Sunday, April 19, 2015

Illegitimacy in Judaism - is it still a thing?

Dear Tanta Golda,

Our rabbi gave a talk recently about “Who is a Jew?” and the word Mamzer came up. He apologized and said that this would have to be the topic of another lecture. The best I could gather was that is meant ‘bastard’, as in illegitimate. Is this really a thing in Judaism? Could you explain?

Paternally Perturbed

My Dearest Perturbed,

While secular society in the United States has matured, and illegitimate children are no longer ostracized as they once were, your question deals with halachah - Jewish ritual law.

According to halachah, a mamzer or “illegitimate” child is one born from an incestuous relationship or adultery and such offspring are forbidden to marry almost all other Jews, “except for other mamzerim and for proselytes.” (Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 72b) Isn’t that nice, converts are allowed to marry the forbidden. Now to clarify: a mamzer is not a bastard born out of wedlock. A person is halachcally illegitimate only if conceived in an act of incest or adultery. 

Reform Judaism doesn’t spend too much time worrying about this, “since it is morally repugnant to place such a crushing stigma upon a child whose only ‘crime’ was to be to his or her parents.” (Jewish Living, Washofsky)

However, we do not live in a world of Reform Jews and Reform halachah alone so there are some factors you should be aware of. First, (Jewish) traditional law does not recognize civil divorce, so a Jewish woman who doesn’t go through a bet din and get a religious divorce before remarrying, is still considered legally married to her previous husband. Therefore, any children of her second marriage would be considered mamzerim.  If these children later decide to marry a traditionally observant Jew, they will find they cannot. This becomes an even greater issue if they move to Israel, where the law of divorce is overseen by the Orthodox rabbinate for all Jews, regardless of their level of observance. 

Now my darling, don’t fret too much, they won’t see your marriage as legitimate in any case, unless overseen by an Orthodox rabbi. So, since your Reform marriage was never a legitimate one in the first place, there’s no need to obtain a get (Jewish divorce) and any children born of a second marriage are not therefore the product of adultery. Isn’t that a relief!

Tanta Golda’s point is, the status of mamzer is an issue for the Orthodox, an issue if you wish to marry someone who is, or if you wish to live in Israel. Hopefully the day will soon come when Reform marriages, conversions, and divorce are recognized in Eretz Yisrael. 

Love as always,


Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Another Bar Mitzvah? Why at 83?

Dear Tanta Golda,
Recently the dad of a friend of mine had a ‘second’ bar mitzvah. I didn’t know this was a thing. Why would someone want to go through all that again?

Darling Bemused,

Come here and let me pinch your cheek. Being called to the Torah as a Bar or Bat Mitzvah shouldn’t be seen as some onerous chore, though at 12-13 most of us did feel that way. Trust me, when it is something you yourself are choosing to do, it’s a different story.

Now to answer your question. In the Pirkei Avot- the Ethics of the Fathers, Rabbi Yehuda Ben Tema states that 70 is considered a "ripe old age.” In Psalm 90, Moses says that “the measure of a life is 70 years.” So, if one has the good fortune to live past this age it is as if they are given a second life. By starting at 70 and adding 13, one gets to 83. This is where the age of a second bar mitzvah comes from.

Now there are those who like to point out a) you become a bar mitzvah at 13, whether or not you are called to the Torah. (12 if you are a girl, we advance so much earlier.) 
b) one should be living a life of Torah from that point on, so the idea of a second bar mitzvah is mishegos. — Some people take all the joy out of symbolism.

What these points don’t take into account the spiritual re-connection that this being called for a second bar/bat mitzvah evokes. Any chance to re-connect with one’s Judaism should be honored and a cause for celebration.

As my friends at say so eloquently: May we all merit to live that long!

Tanta Golda

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Rice, Corn, Beans...Kosher for Passover or not?

Dear Tanta Golda,

I went to a Seder a few days ago and my hostess was shocked that I had put peas and baby corn into the salad I brought. Peas don't rise, what's the deal?
Pensive and Confused

Dearest Pensive,
Oy! This is a question that comes my way every year. If you know anything about Jews, you know there's no straight forward answer.

