Saturday, December 3, 2011

Naming Ritual for Girls

Dear Tanta Golda,
A cute young couple at our Temple recently gave birth to a daughter, and I was wondering what rituals there are for baby girls? I’ve heard something about a naming ceremony. Does it have to be done on the eighth day like the Brit Milah ceremony for boys?
Marveling at the Miracle of Birth
My darling Marveling,
Mazel Tov to the parents of the newborn! 
Let’s begin with some wisdom from the Rabbis. In the Torah it says that Abraham was blessed with “everything.” According to the Talmud (baba batra 16a) this means that Abraham had a daughter. Why does ‘everything’ mean he had a daughter? Because, according to Rabbi Shraga Simmons, a daughter represent the fullness of life. Celebrating a daughter is the celebration of Jewish survival.
The Talmud also says that an angel comes to every Jewish parent and whispers the Jewish name the new daughter will embody, so her name is divinely inspired! 
But you asked about rituals and ceremonies, which I will explain in two parts: Ashkenazi and Sephardic traditions.
Among the Ashkenazi, it is tradition for the father to be called up for an aliyah (the honor of reciting the blessings before and after a Torah reading) at the synagogue the first Shabbat after a girl is born. At this time a Mi Sheberach prayer is also said for the mother’s health and the name of their daughter is recited. Since the Torah can only be read in the presence of a minyon (group of at least ten adults), the naming becomes an honor shared with the community.  Among the conservative stream, some additional rituals have developed. These may involve a) lighting 7 candles – representing the 7 days of creation, b) wrapping the girl in the four corners of a tallit, and/or c) lifting her up and touching her hands to a Torah scroll. In the Reform community, a baby naming ceremony involving both parents is often celebrated thirty days after the birth. Of course Tanta Golda’s sources all say something slightly different. One says that the congregation honors the parents with a kiddush (refreshments) after a service, while another says that it is customary for the parents of the newborn to sponsor a special kiddush for the congregation within the year. Both of these are a way for the parents to celebrate the gift they’ve been given and gives the community an opportunity to give their blessings to the child and family.
The Sephardic customs seem to be fairly similar. The ceremony is called a zeved habat  (literally - gift of the daughter.) A prayer of Thanksgiving is given either by or for the mother, the Song of Songs is receited - 2:14, and if it is their first daughter 6:9 is also said, then a slightly different version of the MiSheberach is said during which their daughter is named. This is often followed by a formal feast.
The biggest difference has to do with naming traditions. The Sephardic community has the custom of naming a child in honor of a living relative, in the hopes that the newborn will form a bond with their namesake and learn from their example. The Ashkenazi however, never name a child after someone living. So, it is very rare to find someone named after their father. Some of this is based on superstition - it is feared that the angel of death may be confused and come for the wrong individual! A child doesn’t necessarily have to have the exact same name. Sometimes the child shares the initial letter or sound with the relative being remembered. For example, Tanta Golda’s son is named Joshua after his grandmother Joan.
Please note that throughout I have used the word tradition.  There is no biblical injunction pertaining to the birth of a daughter. (Once again we see the male bias in the ancient world.) These are customs that have developed over time in response to a desire by parents and the community to honor the importance of welcoming daughters into the covenant. As the Talmud says, though not in so many words, without daughters there would be no continuation of the Jewish people.
May the couple’s newest addtion bring them more joy than tsuris (woe, aggrevation)! I hope the congregation has the opportunity to honor them (and her big sister) and welcome their daughter into the community soon.
Love, TG

Thursday, October 27, 2011

How Long IS a Torah Scroll?

recommended on amazon Torah Scrolls Torah Pointers
Dear Tanta Golda,
At our Simchat Torah celebration last week we unrolled the whole Torah. We had to go around our modest sanctuary two and a half times to do this! This got me to wondering - how long is a Torah scroll?
Just Wondering
My wonderful Wondering one,
What an interesting question! And, as it turns out, not as easy to answer as you might think!
Initially Tanta Golda thought, “Surely, this will be easy to find in the age of the Internet.” Oy. Three of my sources gave very definitive sounding answers. All different! How definitive is that?
The best answer I can give you is: somewhere between 112 and 148 feet.

A lot has to do with the sofer, the Torah scribe who handwrites a particular scroll, and the  type of script they use. Just like the fonts on your computer, different Torah scripts fill the space on the parchment differently.

