Author Archives: Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

About Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin is the author of Jewish Literacy and Words that Hurt, Words that Heal, along with other widely-read books on Judaism and the "Rabbi Daniel Winter" murder mysteries. He lives in New York City and lectures widely throughout North America.

Jewish Parents Humor

Reprinted with permission from Jewish Humor: What the Best Jewish Jokes Say About the Jews (William Morrow).

Jewish parents are famous (in some circles, infamous) for anxiously hovering over their children. “A Jewish man with parents alive,” Philip Roth wrote in Portnoy’s Complaint, “is a 15-year-old boy, and will remain a 15-year-old boy until they die.”

jewish doctor

A rabbi I know, who grew up in the intensely Ortho­dox neighborhood of Borough Park, Brooklyn, told me that it was his wife who taught him that one could express love for one’s children by taking pleasure in their personalities. “My par­ents,” he explained, “expressed their love through excessive nervousness and worrying.” That was also the case with Mel Lazarus, creator of the cartoon strip “Momma.” Reminiscing about his overly attentive mother at a seminar on Jewish humor, Lazarus recalled, “We had very many interesting conversations, about my posture for example.”

Roots of Overinvolvement

The overinvolvement of mothers in their children’s lives might well have several roots. The dominant middle-class ideol­ogy of the 1940s and 1950s–and Jews were quintessentially middle class–dictated that a father should work, and that the mother stay home with the children. A large number of highly educated Jewish women found themselves displacing all their intellectual energy, aspirations, and professional ambitions onto their children, particularly their sons. It is doubtful if the cur­rent generation of Jewish women, many of whom do have their own professional identities, will hover over their children in quite the same way.

In addition, parental overinvolvement may reflect the deep-seated Jewish fear, instilled by pogroms, the Holocaust, and the precariousness of the Jewish state, that the “next generation” might not survive at all.

Chaim Bermant, an English-Jewish writer, has captured the precise cadence of such parental nervousness. While working as a correspondent during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Bermant was asked by several soldiers to telephone their parents and tell them that they were okay. When he returned from the front, he did so and kept a record of one of the conversations:

God & Humor

Reprinted with permission from Jewish Humor: What the Best Jewish Jokes Say About the Jews (William Morrow).

Looking for a Miracle

A man brings some very fine material to a tailor and asks him to make a pair of pants. When he comes back a week later, the pants are not ready. Two weeks later, they still are not ready. Finally, after six weeks, the pants are ready. The man tries them on. They fit perfectly. Nonetheless, when it comes time to pay, he can’t resist a jibe at the tailor.

“You know,” he says, “it took God only six days to make the world. And it took you six weeks to make just one pair of pants.”

“Ah,” the tailor says. “But look at this pair of pants, and  look at the world!”

Jokes aimed at God tend to be the gentlest in the Jewish tradi­tion–ironic digs, rather than belly laughs. More than any other contemporary comedian, Woody Allen is the master of this genre: “If only God would give me a clear sign of His existence. Like making a large deposit in my name in a Swiss bank ac­count.”

god and humorIn Allen’s film Love and Death, the character of Boris Grushenko mines the same vein: “If I could just see a miracle. Just one miracle. If I could see a burning bush, or the seas part, or my Uncle Sasha pick up a check.” Elsewhere, Allen makes a simple commonsense appeal to God: “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve it by not dying.”

God’s Seeming Indifference

The disparity between God’s perfection and the imperfec­tion of the world He created inspires much of the humor about God. Indeed, the complaining spirit that runs through many anti-God jokes and witticisms is, in part, rooted in the Bible and other Jewish holy writings. Although the Bible contains little humor, it has plenty of complaints, and it’s only a short step from a kvetch to a joke. “Awake, why do you sleep, O Lord?” the Psalmist cries out (Psalms 44:23-25), in protest at God’s seeming indifference to the Jews’ sufferings and oppression.

Hundreds of years later, in a passage of unparalleled bitterness, the Talmud records the reaction of the School of Rabbi Ishmael to God’s silence during the Roman destruction of Jerusalem: ‘Who is like You among the dumb?” (Gittin 56b). The question “God, why do You permit the righteous to suffer and the wicked to prosper?” seems to lie at the root of almost all the biblical and rabbinic complaints.