The Torah specifically prohibits five grains: wheat, barley, rye, oats, and spelt. That's it. Period. End of discussion. Or is it?

Well, as is typical, certain rabbis felt this wasn't stringent enough. Apparently they they didn't feel they were experiencing the deprivations of the exodus enough. Or maybe they felt their wives had it too easy in the kitchen. Whatever the case - they determined that the list of restricted foods should be larger.

Now, this list of 'extras' various depending on where you trace your ancestry from. Ashkenazi Jews typically also avoid peas - in fact any legume, corn, rice, and sometimes peanuts. These items are referred to as Kitniyot (translated as ‘small things’ )

Sephardim - those who trace their lineage to northern Africa, Israel, or the Iberian Peninsula, have somewhat less stringent prohibitions. Corn and peas may be eaten after being thoroughly checked. Some eat rice, some don't. (as always - if these things are important to your observance, check with your rabbi to see what is acceptable in your community)

Why you may ask? Tanta Golda has been told two possible reasons:
All of the above can be ground into a flour and someone walking by might think you were eating chametz. Apparently the rabbis were afraid of what the neighbors might think and weren't on good enough terms to explain the confusion. Holier-than-thou oneupmanship at its silliness.
Reason number two is that these items were/are often stored near the forbidden items during the rest of the year and might have picked up some minute bits of chametz so that when they are cooked, you would also be ingesting chametz. Really? Only these items might have picked up chametz? Why so selective? Why not just ban everything in the pantry? Such mishegos.
Tanta Golda was very pleased to see that this year two groups agreed with Tanta Golda and ruled that both Ashkenazim and Sephardim should be permitted to eat rice, corn, and kitniyot during Pesach. These groups were the Responsa Committee of the Reform Jewish Movement, and the Responsa Committee of the Israeli Conservative Movement. For more information on the foundation of their decisions you should check out this article.

Passover Food Restrictions Explained

In the end, you should do what your heart says is right when observing Pesach. Me, I'm going to follow the Torah, eat peas and snack on popcorn.

Chag Semeach!

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Can You Kabbala?

Dear Tanta Golda,
I recently attended a Tu B’Shevat seder and the Rabbi mentioned the Kabbalists. So, I got to wondering: just what is the Kabbalah? And - is it true that your are supposed to be 40 before your study it?

Curious Questioner

Dearest Questioner,
 An excellent question - especially as we get closer to he holiday of the ‘hidden’ - Purim.
The Kabbala is considered the ‘mystical’ side of Judaism. Now, don’t start thinking crystal balls, turbans and incense. Nor does it imply anything dark or sinister. Rather it is a search for ‘hidden’ inner meaning.

Let me backtrack a little. Most of the Kabbala is found in the Zohar which was ‘revealed’ in the thirteenth century by Moses De Leon. Leon claimed that the Zohar was actually his compilation of rabbinic writings from older sources, especially second century rabbi Simeon bar Yochai. Most scholars think Leon embellished this link to give the Zohar more ancient credibility. Today, mysticism is an integral part of Chasidic Judaism, and the Kabbala is often cited as source material for passages in their prayerbooks.

Now, Tanta Golda has never studied Kabbala herself, so she has relied on her trusted sources to help answer your question. Perhaps the best definition for Kabbalah comes from Tzvi Freeman at He describes it this way: Inside your body breathes a person—a soul. Inside the body of Jewish practice breathes an inner wisdom—the soul of Judaism…
The discovery of this inner wisdom is Kabbala.

Another name for Kabbalah is “Torat ha-Sod.” Commonly mistranslated as “the secret teaching.”
Kabbalah is not a secret teaching. It is the teaching of a secret. Freeman goes on to explain:
“The secret teaching” means that we are trying to hide something from you.
“The teaching of the secret” means that we are trying to teach something to you, to open up and reveal something hidden.

Why should the student of Kabbala be at least 40? Because, by that time one is considered to have attained the maturity to fully understand the questions and answers inherent in its study. In practice, people younger than 40 have studied Kabbala, but only after the person teaching them determined that they possessed the requisite level of maturity. Kabbala purists say that it is something to be studied one-on-one with a well learned teacher, not something to be consumed en masse in a university course, or through ‘popular’ literature.