Maimonides - also known as Rambam (1135-1204) laid out what he felt should be the standard dimensions for a Torah scroll: The entire scroll should be six handbreadths (= 24 inches) tall. The length of a page should be 17 fingers (a finger equalling about one inch.) The scroll that he wrote was 1366 fingers long, or about 112 feet. Some sofer follow these measurements, but it is not halacha (law) and it would seem there are no required measurements.

A typical Torah scroll is made up of 62-84 sheets of parchment made from the skin of any kosher animal (except fish, apparently no amount of curing can get the smell out!) Most (Ashkenazi) Torah scrolls contain 42 lines per sheet - Yemenite Jews use 50. Each scroll contains exactly 304,805 letters - each written with precision, by hand, with a feather quill. A special quill is used specifically to write G-d’s four letter name. If an error is made, it can be “erased” with a knife or pumice stone, unless it is any of the names of G-d. If one of these is miswritten the entire sheet of parchment must either be buried or stored in a special kosher storage area. The sheets are sewn together with sinew (tendon or ligament) from a kosher animal. It usually takes close to a year to write a scroll.

According to one of Tanta Golda’s sources, most Torah scrolls are about two feet tall and weigh 20-25 pounds.

I’m sorry Wondering that I can’t be more exact. The next time your Temple’s Torah is re-scrolled you should ask someone to measure the length of a sheet and count how many sheets were used to make your scroll!

May you find joy in your continued Torah studies!
Love as always, Tanta Golda

recommended on amazon Torah Scrolls Torah Pointers

Friday, September 30, 2011

Simchat Torah

Tanta Golda,
Would you please explain what Simchat Torah is? I keep getting confused with another one, but I can’t remember which!
Already Confused
My darling Already,
I’m happy to explain Simchat Torah! Simchat Torah literally means “rejoicing in the Torah.” It is a day when we celebrate reading the very last bit of the last book of the Torah, Deuteronomy, and begin reading the first book - Genesis, all over again! 

Sometime in the 8th century, people more learned than Tanta Golda, established the one year cycle of reading the Torah. Before that, some communities, especially those living in Palestine, spread it out over three years, while the Babylonian Jews did it in one.

It is a very joyous occassion, marked most notably by removing the Torah(s) from the Ark and carrying them around the synagogue 7 times. It is great fun, and an honor, to help with this hakafot (circuit). Often songs are sung and flags are waved. My sources speculate that the reason for the flags has to do with a connection with the twelve tribes, each of which had their own banner to mark their area of encampment.

In some congregations all the children who have not yet reached bat/bar mitzvah age are called up for a group aliyah. A tallis - or several - is spread over their heads, and the rabbi gives them a special blessing. This symbolizes the joy of study we want all our youth to have. 

Some liken Simchat Torah to the joy one feels at a wedding, in fact the person who reads from Deuteronomy is called the chatan Torah, the bridegroom of the Torah, and the person who reads from Genesis is called the chatan Bershit, the bridegroom of Genesis.

Simcaht Torah closes out the High Holy Day season which begins at Rosh Hashannah, and continues through Yom Kippur and Sukkot - when we dwell under a sukkah for 7-8 days celebrating the harvest - but that’s another column!