Kaddish, a Memorial Prayer in Praise of God

Looking for the text of the Mourner’s Kaddish? Click here.

Reprinted with permission from Jewish Literacy (HarperCollins Publishers Inc.).

Throughout [Jewish Literacy], I have generally tried to be descriptive rather than prescriptive. However, when it comes to reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish, I feel compelled to urge my readers, “Do it.”

The Kaddish, an Aramaic prayer that is [almost] 2,000 years old, is recited in slightly different variations at every prayer service. Although one form of the Kaddish is recited in memory of the dead, the prayer itself says nothing about death; its theme is the greatness of God, reflected in its opening words: “Yitgadal ve-yitkadash, Shmei rabbah–May His name be magnified and made holy…. ” The prayer’s conclusion speaks of a future age in which God will redeem the world.kaddish

Why then was this prayer designated by Jewish law to memorialize the dead? There is no definite answer; the tradition dates only from the Middle Ages. Most likely, people believed that the finest way to honor the dead was to recite the Kaddish, thereby testifying that the deceased person left behind worthy descendants, people who attend prayer services daily and proclaim there their ongoing loyalty to God.

Reciting the Kaddish also forces mourners to go out in public. After the death of a loved one, a person might well wish to stay home alone, or with a few family members, and brood. But saying Kaddish forces a mourner to join with others. According to Jewish law, the Kaddish cannot be recited unless a minimum of 10 adult Jews are gathered in a minyan [quorum for prayer].

Because of the Kaddish’s therapeutic value, I believe it is important that it be recited by women as well as men. Throughout Jewish history, only men had the obligation to say the Kaddish. So associated was this prayer with men that Eastern European parents sometimes referred to a son as their Kaddishl–the one who would recite Kaddish for them. Among traditional Jews, it was considered disadvantageous to have only daughters, because there would be no child to say Kaddish after the parents’ deaths.

Hevra Kaddisha, or Burial Society

Reprinted with permission from Jewish Literacy (HarperCollins Publishers).

After a Jew dies, a burial society, known in Aramaic as the hevra kaddisha (literally, "holy society") prepares the body for interment. This process, called tahara (purification), involves the ritual cleaning of the corpse, by men for males and by women for females. 

Jewish tradition regards it as exceptionally meritorious to join a hevra kaddisha, particularly because so many people are reluctant to do so. Although few Jews, particularly outside the Orthodox community, are even aware of hevra kaddisha societies, they exist in virtually every Jewish community.

It is traditional for members of a hevra kaddisha to fast on the seventh of Adar, the anniversary of Moses’ death, to atone for any disrespect they may have shown to the dead. The night after the fast, they hold a joyous banquet, celebrating their honored position in Jewish life.

A moving description of the work of a hevra kaddisha was given by Professor Jacob Neusner concerning the death of his father-in-law, who died while on a trip to Jerusalem: "Those beautiful Jews," Neusner wrote of Jerusalem’s hevra kaddisha, "showed me more of what it means to be a Jew, of what Torah stands for, than all the books I ever read. They tended the corpse gently and reverently, yet did not pretend it was other than a corpse."

At the conclusion of the burial, the head of the hevra kaddisha said, "in a loud voice, that the dead should hear, and the living: ‘Mordecai ben Menahem, all that we have done is for your honor. And if we have not done our task properly, we beg your forgiveness.’"

Yahrzeit: Remembering on the Anniversary of a Death

Though it is traditional to observe yahrzeit on the anniversary of a loved one’s death according to the Hebrew calendar, some Reform communities follow the secular calendar. Reprinted with permission from Jewish Literacy (HarperCollins Publishers Inc.).

When the year of mourning is over, mourners are expected to return to a fully normal life. “One should not grieve too much for the dead,” the Shulhan Arukh, the 16th-century code of Jewish law, notes, “and whoever grieves excessively is really grieving for someone else.”

