Author Archives: Rabbi Peretz Rodman

Rabbi Peretz Rodman

About Rabbi Peretz Rodman

Peretz Rodman is a Jerusalem-based rabbi, teacher, writer, editor, and translator. He was a founding editor of MyJewishLearning.com.

Ending Shiva

A mourner usually enters the initial and most intense period of formal mourning, shiva, at an emotionally fraught moment: the completion of burial. While the end of shiva could be a quiet and unmarked moment, Jewish communities past and present have adopted a variety of ways to mark the transition from shiva to sheloshim (the first month of mourning), easing the mourner into the next phase of re-entry into daily life.

The traditional end of shiva occurs on the seventh day of mourning (the sixth day after the funeral). Following the principle that part of a day counts as a day, most mourners conclude shiva on that morning–after services, if they are engaging in daily prayer.

walking to end shivaThe most common end-of-shiva practice today in many communities is for the mourner(s), on the morning of the last day of shiva, accompanied and even assisted by a friend or friends, to literally “get up from shiva.” The mourners rise from the low seat of the shiva week and confinement at home, and go for a walk around the block or its equivalent. In some communities, the friends recite the formula of consolation (“May God comfort you among all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem”) and then say to the mourner(s), “Arise.”

Mourners who, following traditional law, have not been wearing leather shoes now put on regular shoes, replace the torn clothing or remove the badge of torn cloth they wore during shiva, and set out to encounter once again the world beyond the home where they have been largely confined.

Sociologist Samuel Heilman, in When a Jew Dies, reports that “[a]mong the Lubavitcher Hasidim the drama is extended. The consolers leave the room [on the morning of the last day] with the… words of consolation.… Then, however, they reenter the room in which the mourners have arisen from their shiva in order to greet them with the verse, ‘May the Almighty mend all that tears his people, Israel,’ and then to wish for long years of life for those who have mourned.”

Other sources cite two alternative verses that the comforters may recite. Both are from the last chapters of Isaiah: “Your sun shall set no more, your moon no more withdraw; for the Lord shall be a light to you forever, and your days of mourning shall be ended” (60:20) and “As a mother comforts her son, so I will comfort you; you shall find comfort in Jerusalem” (66:13).

Tevilat Kelim: Immersing Food Utensils

Some Jews immerse new dishes, pots, or silverware in a mikveh before using them. While not technically an aspect of kashrut, this practice is viewed as part of the larger effort to infuse sanctity into the otherwise mundane physical act of eating. This ritual of immersion, like many traditional Jewish ritual acts, is widely observed among Orthodox Jews but rarely among religious liberals.

Cleansed With Water

Tevilat Kelim, as the practice is called, is traced back to an incident in the book of Numbers in which the Israelites are instructed to purify the items they have plundered from their implacable foes, the Midianites.

tevilat kelim“Gold and silver, copper, iron, tin, and lead–any article that can withstand fire–these you shall pass through fire and they shall be clean, except that they must be cleansed with waters of lustration, and anything that cannot withstand fire you must pass through water (Numbers 31:22-23).”

The Jewish legal tradition understands the fire-cleansing as a way of removing the traces of non-kosher food, but views the subsequent immersion as a form of ritual purification.

This second stage is not a matter of kashrut. In fact, food is still considered kosher if it has been prepared in kosher utensils that require immersion but have not undergone the procedure.

In general, Orthodox Jews continue to immerse metal and glass pots and dishes and recite a blessing upon the act, praising God for having “sanctified us through His commandments and commanded us concerning the immersion of utensils.”

Items made of some categories of materials completely unlike those specified in Numbers 31, such as wood and earthenware, do not require immersion. Those made of some other materials that may or may not fit the criterion of “can withstand fire,” such as porcelain, are to be immersed without the blessing. Practice varies regarding some materials, so one should consult a rabbi for guidance on what must be immersed, which items require a blessing, and how one should perform the immersion.