May you all be written in the Book of Life for a sweet, round year! Tanta Golda

Thursday, September 15, 2011

It's Time to Return

Dear Tanta Golda,
I know that the High Holy Days are coming up and I was wondering, what is the big deal about ‘returning’? We sing a song about returning and everything. I mean, are we joyful because some people return to Temple for the holidays? It seems odd to make such a big deal about this.
Nefesh Nettie
My lovely Nefesh,
Let me start by saying, we’re always glad to see our brothers and sisters at services, but no, we’re not singing about them. Just because they rarely call and never write...oh wait, that’s Tanta Golda’s grandchildren.
On a serious note: During the month of Elul - the month leading up to Rosh Hashanah, we are supposed to take time to reflect back on the year and thing about what we could improve upon. This self reflection opens us up to recognizing that there are people we have wronged. (No, don’t try to justify it, you shouldn’t have called your brother a ‘stupid head’. Name calling isn’t nice.) This month is considered a propitious time to ask forgiveness from those we have wronged.
This process of repentance, asking forgiveness is called teshuvah, which literally means “return”. Where are we returning to? We are returning our souls to a state of cleanliness. It is a way of restoring balance to our relationships with the people in our lives and with G-d.
Now, some people, who’s names I won’t mention, are under the impression that one is squared up by just showing up at High Holy Day services. This is not the case. One must 1. admit that you’ve wronged someone, 2. feel sincere remorse, 3. do everything you can to make things right, and 4. really intend never to commit that offense again.
For wrongs we commit against people we are obligated to approach them and ask their forgiveness. This is no easy task! Tanta Golda has found it easier with family, but in her many years on the planet she has to admit that she has not done such a good job of doing this with others! 
Now, any sane person would ask, “What if I get my nerve up to go ask forgiveness and the person says ‘no!’” Well, my naughty Nefesh, you are supposed to ask 3 times...3! If they don’t forgive you after the third time, you’re off the hook and the ‘sin’ is on them - as long as your request for forgiveness was sincere. 
So, you can’t go ask your sister to forgive you for borrowing her clothes without permission if you know in your heart that you’re probably going to do it again - that’s not sincere repentance. If you know that your little brother is going to be annoying again, and you will probably give yourself permission to call him names, asking him to forgive you for calling him a doofus just doesn’t cut it as doing teshuvah!
Teshuvah - returning is hard. Tanta Golda’s advice is, if someone comes to you to ask for forgiveness, think about how much it took for them to come to you, be a mench, and forgive them.
L’Shanah Tova Tikun Tevu! May you be written in the Book of LIfe for a good year! TG

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Conversion Question

Dear Tanta Golda,
I just learned that several people have approached our rabbi about converting. I’ve heard that Jews are supposed to discourage someone from converting - three times! What’s with that? I thought we made a big deal about praising Ruth as a convert?
Transmutedly Challenged

My darling Challenged,
I understand your confusion! Over the centuries there have been times when the Jewish community was less accepting of converts, but this was largely a matter of survival. Sounds like hyperbole, but it’s not. There were times, especially during the Middle Ages, when to become a convert or to aid someone in the process, was punishable by death! So, before undertaking such a risky process, potential converts were informed of the dangers and discouraged, and only the most steadfast were accepted. Fortunately we live in more accepting times. So my dear, no need to be rude to your new aspirants!

The Talmud itself praises the convert “The convert is dearer to God than Israel. When the nation assembled at the foot of Mt Sinai, Israel would not have accepted the Torah without seeing the thunders and lightning and the quaking mountains...Whereas the proselyte, without a single miracle, consecrated himself...and puts upon himself the yoke...Can anyone be deemed more worthy of God’s love?” Tenachuma Buber.
Whoa, pretty high praise indeed!

My budding Talmud student, you mention Ruth who is considered the preeminent convert. She says to Naomi, her mother-in-law: “...Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” We study the book of Ruth on Shavuot, the holiday when we celebrate accepting the Torah at Sinai, because she symbolizes all who choose Judaism. She accepted the Torah the way that our ancestors did at Sinai. In this way, we are all Jews by choice.

Now you may be asking, ‘Tanta Golda, how does one convert?’ This seems to vary a little from rabbi to rabbi, but usually the process involves a course of study that includes beliefs, practices, and some liturgy. When the rabbi determines that the potential convert is ready to commit to living a Jewish life, the convert submerses in a mikveh - a body of water, as a symbol of ritual purity, and if they are male they are circumcised* (if they were circumcised at birth a symbolic nick is made where the foreskin was to draw a drop of blood.) Finally they come before a Bet Din “house of law” - Jewish court, comprised of three rabbis. The petitioner is questioned about their knowledge of basic Judaism and their sincerity. Viola, they are now as Jewish as any Jew by birth!

Tanta Golda does need to try to clarify the Reform position on immersion and circumcision. Back in the day when I was a wee little girl, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) declared that “the initiatory rites were no longer required for conversion” and wrote a report outlining three general arguments. Over time, the Reform movement has moved back into accepting more of the forms of ritual practice shunned in the movement’s early days. While this statement about circumcision for converts has never been rescinded, many Reform rabbis do now require it. So, your potential converts will want to discuss this with the rabbi.

I hope that your band of potential converts finds the process meaningful, and I look forward to welcoming them into the community! Love as always - TG

Saturday, July 2, 2011

What is the Hallabaloo About the SF Anti-Circumcision Initiative?