Does Tanta Golda believe this? Meh. Does her opinion matter? You get to make this determination. Let me close with this anecdote:

Tracey R Rich, with, cites one Orthodox man, who when introducing a speaker on the subject of Jewish mysticism, said basically, "it's nonsense, but it's Jewish nonsense, and the study of anything Jewish, even nonsense, is worthwhile.”

Be well my kindeleh! Keep sending in your questions to

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Don't Know Much About Sukkot

Dear Tanta Golda,
I noticed that September is chock-full of holidays this year. Our congregation holds a Shabbat under the sukkah, but I’m embarrassed to attend because my family didn’t do anything with this holiday when I grew up, so I don’t know much about Sukkot. Why are people so excited about eating in this shack?
Shamefully Stumped

Dear Stump,
Sukkot is both a biblical holiday (mentioned in the Torah) and an agricultural one.

Sukkot is also called the Feast of Ingathering. It is one of three agricultural holidays in our tradition (the others being Passover & Shavuot) and it takes place at the conclusion of the fall harvest. These three holidays are also called the pilgrimage holidays, when during the time the Temple stood in Jerusalem, every man was obligated to go to Jerusalem with an thanks offering. It’s only good manners: good crop - thank you Hashem.

In Leviticus 23: 42-43 we are instructed: You shall dwell in sukkot seven days, every citizen in Israel shall dwell in sukkot, so that your descendants shall know that I caused the children of Israel to dwell in sukkot when I brought them out of the land of Egypt. That’s right, there were no Motel 6s or Holiday Inns when the Israelites fled Egypt, so they build temporary shelters-sukkot (booths).

Since the sukkot that the Israelites built were temporary, the ones we build are meant to be too. Some of the walls may be permanent, so it is not unusual that they are built against one side of a house (or Temple). The other walls may be bamboo, canvas, even highly decorated plywood! The roof however, must be temporary. While you can construct it to provide more shade than light, it must allow those inside to see the stars at night. Quite often people will use branches or bamboo poles. To commemorate the agricultural nature of the holiday, the inside is often decorated with fruits and vegetables. 

Traditionally, you must eat all of your meals in the sukkah during the seven day festival, weather permitting. Some families even sleep in theirs. Tanta Golda’s congregation tries to provide the opportunity for its members to eat at least one meal in the sukkah with their annual pot luck Shabbat. 

It is also customary to welcome the spiritual ushpizin (guests) that accompany every Jew into the sukkah. According to the Kabbala they are the seven shepherds of Israel: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David. Think of them as the Jewish equivalent of your guardian angels. (Make sure you build your sukkah large enough to accommodate them all!)

The Torah also commands us to: take for yourselves...the fruit of a hadar (beautiful) tree (an etrog), the branch of the palm trees, a bough from the "avot" tree, and willows of the stream...these last three species make up the lulav. You are supposed to hold all four of these items together and shake them in six directions: up, down, east, west, north, south - representing that G-d is everywhere. You may also notice that the shaking of the lulav mimics the sound of rain, once again that agricultural tie in! In an arid place like the land of Israel, (or much of California) rain is very important!

There is symbolic significance given to the four species, but Tanta Golda will address them another day.

Keep sending TG your questions:

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Brit Milah - Welcome to the Covenant Little One!

Dear Tanta Golda,
A young couple in our Temple recently had a baby boy. I’ve been invited to the Bris or Brit, but I don’t know quite what to expect. Is there something I will be asked to do?
Bashfully Baffled

Dear Bashful,
What a blessing, a new life!

A bris or brit is short for berit milah (covenant of circumcision) and refers to the religious ritual through which boy babies are formally welcomed into the Jewish community. It is pronounced bris by many Ashkenazi Jews, and brit by Sephardic Jews, and in eretz Israel. 

Brit milah is the oldest Jewish ritual, established nearly 4,000 years ago. However, Jews were not the first people to engage in the rite of circumcision, many ancient cultures practiced it. Even today, a number of tribal people in Africa and elsewhere practice it, as do many Muslims. Remember, Abraham circumcised his son Ishmael once HaShem told him of the commandment.