Travel to Israel

Between one and two million people visit Israel each year. Some are Christians who come to walk in Jesus’ footsteps. An increasing number come to do business. Others come to have a good time in a country that offers scuba diving at the Red Sea, dipping in the healing waters of the Dead Sea, or wind surfing on the Mediterranean. The largest segment of visitors, though, are Jews coming to Israel because they are Jews and Israel is the Jewish homeland. 

Perhaps these Jewish visitors can be called pilgrims. If pilgrimages are made to sacred places, however, it is a strangely secularized sense of sacred space that draws Jews to visit not only Jerusalem but also Eilat.

visiting israelThey come to see not only the site of the Holy Temple and the ruins of ancient synagogues but also trendy shops and cafés, to meet not only Jews engaged in Torah study but also Jews who are diamond cutters, dairy farmers, and software tycoons.

For Jewish travelers, a visit to Israel can and should be more than a typical tourist encounter with a foreign people, culture, and place. With preparation, it can be a stimulating, life-changing encounter. How, then, do we plan for a more enriching trip to Israel than that offered by standard tour agencies, a trip suited to our desire to explore what Israel means to Jews?

Experiencing Modern Israel

Jewish visitors come to Israel out of a sense of identification. But with what? Are they coming to learn about the land and people of Israel, or what being Jewish means to them?

If the experience of modern Israel is what you want to learn about, then you will want to visit sites like Independence Hall in Tel Aviv, where the Zionist leadership declared Israel’s independence in 1948, or Mt. Herzl in Jerusalem, where most of the state’s early political leaders are buried. You can visit the home and the burial site of David Ben Gurion in the stark emptiness of the Negev or see memorials to battles and to fallen soldiers, then meet today’s soldiers on military bases. You can visit the Knesset and the Supreme Court. You can learn about Israel’s minorities by visiting Druze villages and Bedouin encampments. Tour operators can facilitate this. You can experience the Jewish ambience of public spaces: city centers, outdoor markets, even shopping malls. 

Haftarah

Traditionally, on Shabbat and holiday mornings, a selection from one of the biblical books of the Prophets is read after the Torah reading. The portion is known as the haftarah (hahf-tah-RAH, or in Ashkenazic Hebrew: hahf-TOH-rah). On two fast days, Yom Kippur and Tisha B’av, a haftarah is recited at both morning and afternoon services.

While the Torah reading cycle proceeds from Genesis through Deuteronomy, covering the entire Five Books of Moses, only selected passages from the Prophets make it into the haftarah cycle. A cluster or three or four berakhot (blessings), depending on the occasion, follows the haftarah. Their call for prophecy to be fulfilled and for God to restore the Jewish people to Zion serve as a finale to the full set of the day’s scriptural readings, Torah and Haftarah together.

Prophets of Truth and Justice

Rabbinic literature does not discuss the origin of the practice of reading publicly from the Prophets in a formal cycle. We might look to the liturgical setting of the haftarah, haftarah readingthen, for some clue about its intended function. In addition to berakhot recited after the portion, every haftarah is introduced with a berakhah praising God for having “chosen good prophets and accepted their words, spoken in truth.”

The formula goes on to note that God shows favor to “the Torah, Moses His servant, Israel His people, and the prophets of truth and justice.” This focus on the reliability of the Israelite prophets has led some scholars in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including Adolf Büchler and Abraham Zevi Idelsohn, to speculate that the institution of the haftarah originated in bitter polemics among competing religious groups in Ancient Israel–the Jews and the Samaritans.

The Samaritans

The Samaritans were then an ethnic group rivaling the Jews in numbers, power, and influence. The Samaritans insisted on the exclusive truth of the Torah (their version differs somewhat from the Jewish Torah) and rejected all prophets after Moses. That rejection could well have formed the background for the practice of reading from the Prophets in synagogues. By declaring the prophetic books authoritative and their origin divinely inspired, the Jews may have sought to exclude Samaritans from local communities and offer a statement of opposition to a major tenet of Samaritan theology. This view is now accepted widely, but not universally, among scholars of Jewish liturgy.