Dear Tanta Golda,
I’m hearing a lot about an anti-circumcision initiative on the ballot in San Francisco this fall. I hope you don’t think of me as a “bad Jew”, but what is the hullabaloo? I thought that Reform Jews had a take it or leave it attitude about the practice. My Catholic friend says that it’s healthier to be circumcised, but my other BFF says it’s as barbaric as female circumcision. 
Totally Confused
My darling Totally - I certainly don’t think of you as a “bad Jew” - remember, Tanta Golda  firmly believes that the only foolish (or bad) question is the one you don’t ask!
Where to start...I suppose the beginning is still a good place. According to the Torah, Abraham was instructed, “Every male among you shall be circumcised….and that shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you.” (Genesis 17) The Hebrew term for this rite is berit milah literally “covenant of circumcision”. Abraham circimcised himself, the men of his household, and his sons - including his eldest, Ishmael. This is one of the reasons many Muslims also have their sons’ circumcised. Jews were not the first people to practice circumcision, many ancient peoples were known to, often as a puberty rite.
While many of us were brought up believing that Jews have faithfully followed this practice, Exodus points out that Hashem was ready to kill Moses for not circumcising his own son, but was saved when his wife Zipporah did it. In fact, Israelites born in the wilderness after the Exodus from Egypt were not circumcised, so Joshua had them circumcised before they entered the land of Canaan. And during the Hellenistic period (the height of the Greek empire) Jews who wanted to participate in the Greek games, which we done in the nude, underwent a painful procedure to fake “undoing” their circumcisions.
Now this initiative in SF is not the first time that “powers that be” have tried to put an end to circumcision. 168 BCE the Assyrian king Antiochus Epiphanes IV tried - it was one of factors leading to the Maccabean revolt. In 132 CE the Roman emperor Hadrian made it a capital crime. Many Jews of the time chose martyrdom rather than complying. More recently, It was forbidden in Soviet Russia along with many religious rituals.
Confused one, you are right that the Reform movement has a history of being ambivalent about this practice, especially in the early days of the movement claiming that it was a barbaric, bloody holdover of the past. Nonetheless, many Jews continued practicing it. By 1979 they declared it a mitzvah to circumcise a male child,  and in 1984 the URJ began training mohels. However, the Reform movement does not forbid a boy from being called to the Torah as a bar mitzvah if he isn’t, nor does it require converts to our faith to undergo circumcision. 
My kinder you can tell your friend that Tanta Golda looked into the current medical views about circumcision. The American Academy of Pediatrics does not routinely recommend circumcision. While they agree that there is evidence that it can help decrease the incidents of infection and cancer, the occurrences of these problems are so slight to begin with, that the changes are miniscule. They state that only 1/100 uncircumcised boys experience urinary tract infections (how many girls can say that) and fewer than 10 in 1 million develop cancer. The World Health Organization does cite studies that show that circumcised men are less likely to spread HIV/AIDS, but so does using a condom.
As for your BFF’s point equating it to female circumcision, she is most definitely misguided! Let me quote Abby Porth, a lovely young lady working with the SF Jewish Community Relations Council, “Female genital mutilation is cruel, medically harmful” (oy, so many deaths in developing countries) “and performed for the explicit purpose of preventing female sexual satisfaction.” Male circumcision doesn’t even come close.
Now, Tanta Golda was raised in a traditional household and when her sons were born she didn’t give a second thought to having them circumcised. However, I’m not sure how she would have approached this if she had been raised in some other faith tradition. The hippie part of her (yes, while TG is old, she did have a hippie phase) might well have seen it as an outmoded and painful practice. On the other hand, somewhere between 60-75% of all American baby boys born since the 1980’s have been circumcised, so people of many faiths have apparently come down on the side of this not being a barbaric practice. 
I strongly believe that the decision to circumcise or not, should be left up to individual families and their doctors, and not dictated by law. Whatever your personal feelings/beliefs, this is a time to stand together along side our Muslim brethren and oppose this restrictive law. Love as always, TG Logo - 125x40

Monday, May 30, 2011

Do Jews Believe in the Rapture?

