Author Archives: Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman

About Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, Ph.D., is Professor of Liturgy at the New York campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. He is the author of The Art of Public Prayer: Not for Clergy Alone, Israel: A Spiritual Travel Guide, and The Way Home: Discovering the Deep Spiritual Wisdom of the Jewish Tradition.

Sacred Giving

This essay was commissioned to accompany the September 3, 2013 release of Connected to Give (, the first in a series of reports published by Jumpstart ( on the first-ever nationwide study of the charitable behaviors and motivations of American Jews.

If you are a synagogue president, professional fund-raiser or Federation campaign chair, “Gird up your loins,” (as they say in Bible talk) – meaning get going and check out the first-ever capital campaign in Jewish history: Parashat Terumah. Here’s the thing: everyone gave. We are not talking 50% of the population (wishful thinking), or 80% (a crazy dream), or even 95% (a virtual hallucination), but 100% — every single soul who left Egypt. All of this without a women’s division or special drives for lawyers, dentists, and accountants; and not even one award dinner. It came from men and women without a single bank account, share of common stock, charitable trust, or need for a tax write-off. They just gave – because they wanted to.

The Torah is clear on this, and so is Midrash Rabbah which says explicitly that everyone responded: not just those who with possessions set aside from Egypt, but even people who had saved little, if anything, but who scraped together at least something for the desert tabernacle. The absolutely destitute, says Rab Nachman of Bratslav, donated their best intentions within, and according to the Chatam Sofer, if the wealthy had tried to give it all, so as to save the poor their share, they wouldn’t have been allowed to, since this was truly a project for all of Israel.

At stake was what economists call a public good – like municipal services or parklands: something set aside to benefit the general public. Nowadays, we tax people for such things, with a referendum, perhaps, to justify a special assessment. By contrast, our biblical forebears just gave — freely and without even a murmur.

Here is the reason why: this was a building where God would dwell. Ramban says that God’s presence moved there from Sinai. It was not immediately visible; there was no awesome display of lightning and thunder, like a divine scare tactic to terrorize the people into giving. But somehow, they knew anyway that this would be a place to meet God. Who wouldn’t donate willingly if our gifts would bring God into our lives?

The Centrality of K’vod Ha-met (Honoring the Dead)

Reprinted with permission from Life Cycles in Jewish and Christian Worship (The University of Notre Dame Press).
Caring for the deceased and seeing to the needs of their mourners are not the same thing; they may even be in conflict with each other. Whether a culture conceives of death as a problem for the deceased or as a difficulty for the next of kin makes considerable difference in terms of what it mandates ritually. To be sure, no culture may easily ignore the physical reality of an actual body requiring burial, but if it attends preeminently to the living, it may choose to dispense with the corpse quickly and without solemnity, whereas if it interprets the crisis as focusing on the dead, it may pay much attention to burial but ignore mourning.

Modern North American culture, for instance, isolates the individual (not the group) as the object of attention; and it defines the individual as a body with a mind (or psyche) that begins functioning at birth and ceases with death. It thus disregards what happens after death, there being no self any more, and hence, no "after death" period worth pondering. As birth is held to be our beginning, so death is considered our end, and what attracts society’s attention about that end is how the individual handles its impending arrival and how other related individuals then manage the mourning that follows in its wake. In both instances, the problem is defined as psychological: when the body dies, so too does the psyche, and (therefore) the problem, as far as that individual is concerned.
Not so classical Judaism. Psychology as a religious rationale is distinctly a later overlay of modern interpreters seeking to justify ancient ritual regulations. It plays almost no role in the thinking of the rabbis who initiated the regulations in question.
Unlike us, the rabbis did not begin with the idea of a self who disappears at the moment of death. They held instead that despite the body’s demise, the essential person housed in the body still enjoyed some beyond-the-grave existence, so that proper burial and continued respect for the deceased were required. Funeral ritual is thus preeminently designed as an act of k’vod ha-met, "honoring the dead." A corpse may not be subject to autopsy, for instance, nor may it be embalmed, except under unusual circumstances where not to embalm would dishonor the dead even more–as in preparing a body for burial far away, by which time if it has not been embalmed, it would putrefy; and even then, the embalming procedure must retain the body intact.

Does God Hear Our Prayers?

Reprinted with permission from The Way Into Jewish Prayer (Jewish Lights).

The traditional view of prayer is relatively straightforward. The Bible, for instance, takes it for granted that people have conversa­tions with God the same way they do with each other. To take but one example, Moses pleads with God to pardon Israel’s sins, and God duly responds, “I have pardoned, just as you say” (Numbers 14:20). Sometimes God initiates the conversation; sometimes hu­man beings do. But either way, God appears here as an all-knowing and all-powerful being who welcomes our praise and, if we are deserving, acts positively on our requests.

