It's been a busy month, and I want to throw out an apology for not having more content available this month! I would love to know any questions or topics you'd like to see covered here on About.com's Judaism page, because the more I know you the more I know what will be interesting for you to read about!
This month was a bit of a hodge-podge of topics that flew off the top of my head.
For starters, there are the 613 commandments. Although most are aware of the 10 commandments in Judaism and Christianity, you might not be aware that for Jews there are 603 other commandments that we find in the Torah. An interesting note: The major difference between Judaism's and Christianity's understandings of the 10 commandments relates to commandment number eight. Judaism sees it as "Thou shall not kill" and Christianity views the commandment as "Thou shall not murder." Do you see the difference?
Next up we have the Jewish divorce, also known as the get (pronounced geht as opposed to git). Having gone through a Jewish divorce myself, it's a fascinating topic that has caused a lot of controversy publicly in recent years. With many men not providing their wives with the necessary religious divorce, there has been a growing concern about agunot, or women whose husbands won't give them a get.
For those interested in the environment, there's a new article up. In "Judaism and the Environment," I discuss the basics of Judaism's approach to the environment, which, as you might have guessed, is one deeply rooted in the Torah. From eco-kashrut to the handful of Jewish holidays that celebrate the environment's creatively plotted harvest cycle, Judaism is a very earth-friendly religion.
Lastly we have an article up on the difference between the chanukiyah and the menorah. Didn't know there was a difference? No worries! You're not alone. Nowadays, menorah has replaced most terminology in common speech for any type of candelabra used in Judaism. There is, however, a stark difference between the two words and the two pieces of Judaica. Read more about it!
Let me know if there's something you'd like to see and I'll do my best to make it happen.
Judaism is chock full of fast days, where Jews are commanded to abstain from work and "afflict" themselves. Most are tied to the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE and the Second Temple in 70 CE, so why do we continue fasting today? Are we being punished for the stubbornness that led to the destruction of each Temple?
The fast days you'll find in the Jewish calendar are:
- Fast of Gedaliah (3 Tishrei/Late Summer or Early Winter)
- Yom Kippur (10 Tishrei/Late Summer or Early Winter)
- Asarah B'Tevet (10 Tevet/Winter)
- Fast of Esther (13 Adar/Winter)
- Ta'anit Bechorot (14 Nissan/Spring)
- Tzom Tammuz (17 Tammuz/Summer)
- Tisha b'Av (9 Av/Summer)
That might seem like a lot of fasting, but, believe it or not, once upon a time fasting was more regular and the reasons varied. The primary call for fasting was to gain God's compassion and avert disaster. However, fasting also was involved in the Temple service and was initiated at the death of some national leaders. In some cases, fasting was used as a means of obtaining forgiveness from God, such as when Ezra fasted for the "faithlessness" of the people.
Nowadays, most fasting in the Jewish calendar is tied to the destruction of one or both of the temples in Jerusalem. The Fast of Esther and Ta'anit Bechorot (fast of the first born) aren't tied to the Temple, and are both considered minor fasts.
So why are Jews suffering for the stubborn people who refused to listen to the prophets in order to mend their ways and prevent the fall of the temples so long ago? The rabbis explain in the Talmud :
Every generation for which the Temple is not rebuilt is as though the Temple was destroyed for that generation. (Yerushalmi, Yoma 1a)
It's heavy stuff, but the point here is that Jews aren't meant to look at the fast day as a day of suffering per se, but rather as a day of opportunity to not be stubborn and mend our own ways. For an Orthodox Jew that might mean crossing the bridge and exploring what it means to be a Reform Jew today, or it might mean mending ties with a sibling or parent after years of strife. Maybe it's planting a tree or taking up composting, or you might find yourself volunteering to tutor a child in math.
The abundance of fast days in Judaism is about afflicting yourself, but not with 40 lashes and severe dehydration. Rather, it's about undoing and learning from the mistakes of past generations in order to better our own lives and the world around us. It's sort of like building your own personal Beit HaMikdash. The idea is for Jews to reflect, rebuild, and recommit to Judaism with intense focus.