Dear Tanta Golda,
Recently there was a big hullabaloo about the Rapture, and the end of the world (and universe!) for the rest of us on October 21st. My anniversary is October 25th, should I still buy my beloved a gift?
Repentant but Perplexed
My Darling Perplexed,
What a mishegos! As you may have figured out, Jews do not believe in any event like the rapture. Nor do we believe in any concept of Armageddon - the self-destruction of the world. So in brief - go ahead and get your precious a love token!
Now for some clarification. The Torah does refer to aharit hayamim (end of days). This shouldn’t be confused with the Christian concept of the end of everything. In Jewish theology the end of days means the end of the old world order and the transformation to one of universal peace, united under one G-d. It will be the time of the Mashiach.
Once again we have some distinct differences between Jewish and Christian belief. Messiah means “savior”, whereas Mashiach means “anointed”, a term given to someone in Biblical times who attained a position of nobility or greatness. Jews believe that the Mashiach will be a charismatic human leader - not divine, physically descended from the line of King David, who will rule and unite the people of Israel, and usher in an age of global universal peace. He will lead the people through example, inspiring others to strive for “good”, so that people from all cultures and nations will unite to perfect the entire world. 
You may find it surprising to learn that it is said (by those who say such things) that in every generation there is a person who potentially could be the Mashiach, and that when Hashem determines the time is right, he will imbue him with the powers necessary to rally the people. So my kinder you may already know him! 
Tanta Golda would advise that we treat everyone we meet as if they could be the Mashiach, perhaps if we begin treating everyone nicely we will help bring about the world to come! Much love - TG


Monday, April 25, 2011

What is Lag B'Omer?

Dear Tanta,
I’ve heard something about taking a break during the counting of the Omer, Lag something. What are we taking a break from and why?
Falling behind in my understanding
My dearest Hindmost,
Ah the joys of symbolism. First, lag b’omer literally means “the 33rd day of the omer”. Lag comes from the combination of the Hebrew letters lamed and gimmel, which symbolize 30+3.
The holiday in not biblically based. Instead it commemorates events that occurred during the time of the great Talmudic scholar Rabbi Akiba. (50-137 CE) Rabbi Akiba had a school which had thousands of students. 
According to the Talmud, for more than four weeks a great plague raged through the area and many died.Tanta Golda’s sources differ on this next point, but it would seem that somewhere between 10 and 24 thousand of his students died during this time. Oy! How do you bury 6,000 people a week?  But I ramble, miraculously the plague ended on - you guessed it - the 33rd day of the counting of the omer!
(Now of course, why wouldn’t there be another opinion - there are those who say that the students were actually kill by the Romans who were a little upset by the Bar Kokhba revolt.)
So my questioning one, t the counting of the Omer is treated as days of mourning and as such, no weddings or celebrations take place and men do not cut their hair. However, Lag B’Omer is seen as an acceptable time to take a break from mourning and celebrate the joyful end of the plague!
Several traditions have developed over the centuries, including the building of bonfires (very popular in Israel), picnics, sporting games - especially archery, and traditional first hair cuts for young boys.
The bonfires apparently have their roots in honoring one of Rabbi Akiba’s few remaining students, Shimon bar Yochai, who was said to go on to be the ‘light of the Torah’.
I’ve been asked, why do some traditional Jews wait until a boy is 3 to give him his first hair cut? Once again we look to symbolism: The Torah says that if you plant a tree, all fruits which grow during the first three years are orlah -- off-limits (Leviticus 19:23) and "A person is like the tree of a field..." (Deut. 20:19). So, if we continue this chain of thought, a child - a tree of the field - should not be plucked until he is three. (Tanta Golda has no idea if this applies to girls as well, but since their mention in the Talmud is limited, I would say not.)
In the Hasidic community, the upsherin (hair cutting ceremony) marks a male child's entry into the formal educational system and the commencement of Torah study. A yarmulke and tzitzis will now be worn, and the child will be taught to pray and read the Hebrew alphabet. The joyous time when we are thinking of the scholar Akiba to many seems a fitting time for this ceremony.
I hope you no longer lag behind the other scholars in your knowledge of Lag B’Omer, which this year is on May 21-22. TG

Friday, April 22, 2011

Not all Chametz is Obvious - a case for Coke Cola

My darlings,

I've noticed a number of inquires about "other" foods that might be considered chametz, so I thought I'd jot a quick note.

Many Ashkenazi Jews follow the rabbinical halacha not to eat corn or corn products during Pesach, because corn can be dried, ground into a flour, and made into baked goods which could be confused with chametz.

True chametz is any flour meal that when mixed with water ferments - becoming leaven. Corn does not, but it has become halacha for many to abstain "to be on the safe side".

This prohibition is why there are many Jews who do not partake of products that are made with corn syrup. This includes standard marshmallows, most sodas, and candy. Some companies, like Coke Cola and Bartons, make kosher for Passover versions of their products which use cane sugar instead of corn syrup.

Now Tanta Golda is old and therefore, opinionated. To me it seems that Passover is all about symbolism. Therefore, I've opted to avoid Passover cakes that "look" like leaven cakes, and I do eat foods with corn syrup and even nibblet corn, which to me, obviously aren't leaven.