Bring Your Own Books

Reprinted with permission from JBooks.com.

On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it happens sometimes that you’ve had enough of the traditional synagogue service. It’s long. It’s much the same from year to year. The themes can be arcane, the motifs seemingly repetitive.

To Do the Right and the Good by Elliot DorffEnhancing Your Shul-Going

Rabbis and cantors know this, and they use words and music to stimulate new thoughts and new feelings, but you can take charge of your own new directions. Bringing an iPod with your own music, even if it’s cantorial favorites or neo-Hasidic melodies, would raise too many eyebrows. But bringing our own books–now that’s not considered over the top by anyone. Here’s my hit parade of reading to enhance shul-going and inculcate the sort of contemplation appropriate for the High Holidays.

Our first stop is not far from the mahzor (the High Holiday prayer book) itself. Reuven Hammer’s Entering the High Holy Days is a book designed to help us find our way among the texts and practices of the traditional prayer service for those days, drawing out their themes and helping us appreciate the artistry that infuses the classic prose and poetry that we recite. There are other surveys and introductions, but Hammer’s is easily approachable and yet not at all superficial. We come away with a much more profound sense of why these are called “the Days of Awe.”

The Days of Awe is, in fact, the title of another work designed to enhance our experience of this ten-day period of reflection and penitence. Nobel Prize-winning Hebrew author S.Y. Agnon was not only a fiction writer in a league he invented and he alone populated; he was also a master anthologist with an encyclopedic knowledge of Jewish literature.
stack of books and glasses
In this collection Agnon draws on that library, especially the stories of the sages, both Hasidic and non-Hasidic, of early modern Eastern Europe, to offer insights into the ways in which Jewish traditions have shaped the days from the onset of the month of Elul through the end of Yom Kippur. Its chapters are bite-sized but spiritually nourishing. Bring it to services and you’ll find yourself passing it down the row repeatedly, in order to share with others the wisdom in this or that vignette.

Beginning Anew may be subtitled “A Woman’s Guide to the High Holy Days,” but this abundant collection, edited by Gail Twersky Reimer and Judith A. Kates, is of no less interest to men. The contributors share insights from women’s experience of the Bible readings and liturgy and rituals of those holy days, insights that truly enrich the occasion for every reader. Some essays are provocative and outrageous, others simply the product of a painstaking reading of ancient texts. This is a volume you’ll keep on your shelf for next year and the year after that as well.

Derech Eretz

Some behavior must be legislated in order for society to function. We need to have tax regulations, traffic rules, bankruptcy laws, and trial procedures. But then there are things that should not need to be the subject of bylaws, statutes, or house rules:  chewing gum is not to be disposed of on furniture or a floor; answering a telephone requires a pleasant demeanor; in a crowded parking lot one should park within the lines. In Hebrew, such basic, obvious consideration for others is called derekh eretz, which might be translated literally as “the way of the world.” 

A Slippery Concept

The concept of derekh eretz is slippery, because it is often used to describe ideas one could have expected to remain unspoken. The term can mean “common decency,” as when the Rabbis inform us that the Torah is teaching us derekh eretz when it instructs us to greet others even before they greet us (Mishna Avot 4:15) or when it instructs us not to enter another person’s home (or even one’s own) abruptly (Babylonian Talmud [BT] Pesahim 112a). In this usage, derekh eretz is reminiscent of a rhetorical ploy adults often use on children–the first-person plural as a veiled instruction, inculcating a sensitivity for social expectations: “We don’t do that,” “We do such-and-such this way,”  implying that one is aberrant or, at least, impolite if one does otherwise.

However, the phrase can also have a sense closer to its literal meaning, something like “the way things work,” or “the way it is.” It is this sense of derekh eretz that the Rabbis have in mind when they teach us to invite or allow our elders or teachers with whom we dine to take food first (BT Derekh Eretz 7), or when they instruct us that we are judged in our home towns by our reputation but elsewhere by our clothing (BT Shabbat 145b). That’s the way life works, they seem to be saying, and if you’re wise, you’ll recognize it and act accordingly.

