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Simcha in the Seder

March 20, 2013

Note: This article was first published in the Beth Israel Judea Bulletin, March/April, 2010.

Passover is coming. It’s a time to find the best price for matzoh and clean the house of chametz. For me, it’s also a time to crack out the Haggadah and take a fresh look at the family seder. But why the fresh look? After all, don’t we want to focus on the familiar “order” of the Seder, to tell the story with the words of the Hagaddah (the one we’ve always used), and to strive to “get right” every ritual and symbol?

Yes, there’s a comfort in that process as well as a good dose of nostalgia. However, is the Seder about the recalling of past Seders? Or is it more the discovery of fresh ways to make each individual feel as if they had gone out of Mitzrayim. After all, this is what the Haggadah asks of us.

For me, the rituals, symbols and discussions found the Haggadah comprise what we today would describe as an interactive, creative educational process; one that both teaches the Exodus story and finds ways for us to experience it.

On that point, I’m enjoying reading Creating Lively Passover Seders: A Sourcebook of Engaging Tales, Texts and Activities, written by David Arnow and published by Jewish Lights Publishing. He talks about the educational model of the Seder (as you may know, the Hagaddah is a pedagogical tool as well as a textbook). At the same time, he points out that while the younger generation can learn the story, there’s also a lesson in the process.

Arnow says that:

Telling the story of the Exodus must be geared to the level of understanding of the younger generation — and I would broaden that to include the interests of adult participants as well. Remember, that the Haggadah alludes to the Seder of five illustrious sages who discuss the Exodus all through the night. Children should participate in the Seder, but it’s also important for them to observe their parents and other adults seriously engaging the issues the story raises.

Read more…

An interesting Torah scribal tradition seen in Parshat Balak

February 20, 2013

This is part of a D’var Torah I presented on Shabbat Balak in 2012 at Beth Israel Judea. 

The portion of Balak is filled with wonderful stories, miracles and great characters. And it also holds a number of very beautiful Hebrew poems: the prophecies and blessings of Billam. In the story, Billam and his client, the Moabite king Balak, climb ever higher on the mountains surrounding the Israelite camp and prepare to launch curses down upon them. However, each time Billam is supposed to launch a curse Billam offers a blessing ­– all of which is really a MacGuffin, since from the very beginning of the story we know that the Holy One won’t let Billam curse Israel and Billam knows this.

There are interesting traditions that we can see in the final blessing. In almost all modern Torah scrolls (meaning scrolls from the last 150 years or so), the first letter of each column of text starts with the letter “vav,” except in a few instances, depending on the scribe and the tradition that the scribe is “scribing.” This tradition goes back more than a millennia and wasn’t always approved of by various rabbinical authorities. So, depending, there can be 5 columns, or 6, or 7 or even 8 columns in a scroll with a different letter than a vav. There’s no halacha on this, rather, it’s a scribal custom.

The tradition, in part, comes from from a play on words. In Parashat Terumah Ex. 27:11, the hooks that will support the panels, or columns of the Mishkan, are called “Vavei Ha’Amudim.” With a double play on words, we uncover the scribal tradition: Amudim means columns in the Torah  – the written not the physical columns – and  “vavei” is the plural of vav.

According to the Kabbalists, the letter vav is an extended yod and symbolically represents the pulling down of the Divine wisdom into this world. At the top of each column in Torah, we see the representation of the Infinite Divine wisdom acting in the world.

So, each column begins with a vav, except when they don’t.

Read more…

Is Your Passover Seder a Museum?

February 19, 2013

This post was originally published in the BIJ Bulletin, March/April 2011.

There are many emotions that come to us during the Pesach holiday and especially during the Seder meal. The Seder along with the Haggadah comprise an exceptional educational tool, bringing stories, teachings, rituals, symbols, food, song, smells and even argumentation, to teach us about the Exodus story.

This educational process seeks to open our heads and our hearts: the former to learn and understand the details of the Exodus story and the Pesach customs, and the latter to imagine that we were slaves and to feel the emotion on becoming free. We recently witnessed that joy reflected in the faces of Egyptians in Tahrir Square.