If you are uncertain what the custom is in your area Tanta Golda recommends that you check with your rabbi.

Chag semach! Tanta Golda

Sunday, April 10, 2011

To Pilgrimage, or not to Pilgrimage - Omer Question

first published in 2010

Dear Tanta Golda,
I know that we are counting the Omer towards something. Is it a holiday? I also heard something about a pilgrimage? I know that in the middle ages Christian holy men would go on pilgrimages to Jerusalem, and that one of the five pillars of Islam is to make a pilgrimage to Mecca, but am I supposed to go on a pilgrimage somewhere too? Will I need sunscreen?
Packing my bags with caution.
Dear Cautious,
Ah, I love the curious ones! Yes, we are counting the Omer for 49 days until the holiday of Shavuot. Shavuot is one of three ancient pilgrimage holidays commanded in the Torah, which celebrate both agriculture and historical events, the other two being Passover and Sukkot. During the time of the Temple, these holidays were a time when offerings of the harvest were brought to the Kohanim for ritual worship. They were also a time to reaffirm our communal commitment to our covenant with HaShem. However, you must remember that our people were not so spread out as we are now. When the second Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, pilgrimage was deemed no longer obligatory. This means you’re off the hook - unpack your bags, put your feet up, and have a nice cup of tea.

While Shavuot was initially an agricultural holiday, in post-biblical times it developed into a celebration of the giving of the Torah on Mt.Sinai. You will note that I said ‘giving’ not ‘receiving’. The rabbis, a wise lot, say that while we receive the Torah every day, we were given it but once.

It is a tradition among some more observant Jews to stay up all night on Shavuot studying Torah and related works. Many eat dairy foods, such as cheese blintzes, cheesecake, etc. This is often explained as being based on the Torah verse that says the land of Israel flows with milk and honey. Some who live in modern day Israel will go to the Western Wall, which as you remember is a remanent of the Temple, in order to emulate the pilgrimage. This year Shavuot will begin on the evening of June 7th (2011).

Take a moment on Shavuot to give thanks for your bread (the wheat harvest.)
Love as always- and keep sending me questions,
Tanta Golda

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How To Count the Omer

First published 2009

Dear Tanta Golda, 
My neighbor said she heard that Jews do a count down to something just like they do for Lent. What is she talking about? Do I have to give up something more than bread?
Chametzly Impaired.
My dear Impaired,  
Ah, it’s wonderful when our Christian neighbors alert us to a question of Judaism!
There is a Biblical commandment (Leviticus 23:15) to count the 49 days that immediately follow the first night of Passover and, on the 50th night, to celebrate the holiday of Shavuot. This period of time is called Sefirat Ha'omer, the Counting of the Omer, because the counting begins on the night before the barley offering (omer) was brought to the Temple, which was on the second day of Passover. (Passover was also a harvest holiday, and the first crop of barley came in at this time.)

The departure of the Jews from Egypt was only the beginning of the redemption. The Exodus actually culminated with the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, and is commemorated by the holiday of Shavuot.
Now you may be wondering how does one count the Omer?  Each night, starting with the night of the second Seder, a blessing is recited and the new day is counted. The blessing is as follows:
Baruch Ah'tah Ah'doh'nai, Eh'lo'hay'nu Melech Ha'olam, asher kideshanu b'mitzvotav v'tzeevanu al s'feerat ha'omer.

Blessed are you Lord, our God, Ruler of the world, Who sanctified us through His commandments and commanded us, regarding the counting of the Omer.

The blessing is followed by the actual counting of the day. For example: "Today is day one of the Omer". When Tanta Golda was a little girl, if you can believe such a  thing, we would drop a counter into a jar each night until we got to 49. It was a special treat to be the one who got to add the counter.
Happy Passover, and enjoy counting the Omer! 
Love, Tanta G.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

What Does the Term Passover Mean?

Dear Tanta Golda,
The Passover seders I've attended have been warm, family events.   The readings are about deliverance from slavery, freedom and  human survival. The name "Passover" however brings to mind the Biblical story of destruction in of crops and killing of animals, and many people in Egypt,  Is "Passover" a sound English translation for the name of this Holiday? Doubtful about Duality  

Dearest Duality,
The name "Pesach" (PAY-sahch, with a "ch" as in the Scottish "loch") comes from the Hebrew root Pei-Samekh-Cheit, meaning to pass through, to pass over, to exempt or to spare. It refers to the fact that G-d "passed over" the houses of the Jews when he was slaying the firstborn of Egypt. So it would seem that the translation is indeed sound.