But there are several occasions each year when the dead are memorialized. The most significant of these is yahrzeit, the anniversary of the death, which is observed according to the Hebrew calendar. Most synagogues keep registries of the Hebrew dates of members’ deaths and send out notices reminding family members of the yahrzeit date. 

As is the case in all Jewish holidays, yahrzeit observance begins at night. A 24-hour candle is lit and, as one woman I know says: “The spirit of the dead person fills the room again for 24 hours.” One attends synagogue for the evening, morning, and afternoon services and again recites the Kaddish [the memorial prayer]. One should not go to a celebration or party on the day of yahrzeit, and some people fast on that day.


Shiva, the First Seven Days of Mourning

Reprinted with permission from Jewish Literacy (HarperCollins Publishers).

After the burial, mourners return home (or, ideally, to the home of the deceased) to sit shiva for seven days. Shiva is simply the Hebrew word for seven. During the shiva week, mourners are expected to remain at home and sit on low stools. This last requirement is intended to reinforce the mourners’ inner emotions. In English we speak of “feeling low,” as a synonym for depression; in Jewish law, the depression is acted out literally.

There are seven relatives for whom a Jew is required to observe shiva: father or mother, sister or brother, son or daughter, and spouse.

During the shiva week, three prayer services are conducted daily at the mourners’ house. The synagogue to which the mourning family belongs usually undertakes to ensure that a minyan (at least 10 adult Jews) be present at each service. Among Orthodox Jews, a male mourner leads the service and recites the Kaddish prayer for the dead. Some Orthodox, and virtually all non-Orthodox, Jews encourage women to recite the Kaddish as well.

jewish shivaAccording to Jewish law, there is a specific etiquette for paying a shiva visit. Visitors are to enter quietly, take a seat near the mourner, and say nothing until the mourner addresses them first. This has less to do with ritual than with common sense: The visitor cannot know what the mourner most needs at that moment. For example, the visitor might feel that he or she must speak about the deceased, but the mourner might feel too emotionally overwrought to do so. Conversely, the visitor might try to cheer the mourner by speaking of a sports event or some other irrelevancy at just the moment when the mourner’s deepest need is to speak of the dead. And, of course, the mourner might just wish to sit quietly and say nothing at all.

Unfortunately, people frequently violate this Jewishly mandated procedure. Particularly if the deceased was very old, the atmosphere at a shiva house often becomes inappropriately lighthearted, as Jews also try to avoid confronting the fact of death.

Perceptions Of Justice

The following article is reprinted with permission from CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

If you were told you could give one last message to your descendants, what would you tell them?

That is the challenge that confronts Moses. The Jewish nation that he has forged and guided for forty years in the desert stands poised to enter the land of Canaan. But Moses knows that he will not be allowed to accompany them; he is destined to die in the desert. The entire book of Deuteronomy, starting with this portion, consists of his farewell message.

It is surprising that at so dramatic a juncture, Moses’ opening remarks focus much attention on an issue that applies to a small percentage of the population, the creation of a judicial system: "Hear out your fellows, and decide justly between anyone and a fellow Israelite or a stranger. You shall not be partial in judgment: hear out low and high alike. Fear no one, for judgment is God’s" (1:16-17).

Since the average citizen is neither a judge nor an advocate, and does not usually spend much time in a courtroom, why does Moses make this issue so central to his message?

Perhaps it is because peoples’ perception of a society’s justice or lack thereof is so heavily influenced by its legal rulings. The number of Soviet citizens sentenced to jail for dissident activities in the Soviet Union in the 1970’s represented an infinitesimally small percentage of the population. But it was the unjustly sentenced "prisoners of conscience" that caused people throughout the world to see the Soviet Union as an unjust society.

Indeed, in our country, the common perception that numerous criminals are acquitted on the basis of technicalities causes many Americans to feel that criminal justice is unjust, even though the percentage of such cases is small.

And so, as the Jews prepare to establish their state, Moses reminds them that a just society starts with equal justice before the law.

It’s In The Blood

Provided by CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a multi-denominational think tank and resource center.