Of course, we don’t just recall the Exodus at the Seder. The meal brings to mind dear family and friends who sat beside us in past years, some of whom are no longer with us. We can almost hear their voices reading from the Haggadah or calling out from the kitchen whether we want one matzah ball or two with our soup.

These family memories have a serious emotional weight and can make it difficult to make any changes to the Seder, from the text that is read to the food that is served. Changes can be seen as a disrespect to our elders as well as creating a break with a beloved tradition. I bet that every one of us can find something about their family’s Seder that they consider an essential tradition.

Read more…

Interesting Problem of Jewish Samoa and the International Date Line

December 29, 2011

Samoa is moving its place on the dateline and the solution involves deleting a day, Friday December 30 and go straight to Saturday. But what does this mean for the observance of Shabbat? Well, the answer “depends.”

Our early ancestors must have thought the world was flat, after all we Jews were scattered to its four corners. Yet today we can travel back and forth over the dateline in a single day (or hour). How do Shabbat-observant Jews understand places that might be a day behind or ahead on ones own understanding of when Shabbat happens.

I own a number of iOS apps that use GPS to help users know when Shabbat and holy days will occur. But what rulings do they use to figure it out?

I uncovered several interesting articles addressing the issue. The first is from Rabbi Dovid Heber at Star-K Online, the Kashrut certification site. Read more…

Editing Failure of English-Hebrew Dictionary

December 20, 2011

I recently purchased the Oxford English-Hebrew/Hebrew-English Dictionary published by Kernerman – Lonnie Kahn. This is a hardcopy dictionary, just to be clear. It was edited by Ya’acov Levy. And it has a significant usability failing: that means you Mr. Editor Levy.

Hebrew is gender-based. Nouns have a gender and that’s important to writing and speaking. You need to know the gender of a word and it’s not always apparent by a look. Some words have “irregular” plurals that appear to be in the opposite gender.

So, if you look up a word in the English-Hebrew side of the dictionary, you would expect to see the gender along with the listing of the Hebrew words. But no. The English listing provides the part of speech for the English word and just the Hebrew words. No gender listing. To find that out, you have to flip the book over to its Hebrew side and search for the listing. Two steps.

There’s plenty of room on each line for the information, the gender and plural even (if irregular).

Fantastic Jewish-themed T-shirts

December 4, 2011

Shofar Blowers International 250The Jewnion Label is a fun online store filled with clever Jewish-centric paraphernalia. It’s back-ended by CafePress. The founders, Stacey and Joshua Abarbanel of Santa Monica, Calif., created emblems honoring a wide range of unsung heroes, including latke flippers and Jewish mothers. All of these designs can be put on the usual Cafe Press fare of shirts, sweats and mugs.

Each emblem highlights a guild or society with a motto. For example, the Purim Shpielers & Squelers Society’s is “Shake, Rattle and Role.” The names of the Purim story characters are wrapped around the main design. Really clever.

I purchased a t-shirt for the International Federation of Shofar Blowers, since I am BIJ’s Ba’al T’kiyah for the High Holy Days. The blasts of the shofar are translated into symbols of long dashes, short dashes and dots. This design is superb.

Last Year’s New Year Column for the BIJ Newsletter

September 13, 2011

Here is my column from last September’s BIJ Bulletin, entitled: Fresh Mitzvot For Your New Year. I referred to it in my current column, so here it is …

The High Holy Days are a time of deep reflection, heartfelt prayers and renewal. At the same time, they can bring opportunities for new blessings and fresh connections to our spiritual heritage, and perhaps, the creation of traditions for you and your family.

Many of the High Holiday symbols and customs are familiar: the round challah, which represents a crown (we refer to G*d as Melech, “king,” in a number of prayers in the liturgy ); and the dipping of apples and challah into honey on the first day of the new year  (adding the special blessing “to renew unto us a good and sweet year”).

Yet there are many other customs and observances for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur that can enrich your spiritual connection to the season. Here are a few for your consideration:

Piling on the Shehecheyanu blessings. On holidays, we say shehecheyanu, the blessing for special occasions thanking G*d for “granting us life, sustaining us, and enabling us to reach this time or occasion.” But is one blessing enough? No way! Our tradition points to creative ways to double up on shehecheyanus. Read more…


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