Talmudic Beliefs

By the second half of the second century B.C.E., the leaders whom we call the Rabbis were coming into being. So influential were they for all the rest of Jewish history that Jews today are rabbinic through and through. Jewish tradition is the Hebrew scriptures that Jews call the Bible plus the voluminous writings of the Rabbis of antiquity and the subsequent, equally monumental work of other Jewish leaders, also called rabbis, from the Middle Ages up to and including our own day. We customarily differentiate the Rabbis who laid the foundation for rabbinic Judaism until roughly the middle of the sixth century C.E. from the rabbis who are their spiritual descendants by capitalizing the first term but using lowercase for the second.

By the year 200 C.E., the Rabbis had recorded their views on prayer (as on everything else) in a compendium called the Mishnah. By 400 C.E., further generations of Rabbis in the Land of Israel had composed a larger work called the Palestinian Talmud. And sometime around 550 C.E., Rabbis in Babylonia (present-day Iraq) compiled a monumental work (some 16,000 pages in the standard English translation) called the Babylonian Talmud, or sometimes just the Talmud because of its size and influence.

HaMotzi: The Deeper Significance of the Blessing over Bread

Reprinted with permission from The Way Into Jewish Prayer (Jewish Lights).

Technically, a meal is considered any repast in which bread is consumed, so Jewish meals begin with the blessing over bread and then the sharing of bread together. The accompanying blessing is widely known to most Jews, who have heard it since childhood and who may even have memorized it just by having said it so often.

Many Jews follow traditional Jewish precedent by beginning every meal this way; others reserve it for festive occasions like wedding banquets or holiday dinners. In any case, saying it accomplishes two things. First, it draws attention to the privilege of having food to eat. Second, the blessing’s words connect an ordinary meal with a symbolic lesson about the end of time.

The words of the blessings are succinct and to the point: “Blessed are You, Adonai our God, ruler of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.”

challah bread

Giving Thanks for the “Delivery System”

It is normal for blessings over food to refer to the means, or “delivery system,” by which food comes to us. Apples, for instance, call forth the blessing “Blessed are You … who creates the fruit of the tree.” Potatoes get “Blessed are You … who creates the fruit of the earth.” So referring to God as the One who “brings forth bread from the earth” is not altogether unexpected.

But bread does not actually come from the earth, except in its raw form as grain—so the blessing ought to have referred to the grain, not to the finished product, bread. That, at least, is what the Rabbis imply in two laconic but insightful comments.

Bread in the Garden of Eden

The first comes from a midrash called B’reishit Rabbah, part of a many-volume compilation of rabbinic comments covering several books of the Bible. In this one, a fifth-century collection of midrash to Genesis, we find a discussion of the various kinds of trees that must have existed in the Garden of Eden. God tells Adam and Eve that they may not eat from a particular tree, “the tree of knowledge of good and evil” (Genesis 2:18), otherwise identified as “the tree in the middle of the garden” (Genesis 3:3). But all the other trees were available for their pleasure, and the Rabbis musingly wonder what they were. This was Eden, after all-pure paradise. Surely Eden had trees that far excelled the ones we now know.

Blessings Everywhere

Reprinted with permission from The Way Into Jewish Prayer (Jewish Lights).

Beyond the prayers of synagogue and home, which could be planned because the times for them were fixed, [in ancient times, as now] there were the events of everyday life that evoked blessings, often unexpectedly. Indeed, though often hard, the workaday world was conceptualized not as a daily grind but as an opportunity for prayers that celebrate creation and our human place within it. Still today, the performance of commandments like illuminating a home with Shabbat candlelight, for instance, evokes the words “Blessed are You, Adonai our God, ruler of the world, who has sanctified us with your commandments and commanded us to kindle Shabbat lights.”blessings everywhere 

But God’s presence was likely to become evident not just in the moment when a divine commandment was being performed but at any time or place, like the breathtaking surprise of coming across a desert landscape or a redwood forest, for which one says, “Blessed are You, Adonai our God, who created the universe.” The thinking behind these blessings that celebrate nature–not just its extraordinary manifestations but even such ordinary beauty as a tree in blossom–is especially instructive.

North American culture divides human activity into simple oppositions. We are either at work or at play, on vacation or on the job, in school or at recess. We instinctively treat prayer, therefore, as what you do when you are in synagogue (or church) but not in the office, the garden, the playground, or the car. Judaism takes just the opposite point of view. Though not all of life is holy, the holy can come bursting through the everyday at any time.

Jews were therefore to be ready for such occasions by reciting appropriate blessings for happening-upon the sacred: a rainbow, a flower, thunder and lightning, an ocean, a wise teacher, hearing good news (or even bad)–all of these occasions evoke a blessing from Jews, who know that prayer is an inherent part of life, not something reserved just for specific days of the week or year and for certain places but not others.