In every society of which we have knowledge, Jews have differed in certain consequential ways from their neighbors. For example, throughout history a higher percentage of Jews have been literate, an outgrowth of biblical and talmudic laws mandating education.

What about the universally lower levels of violent crime committed by Jews? Is this likewise attributable to Jewish laws?

So it would appear. In addition to being affected by biblical and talmudic laws prohibiting violence and teaching that human life is of infinite value, much of the visceral Jewish abhorrence toward bloodshed might be an outgrowth of a ritual discussed in this portion: "But make sure that you do not partake of the blood [of an animal whose meat is being eaten]. For the blood is the life, and you must not consume the life with the flesh" (Deuteronomy 12:23). To the Jews, consumption of any blood, animal or human, has always been viewed as vile (although it was widely practiced by their Near Eastern neighbors) and is the oldest dietary prohibition in the Torah (Genesis 9:4).

It would seem, therefore, that the uniquely Jewish practice of draining blood from meat (both at the time of slaughter and via salting) has had a profoundly moral impact on its practitioners. Is it a coincidence that so strong an abhorrence to consuming blood led to strong abhorrence to shedding it? Indeed, the laws mandating the draining of blood serve as a reminder of how an unusual, perhaps even awkward, ritual can sensitize and raise the moral level of an entire people.

Maintaining Monotheism

The following article is reprinted with permission from CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

Mattot is a disturbing Torah portion. In depicting the early Hebrews’ war with the Midianites, it contains a command to the Hebrews to wipe out most of the Midianites.

To place the commandment in context, one must remember that 3,000 years ago, this is how wars were fought. "Ancient documents from Mesopotamia to Egypt," a recent book notes, "abound in joyous references to annihilating neighbors."

The main reason these injunctions so disturb us is because the Bible itself has sensitized us to deeply respecting each human life. As the late Princeton philosopher Walter Kaufmann wrote, "The reproach of callousness and insufficient social conscience can hardly be raised. Our social conscience comes largely from the religion of Moses."

In large measure, it is only because of other verses in the Bible commanding us to love our neighbors and to love the stranger that the verses commanding total war trouble us. "[But] to find the spirit of the religion of the Old Testament in [these biblical passages]," Kaufmann added, "is like finding the distinctive genius of America in the men who slaughtered the Indians."

The Bible’s troubling ethics of warfare can perhaps be best explained in terms of monotheism’s struggle to survive. After all, it was long a minority movement with a different theology and ethical system than the rest of the world. It developed and expanded because it had one small corner in the world where it grew undisturbed. Had the Hebrews continued to reside amid the pagan, child-sacrificing Canaanites, monotheism itself almost certainly would have died.

Words That Wound

The following article is reprinted with permission from CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

The most famous event in Beha’alotkha is the punishment God inflicts on Miriam, Moses’ sister, for speaking ill of him with Aaron (Numbers 12: 1ff.). God confronts Miriam and Aaron. God is furious with them for gossiping about Moses and as punishment makes Miriam’s skin turn leprous. Aaron appeals to Moses, who directs a five-word prayer to God, "O God, pray heal her;" and Miriam is immediately cured.

The rabbis see in Miriam’s sufferings a punishment for the grave sin of lashon hara, gossiping. Elsewhere, the Torah teaches, "Do not go about as a talebearer among your people" (Leviticus 19:16). The rabbis understand this law as forbidding one from saying anything negative about another person, even if it is true, unless the listener has legitimate need of this information.

In the Talmud, the rabbis compared gossip to murder (Tractate Arachin 15b), for it too is irrevocable. The impossibility of undoing damage done by harmful gossip is underscored in a Hasidic tale about a man who went through his community slandering the rabbi.

One day, feeling remorseful, he begged the rabbi for forgiveness and said he was willing to do penance. The rabbi told him to take several feather pillows, cut them open, and scatter the feathers to the winds. The man did so, but when he returned to tell the rabbi that he had fulfilled his request, he was told, "Now go and gather all the feathers."

The man protested, "But that is impossible."

"Of course it is. And though you may sincerely regret the evil you have done and truly desire to correct it, it is as impossible to repair the damage done by your words as it will be to recover the feathers."