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Books! Books! Books!
Judaism is a religion. It is also the written history of the ancient world. It’s a tribute to a people that despite all odds continue to strive and survive regardless of past or present travails. What I have learned is that to understand Judaism, we must also understand its history. And that begins with the Torah.
I want to make it perfectly clear, I am not a scholar, and I am not trying to pretend that I am. What I am trying to do is put in plain language the basics of Judaism for the unversed like me. When you get to a section or page that does not go deep enough, and they never will, it is my fervent hope that you will decide to read other books (after you have finished mine of course) that will take you deeper.
We have to start somewhere, and that is why I am devoting a few chapters to the books of Judaism: as much for me as for you. I cannot tell you how many times I have tried to keep it all straight in my head: Torah, Bible, Mishnah, Chumash, Gemara, Tanack, Talmud and the list goes on.
I admit to a lifetime of ignorance about my religion. When I was nine years old, I went to Hebrew School in Rochester, New York. Bible stories were kept to a minimum because who had time? We were there to learn to read and write Hebrew. To this day, that still confuses me. Who learns to read and write a language but never learns how to speak that language?
Then, when I was eleven, we moved to Naples Florida. There were three Jewish families in Naples and obviously no synagogue. In fact, the country clubs were even restricted: No Jews and No Blacks. Why Naples? What else? My Dad went into business there: it was a wonderful opportunity. So I traded my winter coat and my Judaism for warm weather and sand in my shoes. That is how I grew up. But I was always proud to be a Jew. I remember a friend in sixth grade asking me if I were a Jew or an American. It was not asked in an anti-Semitic way; I imagine it was something he heard at home. Today, I would give the same answer I gave to him: I am both.
When I began to write my books, I was embarrassed that the Catholic friends in my writing group knew more about biblical Judaism than I knew. They could even quote scripture. I would be hard-pressed to find even one of my Jewish friends that could do that. As a child, I did memorize the 23rd Psalm when my mother’s best friend died. You know the one: The Lord is my Shepherd. . . .AND I still know it by heart. Truth time: I do not ever expect to be quoting scripture. I have a hard enough time just remembering names.
I will try to avoid writing like you are reading a textbook. But information is information, and there is just so many ways that information can be transmitted. Please keep in mind, I am teaching myself as we go along. Some of this may seem elementary to you. Let me begin by asking: Do you know what the book of Leviticus is about? If you have a clear understanding, then you have a “Get Out Of Jail Free” card, and you can skip this chapter. If not, read on!
Let me begin with the Torah.
Torah—also called the Chumash. I know, I know, I know. Why does it have to have two names? Thing is, you will hear it referred to by both names by learned Jews, and I don’t want you to get confused. I will stick to the word Torah.
The Torah is the Five Books of Moses. Five separate books, all written on the parchment scroll that make up the Torah. Think of Torah as the main event. It is the foundation, the touchstone of Judaism that all else stands upon. Above all else, Torah is a document of faith. I say this because if we start to apply carbon dating, archeology, chronology etc., to the Torah, we will find ourselves lost and confused. For the purpose of this writing I will, and I hope you will join me, suspend my intellectual mind and embrace my spirituality.
The books of Torah are: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.
Some facts: We always stand when the Torah is lifted. The Torah is read three times a week, Monday, Thursday and Saturday. Moses declared that no more than three days should ever pass without giving honor to the Torah. (Some believe the decision came in the fourth century before the Common Era, BCE). Torah is also read on the holidays; fast days and on the new moon.
The first time I was in services and they announced prayers for the new moon (Rosh Chodesh) I remember thinking, not another holiday to make the services longer? I have now come to love these special prayers for the new moon. It reminds me that another month has passed in my life, and that I need to value each moment that I am given.
Before the Torah is read, it is paraded around the room. People kiss it with either their prayer book or with the fringe on their tallit. (prayer shawl). The Torah is then placed on the bimah (podium) before reading.
Each week a portion (parshah) from the Torah is read in the synagogue. There are fifty-four portions that we read including leap year. Over the course of a year, we read from the book of Genesis through to the book of Deuteronomy. On the holiday of Simchat Torah, we read the last portion in the Torah Scroll. Then the Scroll is rewound, and we begin again, reading the first paragraph of Genesis. The Torah is a never-ending circle.
Whenever the Torah is read, we also read a passage from the Prophets known as the Haftarah. The reading from the Haftarah relates to that week’s Torah portion.
The portion of the week is divided up. Various members of the congregation come forward to participate by saying a prayer before and after the rabbi, cantor or a learned member of the congregation reads. There is a transliteration in English so you can read the prayers, even if you don’t know Hebrew. No vowels appear in the Torah, so even if you can read Hebrew, reading from the Torah is unbelievably difficult and that is putting it mildly.
The first Aliyah, the honor of being called to the Torah, is given to a Kohein or Cohen. Kohein in Hebrew translates to priest. The name Cohen designates someone who is a patrilineal descendent of Moses’ brother, Aaron. Aaron and his descendents were the priests who oversaw the altar and the sacrifices. I know I threw in a word that we don’t see very often. The definition of patrilineal is “descended from the line of the father.”
The second Aliyah is given to a Levi. Levi was one of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. When Moses was on Mt. Sinai and the Jews lost faith and they constructed the idol of the golden calf. The tribe of Levi did not participate.