So what's a fasting person to do? Luckily, there are minor fast days and primary fast days, meaning that there are loads of different levels of observance to accommodate pregnant women, the elderly, children, sick people, and believe it or not those who just don't fast well. That being said, days on which the leniencies are not very lenient are Tisha b'Av and Yom Kippur, meaning that you have to speak to your local rabbi about whether or not and how to fast. In the end, however, you really need to trust your gut when it comes to fasting and not push yourself too hard for too long.
After all, Leviticus 18:5 says,
"You shall keep my statutes and ordinances; if a person does them, he will live by them: I am the Lord."
The understanding of this verse, which also shows up in Ezekiel 20:11 and Nehemiah 9:29, is that Jews should live by Torah law, not die because of it. This is why you'll find the mention of pikuach nefesh -- literally "saving a life" -- around Yom Kippur and Tisha b'Av when it comes to intense fasting.
How do you handle fast days and what does fasting mean to you -- if anything at all?
One of four new years festivals in the Jewish calendar, Tu B'Shvat is a celebration of the trees. On this holiday, Jews take part in special seder meals and eat special foods grown on trees like olives, figs, grapes, honey, carob, and pomegranates. The holiday is prime for children's activities, as Tu B'Shvat evokes colors, creativity, crafts, and delicious food!
There are plenty of ways to celebrate the holiday in crafty and creative ways, and here are just a few.
Dried Fruit Centerpiece: Gather up your favorite dried fruits and your kids can create delicious and festive table toppers.
An Ice Cream Seder: Perfect for all ages, why not get crafty with your own sweet seder?
Making Toffee Flowers: An easy and tasty activity, kids can create their own beautiful garden of flowers.
Interactive Online Games: TorahTots has a word find, coloring pages, e-cards you can send, and more.
Handprint Tree: It might be messy, but the work of art will last a lifetime and serve as a fitting tribute to the new year for the trees.
A Seder for Tots: If you have a 3-5 year old, this is a great option to keep the kids involved if you're having a Tu B'Shvat seder.
Grow Your Own: With some creativity, a few sponges, and some gras seed, kids can become quick architects and landscapers, building their own ecosystem in a snap.
Online Scavenger Hunt: Using provided websites, kids can find answers to fun new year's questions!
Coloring Book: An oldie but a goodie, sometimes breaking out the crayons and markers is the best way to keep your little ones busy on the holidays.
Do you have a favorite Tu B'Shvat craft or activity you'd like to share?
Though Halloween isn't a Jewish holiday, with all the spooky fun going on in October now seems the perfect time to learn about Jewish mythical beasts and superstitions. First up: the Behemoth.
The Behemoth is a legendary creature that's mentioned in Job 40:15-24. Here the text tells us that the Behemoth is an ox-like creature that feeds on grass, yet is so large that his tail is the size of a ceder tree. The passage also names the Behemoth "first among the works of God," a statement that has led some to believe that the Behemoth was the first creature that God created.
According to the 2nd century B.C.E. Book of Enoch, the Behemoth still lives in the desert "east of the garden where the elect and the righteous dwell" (1 Enoch 60:7-8). There he awaits the end of days, when he will engage the Leviathan in a battle to the death.
Learn more about the Behemoth in: The Behemoth in Jewish Mythology
Image credit: "Behemoth and Leviathan" by William Blake, from his Illustrations of the Book of Job.
It's October and as far as emails in my inbox go, that always means one thing: lots of questions about Halloween and whether or not it is OK for Jews to celebrate the holiday. :)
Over the past few years Rabbi Jeffrey Goldwasser has written two formal responses to this question about American Jews celebrating Halloween. In both instances he traces the origins of Halloween, noting that what began as a Celtic holiday celebrating the harvest is now a secular holiday that is usually observed by dressing up in costume, giving out candy and going "Trick-Or-Treating." As a result, he concludes that - so long as festivities are not taken to excess - celebrating Halloween should be no more problematic for Jews than observing Thanksgiving or the Fourth of July.