At the seders you've been to you undoubtedly also read the 10 plagues - where all the killing and destruction comes in. The final plague has to do with the slaying of the firstborn sons. The Hebrew slaves were instructed in advance to paint their doorposts with lamb's blood so that the angel of death would know to "pass over" their homes.

We don't so much 'celebrate' that part as remember it. In fact, you are supposed to have a full cup of wine in front of you when you begin to recite the 10 plagues. A full cup represents joy, and as we say each plague we are supposed to either spill or take a drop of wine out of the glass for each plague to remind us that while we got our freedom, others died, and our joy at our freedom is diminished by this.

A similar way of paying respect for the dead happens at Purim when we read Esther's story (not a shpiel, but the whole megillah.) Towards the end Haman's ten sons are hung on the gallows he built for the Jews. When the reader comes to the section where their names are read, he/she is supposed to read them quickly - in one breath - so as not to linger or prolong their fate. Once again we are celebrating freedom over tyranny, but we don't celebrate that others had to die in the process.

I hope that helps clarify your questions.

Thanks again for sending them my way. Tanta Golda is always looking for questions about any aspect of Judaism, so please feel free to send along any others you have!

More Passover Questions Answered

Dear readers - I recently put out a call for your questions about Passover, and a number of you responded - Thank you! I will answer some of them below.
Dear Tanta Golda
I'm planning a small senior's Seder with no children. Who asks the four questions when no children attend? Empty Nester Grandpa
Grandpa, a good question and one that our sages addressed in the Talmud no less! It would seem that initially the Four Questions were added to the Seder to keep the interest of young children who might otherwise drift off during the traditionally long Seder. Now they are codified as one of the 15 things we do in a Seder as part of the Maggid - telling the story. According to the (Babylonian) Talmud, tractate Pesachim, 116a - if there are no children present at the Seder, then the leader’s wife or any other participant may read the four questions. If all else fails, and a man is celebrating a Seder alone, he must ask himself the questions!
An interesting note, Tanta Golda discovered that in the Sephardic tradition the questions are asked by the the entire group as one. So it would seem that there really is no wrong way, as long as the questions are asked!
A related question:
Does a thirteen year old that has had their Bar or Bat Mitzvah still take part in asking the four questions?  Do they hide rather than seek the afikomen?  Is there any difference in how they take part in Passover seders?
As to the first part of your question, Tanta Golda would refer you to the answer above. Is the Bar or Bat Mitzvah the youngest who’s able to ask the questions? If so, they keep on keeping on, otherwise they should pass the haggadah.  Part 2, according to the Pasachim tractate 7:3 and 109a the hide and seek game with the afikomen, like the 4 questions, is also done to keep the kinder awake and involved in the service. In some families the leader hides the afikomen and the children search for it demanding ransom for its return, in others the children “steal” the afikomen and the leader must pay to get it back. As far as Tanta Golda could discern, it really is up to individual families to determine at what age someone is too old to be eligible to seek the reward. The same holds true for other aspects of the Seder, though when Tanta Golda was a girl, after her bat mitzvah she was allowed to have wine in her glass instead of grape juice. It would seem that as long as someone is asking the 4 questions, and everyone partakes of at least a small piece of the afikomen, the particulars are up to you!
Dear Tanta,
If we are attending a home seder, what is customary/appropriate as a host or hostess gift? Baffled in Etiquette. 
My darling Baffled, you pose a question that it would seem many in the far reaches of cyber space ask. Without knowing how strictly your hosts keep Pesach, here are some safe suggestions: flowers, fresh fruit and nuts, a Passover cookbook, or Kosher for Passover wine - here you have to look for wine that has a P as well as a K. Some will explicitly state on the bottle "Kosher for Passover". What makes these so special? Well, as Tanta Golda understands it, and I may be a little off, the vineyards have been guarded by rabbis to ensure that no yeast (leavening) has come in contact with the grapes. How they do this, I don’t know. Perhaps they’re Ninjas!
 Kedem can sometimes be found in the grocery store, but this will be a very sweet wine like Manischewitz - Not really a 'classy' hostess gift.
Dear Tanta Golda,
I was recently looking at an "Italian Jewish" cook book, and was surprised to find rice recipes for Passover.  It seem that the ashkenazic and sephardic approaches to kosher differ.  How could that be?  Are there other foods acceptable as kosher by the Sephardim? Rubbing my Forehead in the Kitchen.
Another excellent question! I've touched on this in past years but it's worth repeating. Chametz means ‘leaven’. It also refers to foods forbidden during Pesach. The five grains specifically prohibited by the Rabbis are: wheat, oats, barley, rye and spelt. These are the five grains most commonly found in Europe that ferment when combined with water. Being Jews, there are now some who disagree over the prohibition of two of these grains (rye & spelt) since they are not native to Israel. But I digress. Ashkenazi Jews under the direction of The Smak - Rabbi Moshe of Kouchi in the 13th century added “kitniyot”.  Kitniyot are usually small fleshless seeds of annual plants such as rice, corn, peas, beans, chickpeas, soya,  and caraway that can be dried and ground into flour.