The rest of Aliyahs are given to people who may be celebrating special events in their lives—weddings, birthdays, birth of a child, etc.
Here is a quick overview of the five books of the Torah. Think of it as if you were in your first year of Hebrew school, only this time you are going to pay attention.
Genesis: The beginning of creation. It describes the generations of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the birth of Jacob’s twelve sons and one daughter. We are introduced to murder, the first flood and the first organized rebellion. To quote Rabbi Boruch Clinton: “This is the book about the way the world was built; its rules and purpose, its people, both great and small.”
Exodus: The story of Joseph and his family, the ten plagues, the Exodus from Egypt and the parting of the Reed Sea, (not a typo, it is the Reed Sea, not the Red Sea). Exodus includes Moses receiving the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai and the Jews wandering in the wilderness and building the Tabernacle. The Tabernacle was the place where G-d communicated with Moses. It was a portable sanctuary that could be constructed, taken down, and rebuilt as the Jews wandered in the desert.
Passover was born of Exodus: The holiday that celebrates Israel’s liberation from Egyptian slavery. Regardless of where I am on my Jewish journey, Passover has always been a constant. It seems to be the one holiday that even the most assimilated Jews will celebrate. Perhaps it is because the entire Jewish nation of Egypt saw the miracle, when we stood together at the shore of the Reed Sea when the waters parted.
My earliest memories of Passover are as clear to me today as if they happened but a moment ago. I can see my grandmother, my aunts and my mother setting the tables. I can wander back to the scents of bubbling chicken soup, brisket and turkey roasting and tzimis warming on the stove. I can still taste the love.
We were thirteen first cousins—a clan, best friends who never needed other friends. Relegated to the kids table, someone was always breaking the rules by sneaking a piece of matzo before the proper time in the service. Memories return of tasting the apple and nut mixture, and putting horseradish in our mouths and then trying not to gag. Images flash as I write this.
I loved the sound of the Hebrew and then the repetition in English as we dipped our knives into the wine and then tapped the wine onto the plate ten times to represent the ten plagues: frogs, locusts, blood, Ugh!
The youngest child at the Sedar, to make them feel involved and special, recited the Four Questions in Hebrew. The Four Questions expound on why this night (Passover) is different from all other nights?
The youngest always needed help, and that is where I came in. I loved showing off how perfectly I knew the Hebrew! I think it was the only thing I learned in Hebrew School. Even today, although some of my cousins have passed away, and we are spread from Maryland to Pennsylvania to Florida we are still close.
Just last week, the rabbi at the Chabad taught me to think about Passover in another light. The freedom given to our ancestors applies to us today just as it did in ancient times. It is a time to reflect on the choices we have. It is a time to make decisions that will make us happy.
Passover also represents that moment in our history when we became a Jewish nation. Until that point, we were Jews because we were descendants of Abraham. When G-d gave our people the Ten Commandments and the Torah, we united as Israel—a people.
Leviticus: This book serves as a roadmap. In Leviticus we read: Love your fellow as yourself. We are instructed how to live as a holy nation and how to properly worship G-d.
There are several chapters on ritual purity, laws that relate to contact with the dead, and the laws concerning contact with a menstruating woman. (There is a lot to read about that!) Leviticus includes rules for the priesthood, animal sacrifices, dietary laws, (more about that in Deuteronomy), Yom Kippur and all the festivals, ownership of land and indebtedness. There are six hundred thirteen commandments interspersed in the Five Books of Moses—two hundred and forty six of those commandments are found in Leviticus.
Numbers: Numbers is the narrative that starts where Exodus leaves off. The book is the story of the years, the Jews wandered in the desert. It tells of the beginning years and the later years but there is little commentary on the thirty-eight years in between.
It begins with a census. There were six hundred thousand Jewish males between the ages of twenty and sixty. This was not a guess. Each name was listed and every clan accounted for. Add women and children and elders to that number, and we begin to get the picture of just how many of our people were in that desert! Numbers is also about rebellion: the lack of meat, fear of entering Israel, the leadership of Moses, complaints about lack of water and being drawn into the enticements of the daughters of Moav. The Book of Numbers tells the end of the journey that began in Egypt.
We are now coming to the final book of the Torah. Whew! I know it was intense, but I promise you, I did my best to give you a quick overview. It was not easy to do. I had to leave out some really cool stuff.
Deuteronomy: This book covers the final weeks of Moses’ life just before our entry into the land of Israel. Moses gave a long and fiery farewell speech to his people shortly before his death. He beseeched the Jews to follow the commandments in the Torah. “Watch yourselves very carefully, lest you should slip; lest you should fail to keep even the most obvious of commandments.” Chapter 8:11
There are one hundred and ninety nine new commandments in Deuteronomy, but many are ideas mentioned in other books of the Torah. This book stresses monotheism (the belief in one G-d) and the loyalty that Israel (Israel meaning the Jews) owes G-d. Deuteronomy foreshadows our life in the land of Israel, stipulating that sacrifices to G-d may only take place in the religious capital, in a single sanctuary.
There are only two fundamental prayers written in the Torah, and both appear in Deuteronomy: grace after meals and the Shema. The Shema is our fundamental declaration of a belief in One G-d. Hear, Israel, the Lord is our G-d, the Lord is One.