One realm in which one needs to learn how things are done (but about which society is sometimes squeamish) is the matter of “the birds and the bees.” As such, the phrase derekh eretz, is sometimes found as a euphemism for sexuality–in the admonition, for example, to use words to set the right mood before attempting to cohabit with one’s wife, a practice described as derekh eretz that one can learn from the rooster (BT Eruvin 100b).

Must One Honor an Abusive Parent?

We learn what we truly value when the principles we hold true come into conflict with one another. Such is the case with a son or daughter who must determine how to relate to an abusive parent. The Torah requires that we honor our parents. But does this imperative extend to a parent who has been physically or emotionally abusive?

The Jewish tradition puts great emphasis on the honor a child should show his or her parents. It goes beyond the general exhortation of the Ten Commandments: “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long on the soil that the Lord your God has given you” (Exodus 20:12). Rabbinic law and legend and medieval and modern ethical tracts give very specific guidelines for the ways in which honor for parents is to be translated into concrete actions and prohibitions.
abusive parents fighting
On the other hand, the Jewish people are exhorted by the Torah: “You shall be very watchful of yourselves” (Deuteronomy 4:15), which is understood in classical biblical interpretation to be a call to guard one’s own health and well-being. When working with the children of abusive parents, mental health professionals urge those children to make a careful separation from the abusive parent, for the sake of self-preservation.

How, then, does one obey both imperatives? To what extent, and in what ways, should a child show respect for such a parent? Even if a son or daughter does choose to fulfill the biblical mandate, can it be done in a way that does not expose him or her to further damage?

Parents are Warned

Rabbinic literature is fully aware of the potential for abuse of parental power, and there are many passages in which parents are warned of the ill effects of physical and emotional abuse. We read in the Talmud (Gittin 6b): “Rabbi Hisda said:  A man should never impose excessive fear upon his household, or else he may be the cause of great tragedy. […]  Rabbi Judah said in the name of Rav: If a man imposes fear upon his household, he will eventually commit the three sins of illicit sexual relations, bloodshed, and the desecration of the Sabbath.” Meaning, his wife will not observe the laws of ritual purity because she is afraid to tell her husband she is not yet allowed to have relations with him, members of his family will meet with disastrous fates after running away from home, and the household will relight a lamp on the Sabbath for fear of his anger at being in the darkness.

How to Choose a Siddur

Whether you’re buying a prayerbook for yourself or for a synagogue or other group, it helps to know what lies behind the muted bindings and the denominational labels of today’s wide array of possibilities. Choosing a siddur (prayerbook) requires balancing several considerations. How traditional or radical a text do you want? How literal a translation? How much transliteration? Do you want a siddur that offers commentary to study, or one with devotional texts to deepen the basic prayer experience?  How important will it be for sections to be labeled and the contents clearly arranged and indexed? While many buyers will be guided in large part by ideological considerations, it pays to consider just what you get with each alternative.

The ArtScroll Phenomenon

prayer book

A person looking for the traditional received text of the liturgy without adjustment to modern ideologies will enjoy the ArtScroll siddurim (plural of siddur). ArtScroll is a publisher whose siddurim are closest to ubiquitous in North America, found even outside their natural home in the Orthodox world. They are available in many editions that vary by size, binding, and rite.

ArtScroll siddurim are characterized by their sharply-defined layouts which manage to maintain remarkable readability, despite the crowding of each page with directions and extensive comments. The name of God is translated always as “HASHEM” (“the Name,” a substitute epithet for the ineffable divine name). No apologies are made for such linguistic archaisms as calling God “King” or “father,” and the extensive commentary to the liturgy is unabashedly supernaturalist, messianist, and in every way the work of an unreconstructed traditionalist.

The Artscroll is an Orthodox publication, and proudly so, but it has quite a few fans outside the Orthodox world. A full-service siddur with clear directions, brief explanations, and complete and direct translations, the Artscroll is a mighty learning tool for anyone looking to expand his or her knowledge of traditional Judaism.  