Sephardic Jews, those whose ancestry was initially from the Iberian Peninsula (modern Spain and Portugal), but now includes Jews who reside in North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, follow much less stringent customs. Kitniyot, including corn, beans and rice* may be eaten after it has been checked  three times to make certain that it has not been contaminated by chametz. *Now, I must note that some Sephardim do not eat rice. As we find in both traditions, Passover foods depend in large part on where specifically you trace your ancestry from.
Thank you for your thoughtful questions my ever inquisitive ones! If I did not get to yours this time, rest assured I’ve saved it for next year.
Hope you have a joyous Pesach with friends or family - Tanta Golda

Why Are There Kosher for Passover Marshmallows?

your link to kosher for Passover marshmallows Candy matzah

(originally published 2010)
Dear Tanta Golda,
I know that Pesach is still a month away, but yesterday I saw matzah in the store and it got me wondering why there are special “kosher for Passover” marshmallows, and can I eat peas or not? (And really, why not!?)
Pesadically Perplexed
Ah my preciously perplexed,
You ask perfectly excellent questions. And what would Passover be without questions?
Let me start off by saying that what you “can” and cannot eat on Passover is largely dependent on your ancestry. It’s true! The Talmud only prohibits 5 grains: wheat, barley, spelt, rye, and oats. This makes sense as these were the main grains found in the Middle-East*. These are traditionally referred to as chametz. (*There is now some disagreement about this.)
However, as Jews spread in Diaspora (the dispersion of the Jews beyond Israel), the rabbis adapted new customs based on local foods.
More than 80 percent of Jews today are Ashkenazim;  Jews of central or eastern European descent. Most of the customs you are probably familiar with, such as avoiding peas and corn, come from the Ashkenazi tradition. Kitniyot (translated as ‘small things’ ) are foods such as: corn, rice, beans, peas, lentils, and for some, peanuts. Now Tanta Golda has heard two different reasons for this. One is that since these foods are often grown or stored near chametz, it is difficult to be sure that they have not been contaminated. The other explanation is that these foods can be dried and ground up into flour which could be made into goods that look like chametz. How this applies to corn syrup, is beyond my ken. Tanta Golda has always thought it rather silly that one couldn’t eat foods, such as marshmallows cola, or most Candy  because they are normally made with corn syrup. Once it’s syrup, you can’t make it into bread! Obviously a rule made by men who never cook.
Sephardic Jews, those whose ancestry is from the Iberian Peninsula (modern Spain and Portugal), follow much less stringent customs. Corn, beans and rice* may be eaten after it has been throughly checked to make certain that it has not been contaminated by chametz. * Now, some Sephardim do not eat rice, once again, it depends on where specifically you trace your ancestry from.
And of course my sweet, what would any discussion about Jewish customs be without disagreement! This one stems around gebrouchts, wet matzah  There are those who say, heaven forbid there might be an eentsy-weentsy bit of uncooked flour left in a matzot, that when mixed with water, begins to ferment, in other words, become chametz. therefore, gebrouchts is a no-no. There are other, saner people - those who like matzah balls for example, who say this is nonsense. Anyone who’s baked matzah knows that this just isn’t possible. Again, when you leave food rules to men...(TG is very grateful her husband cooks and understands this is silliness. What would Pesach be like without matzah balls?)
I hope I’ve clarified this a bit for you dearie. As Tanta Golda gets older she’s more inclined to follow biblical traditions and eat peas on Passover! 
Have a joyful seder. Love as always, Tanta Golda

your link to kosher for Passover marshmallows Candy matzah