a State, for it seems that we no longer know.


Ilene Rosenblum is a writer and marketing professional living in Jerusalem.

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