In Genesis 17 God says to Abraham: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and that shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you. And throughout the generations, every male among you shall be circumcised at the age of eight days. (For a brief history of the Reform view of circumcision click here)

Now to answer your question about what happens, etc.
Brit milah is performed on the 8th day after birth - even if it falls on Yom Kippur or Shabbat! That should tell you how important this ritual is. Only health of the newborn would delay this mitzvah. A minyan of ten Jews is desirable, but not essential.

Traditionally, the ceremony begins with a processional, where the baby is carried in on a pillow by the kvater* or kvaterin*. Those present say: Baruch haba (Blessed be he who comes). They child is then handed off to the sandak* who is seated at the chair of Elijah. The child is either placed on a table, or held on the pillow in the sandek’s lap and the sandek holds him while the mohel performs the circumcision.  Brit Milah Pillows

The mohel says a blessing before performing the circumcision - Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu al hamilah - Blessed are you Adodai our God, Sovereign of the universe, who makes us holy with mitzvah commanding us concerning circumcision.

Following the circumcision the parents say: Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav, v’tzivanu l’hachniso biv’rito shel Avraham avinu - Blessed are you Adodai our God, Sovereign of the universe, who makes us holy with mitzvah and commanding us to enter our son into the covenant of Abraham our father.

All present respond: Just as he has entered the covenant, may he likewise embark upon a life blessed with Torah, marriage, and good deeds.

The mohel or parents then say the kiddush and a the baby’s is given his Hebrew name. The person reciting the kiddush drinks the wine, as does the baby. How is this possible Tanta Golda, you ask.  A small piece of cloth is dipped in the wine and given to the child to suck on. Alternatively, a few drops of wine are placed on the child’s lips. The New Jewish Baby Book: Names, Ceremonies & Customs-A Guide for Today's Families

Traditionally a seudat mitzvah - festive meal follows, and the parents and child are cooed over. Okay, that last bit is Tanta Golda’s minhag, but really, who wouldn’t coo?

*Kvater, kvaterin, & sandek all translate as godfather/godmother. The kvater/kvaterin is a ceremonial position, while the sandek is the one who is considered by many to be the one who promises the parents to raise the child in the Jewish faith if some ill should befall them.

Thank you for your excellent question. Many the family enjoy much mazel!
Tanta Golda

For rituals surrounding the birth of a daughter, please check out Naming Ritual for Girls by clicking the blue link.

Friday, May 31, 2013

L'shalom vs B'shalom: What's the Big Deal?

 Dear Tanta Golda,
Recently a friend of mine from Temple signed off her email to me with L’shalom. Another friend uses B’shalom. What's the translation for L'Shalom? Why do we use it?
Raising my Lexicon

My Dear Lex,
This is a hotly discussed topic in some circles. As you may know, Hebrew often attaches small words that we call prepositions or conjunctions as prefixes to words. For example:  Ha as a prefix means the, L' means to or towards. B' means in or with. You will have seen/heard them used like this: b’yad: (by the) hand, hagafen: (the) vine, l’chayim: (to) life.

So l'shalom means towards peace; b'shalom in peace. Now you might be saying to yourself, “But they seem so similar, what’s the rub?” An excellent question, and one that leads to many people using them incorrectly.

Apparently, for a variety of reasons, b'shalom is reserved for the dead, as in: May her soul go b'shalom--in peace. There are several passages in Torah where b’shalom is used in referencing the dead, or more specifically when addressing someone you wish were dead. Sort of like, “Go to hell!” It would seem that when Joseph’s brothers sold him off to traders they used the phrase b’shalom: they wished him dead.

L'shalom is used when addressing the living--may you go towards peace. Doesn't that sound nice? The Talmud, in Berachos 64a, explains that a living person must always seek to grow spiritually and keep from stagnating. Therefore, they should go towards peace: keep working at it. A dead person however, remains at whatever spiritual level they attained in their lifetime.

So, when speaking to your friends it is gracious to say l’shalom. If they are your enemies...well it is best just to keep it to yourself! 

In re-checking my answer for you I found that a more common sign off is "kol tuv", meaning 'be well'.

Kol tuv!
Tanta Golda