Holiday of Religious Liberty

It is Passover, not Hanukkah, that Jews call “the festival of our freedom.” Among Jews in the Western countries in the late 19th century, though, that minor winter festival had come to be identified as a celebration of religious liberty.

Traditionally, the focus of Hanukkah was on the divine miracle worked for the priests who restored the purity of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem after its liberation from Hellenistic foreign rulers. The holiday was considered a triumph of the Maccabees and their dedication to Temple rites and the primacy of Jewish law. But as the liberal regimes of Western Europe and America began in the 1800s to champion modern notions of religious tolerance and freedom, the Jews of those nations began to see Hanukkah as a celebration of those very values.

Hymn of the New Hanukkah

Liberal liturgist Leopold Stein (1810-1882) gave classic expression to this new outlook in a German hymn sung to the traditional German melody for the medieval Hanukkah song Ma’oz Tsur.

hanukkah as religious libertyThe lyrics of the traditional hymn recounted the repeated pattern of the Jewish people being rescued by God from foreign regimes who sought to subjugate or even obliterate them. In contrast, the theme of Stein’s work is the universal liberation of humanity from the tyranny of oppressive regimes. The uprising of the Jews under the leadership of the Hasmonean priests (the Maccabees and their descendants) against their Syrian-based overlords serves as a model of an ostensibly weak people, living under occupation by a ruthless world power, who nonetheless prevail in their war of national liberation.

For the mid-sized and smaller ethnic groups of Europe struggling to establish their own states along ethnic and, frequently, religious lines in a world controlled by Habsburg emperors, Kaisers, and other imperial rulers, the message was (to cite a popular adage): the Jews are just like everyone else, but more so. In this case, the “more so” is that they anticipated the trend by nearly two millennia. To Stein and those who thought like him, the Jews therefore became the original fighters for religious tolerance, serving as the model for those who would later champion that cause.

Passover Songs

Jewish liturgy has always been embellished with poetry and song, and the seder is no exception. The following article looks at how those songs came to be sung after seder and why they were felt to be appropriate for the occasion. The author, his wife, and their three children can be found each year singing seder songs at 1:00 am with almost two dozen guests in their home in Jerusalem.

By any criterion–language, style, structure, or theme–the songs that appear at the end of the Haggadah comprise two distinct types: complex classical piyyutim (liturgical poems) on Passover themes and "jingles" on general Jewish subjects.

In the Middle of the Night

The song section often begins with a classical poem from one of the great payytanim (liturgical poets) of the Land of Israel in late antiquity, Yannai. His poem Az Rov Nissim, known by its refrain, Vayhi bahatzi halayla ("And it happened at midnight") employs all the techniques of classical liturgical poetry: an alphabetical acrostic structure, a simple refrain echoing a biblical verse (here, Exodus 12:29, about the Exodus), repetition of a key word at the end of each line. These ornate embellishments are meant to facilitate comprehension.

The text functions as a poetic reworking of a classical midrash–a passage in Bemidbar Rabba 20 that identifies the seder night not only as the anniversary of the Exodus but also as the date of many other midnight rescues: Abraham’s victory over the kings (Genesis 14), Jacob’s encounter with the angel (Genesis 32), the Israelites’ victory over Sisera (Judges 4), and others, right down to the last events in the Bible, Haman’s doom (Esther 6). Yannai’s vocabulary, however, is replete with arcane terms that only a master of midrash would recognize, and a reader unfamiliar with the midrash will find the poem tough going unless it is translated and annotated.

The poem’s description of God’s redemption coming at midnight focuses our attention both on the Exodus, which took place at midnight, and on ourselves, who are to finish our meal by midnight. Night is the time of greatest vulnerability, but with God as our savior, the poet implies, the darkness is not to be feared. The poem climaxes (in a passage sung more often than the rest of the work) with a promise that the day will soon come that is neither day nor night, a reference to the eternal daylight that will engulf the world in the end of days (Zechariah 14:7), when the dark night of the long exile will end.

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