Read Rabbi Goldwasser's answers in the following articles:
Image credit: Getty Images
Simchat Torah is a Jewish holiday that celebrates the completion of the annual Torah reading cycle. During the year, a specific portion of the Torah is read every week and on Simchat Torah the final portion is completed with the last verses of Deuteronomy. Directly afterwards, we read the first few lines of Genesis and begin the reading cycle again.
In Hebrew "Simchat Torah" literally means "Rejoicing in the Law," and indeed it is a joyous holiday that includes marching the Torah scrolls around the synagogue, singing and dancing.
Simchat Torah begins this evening and if you'd like a quick refresher you can learn more about the holiday and how it is celebrated in these About Judaism articles:
Image credit: Getty Images/Steve McAlister
There are three major traditions associated with the celebration of Sukkot: building a sukkah, eating in the sukkah and waving the lulav and etrog. The lulav and etrog are actually four different kinds of plants (called the "Four Kinds" or "Four Species") that are brought together and waved while reciting blessings. They include a citron, a palm branch, three myrtle twigs and two willow branches.
But have you ever wondered why we wave the lulav and etrog? According to Rabbi Alfred Kolatch, the tradition of waving an item during worship can be traced back to Leviticus 7:34 and Leviticus 14:12. Here the act of waving is interpreted as bringing the offerer of a sacrifice closer to God, perhaps because the smoke from the burnt offering was being fanned towards the heavens. In Talmudic times, some rabbinic authorities also believed that the act of waving would shoo away evil spirits.
You can learn more about the Four Species and how to wave the lulav and etrog in these About Judaism articles:
Reference: "The Jewish Book of Why." Rabbi Alfred Kolatch. Jonathan David Publishers, Inc.: New York, 1981. pg.150.
Albert Einstein was a German-born Jewish theoretical physicist who developed the theory of relativity. His contributions to science revolutionized our understanding of physics and the universe. During his prolific career Einstein also shared his thoughts on everything from the nature of understanding to the importance of curiosity. He was also known for sharing many humorous observations, such as "The difference between genius and stupidity is; genius has its limits" and "Once you can accept the universe as matter expanding into nothing that is something, wearing stripes with plaid comes easy."
Read more Einstein sayings in: Famous Einstein Quotes
Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur may be behind us, but that doesn't mean the holiday season is over. A mere four days after Yom Kippur comes Sukkot, an eight-day harvest festival also known as "The Feast of Tabernacles."
Sukkot is a holiday that dates back to ancient Israel and a time when Jews would build huts called "sukkot" (singular: sukkah) near the edges of their fields during the harvest season. There are three major traditions associated with celebrating Sukkot, two of which directly involve a sukkah. First we have to build one, then we need to eat our meals in it.
Though most synagogues build a sukkah for the community to enjoy, many families also like to build their own sukkah in their backyards. Want to try and build your own too? According to Jewish law, a sukkah must meet certain standards in order to be considered a true sukkah. Check out "How to Build a Sukkah" for a brief overview of these requirements and happy building!
Yom Kippur is the holiest day on the Jewish calendar and begins today at sundown. Also known as "The Day of Atonement," during this holiday Jews focus on teshuvah (repentance), prayer and fasting. The purpose of these actions - all of which are viewed in a joyous light - is to bring about reconciliation between people and between individuals and God.
Wondering how to greet your Jewish friends during Yom Kippur? Since most Jews will fast during this holiday it is appropriate to wish them an "Easy Fast," or "Tzom Kal" in Hebrew. You can also use the traditional Yom Kippur greeting of "G'mar Hatimah Tovah," which means "May you be sealed for a good year (in the Book of Life)." This greeting reflects the view that God seals our fates on Yom Kippur and inscribes our names in either the Book of Life or the Book of Death. Finally, since Rosh HaShanah through Yom Kippur is viewed as the beginning of the New Year, you can also simply say "L'Shanah Tovah!" ("Happy New Year!")
Learn more about Yom Kippur and its meaning in: What Is Yom Kippur?