Publications

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Chapter 6: How Fast Should I Go?
   
          If you choose to investigate Judaism by taking on some level of observance, beware: the greatest mistake you can make is not pacing yourself properly.

          If you attempt diving in before you can swim, you're in trouble.  On the other hand, if you procrastinate before starting your climb to the next level of learning and observance, you're likely never to progress and even run the risk of losing the Judaism you have attained.

          Each individual getting involved has his or her own unique pace setting.  No two people are exactly alike and it would be impossible to give a standard "from non-observance to observance" timetable.

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Stage III.  “Getting Serious – Experiencing Judaism for Yourself”

Overview

        Ask any seasoned traveler and they’ll tell you, their most meaningful adventures were when they experienced first hand, as a participant, the activities of a different culture.

          There is a verse in the Book of Psalms that reads “Taste and see that G-d is good.” The itinerary we’ve laid out in this chapter is meant to help you do just that: become a participant in a variety of Jewish experiences rather than a mere observer.  These experiences should enable you to get a close up view and true taste of authentic Jewish living. Only in this way can you gain a deeper understanding of Judaism’s values and beliefs.

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Chapter 7: What Books And Materials Are Available For Me?


          It's impossible to tell what will spark a person's interest, therefore, it would be wrong to give a "don't read" list of books, You obviously have had your interest sparked already and are probably seriously motivated to really learn about Judaism.

          Our advice to you is: read some serious books about Judaism, and not for example: Portnoy's Complaint or Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice. These books may be written by Jews or about Jews but they have nothing whatsoever to do with Judaism.

          Please take note that as a beginner you probably think of only one book associated with the religion: the Bible, consisting of the Five Books of Moses, Prophets, and Writings.

          What you will soon learn is, scholarly Judaism centers around learning from a vast and awesome body of Torah literature.

          We recommend you divide your reading list into two groupings.

 
First group:  The Basics


•    To Be A Jew - Hayman Donin – a basic overview of traditional Judaism’s laws and customs

•    This is My God - Herman Wouk – a personal odyssey of discovery by one of America’s greatest author’s

•    Think Jewish - Zalman Posner – what a 35 century old tradition can tell the 21st century

•    The Real Messiah? - Aryeh Kaplan – A Jewish response to missionaries

•    Permission to Believe – Lawrence Kelemen – four rational approaches to God’s existence

•    Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism – Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin – an introduction to Judaism by examining its relevance and meaning

•    The Road Back – Mayer Schiller – a personal discovery of Judaism with a history of Jewry for the past 300 years

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Second group:  Source Texts

•    An Alef Bet Reader - i.e. a Hebrew primer teaching the Hebrew alphabet and simple pronunciation

•    The Living Torah - Aryeh Kaplan – an annotated modern English translation of the first five books of the Bible

•    The Holy Scriptures – Koren Publishers – a popular translation of all 24 books of the bible

•    The Stone Edition TANACH – Mesorah  Publications – an annotated modern English translation of all 24 books of the bible

•    Maimonides Principles – Aryeh Kaplan – the fundamentals of Jewish faith

•    Artscroll Siddur – Mesorah Publications – traditional prayer book with new translation and anthologized commentary

•    The Concise Book of Mitzvoth – Chofetz Chaim – a listing, with commentary, of Biblical commandments

•    Handbook of Jewish Thought – Aryeh Kaplan – a two volume overview of Jewish thought and belief

•    The Way of God – Moshe Chaim Luzzatto – God’s plan for the world and man’s place in it


          These two groupings represent two levels of learning about Judaism.


          The first level is learning what Judaism is all about.  The second level is actual Torah learning. Stated another way, the first grouping is “about it”, the second grouping is “it”.

          It is important to mention at this point, that the single most important commandment amongst all the commandments, is the study of Torah.
   
          Don't make the mistake of never advancing beyond the first level.  You must set some sort of time limit for yourself and make sure that you start actual Torah learning.  Not only should you have an appreciation of Judaism, you must be an active participant in it.

          Example:

          Mark has been going to an "Exploring Judaism" class for 3 years.  In all that time, he has never picked up a Bible to read part of it, nor does he know how to pray or read Hebrew. He avoids the synagogue because he does not have the tools to participate in the service.  Even if he would go he would not have the slightest idea what the Torah portion of the week is all about.

          Jessica, however, began studying the same time as Mark but within a few months decided to go to both a Hebrew and Bible class.  After a year she feels extremely comfortable with going to the synagogue and all its rituals.  She is currently attending classes in Jewish law and the Bible.  Jessica has gone from being an observer to a participant.

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Chapter 8:  Jewish Geography: Places To Visit, People To See, & Moments To Experience.

I.     The Land Of Israel

          Israel is a special and unique place; it is the land that the Almighty designated for His nation, the Jewish people, to be their home.

          For the past two thousand years Jews have prayed, yearned and struggled to return there. Why? There is a spiritual quality to being in the land that strengthens a Jew’s relationship to the Almighty and awakens the soul to His presence. Simply put, the Almighty is perceived more clearly and powerfully in Israel than anywhere else in the world. Obviously then, Israel is a most appropriate stop on a Jew’s journey to discover religious meaning and personal identity.

          For those who are more skeptical about the land’s spiritual effect, there are other, more apparent reasons for Israel’s impact on a Jew’s identity. The Jew’s relationship with the Land of Israel stretches back over 3700 years. Abraham, the first Jew, was promised the Land and spent most of his life there. Isaac, Abraham’s son never left the land. Moses led the nation Israel back to the land where they lived for over eight hundred years before being exiled to Babylonia for seventy years. Ezra, the scribe led the Jews back from Babylonia to the land where they resided, millions in number, for over 400 years, until the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 A.D. Even though we have been dispersed in the diaspora for the past 1900 years there has never been a time when there was no Jewish community, however small, in the land. The Jewish nation’s body and soul has never been severed from the Land of Israel.

          The Jewish nation’s rising from the ashes of the holocaust and returning to the land is on one hand, an anomaly in the history of mankind – but on the other hand, a simple unfolding of prophetic visions clearly stated in the Bible. For any Jew and especially for one who has been made to feel unwelcome and “different” by the world, there is a tremendous emotional attachment to the place which is our real home. In Israel we are not outsiders; every Jew belongs and can connect.

          Since Israel today is almost entirely Jewish, it is natural for a Jew to feel more comfortable relating to and expressing his Jewishness; automatically, Jewish consciousness is enhanced. Surrounded by Jews, one is more likely to proudly wear a chai sign or yarmulke and to search out expressions of Judaism.

          In Israel, Jews “feel” Jewish all the time and therefore, are more inclined to investigate their heritage. For instance, Shabbos is a national day of rest; so a Jew is gong to relate to the concept of Shabbos on some level (perhaps for the first time in his life). The same is true for the Jewish holidays, there is an awareness of them that permeates the entire country and one is therefore more easily able to observe and investigate their meaning. Israel provides the searching Jew with the opportunity most conducive to confronting and examining Jewish identity and one’s personal connection to it.

          In summary, a Jew in Israel is surrounded by Jews and Judaism; there is no embarrassment in thinking, feeling and acting like a Jew.

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II.     A Yeshiva

          Yeshiva (house of Torah study) is an academy for Jewish scholarship, where the classical texts are studied, debated, analyzed and interpreted. The Jewish people earn the title “people of the book” by sitting long hours in these yeshivot. These houses of study are a hallmark of Jewish history and have been a constant presence in every land and culture where Jews have lived as far back as biblical times.

          A Yeshiva houses the dynamic intellectual component of Judaism. Jewish Studies requires use of the mind to the utmost extent and a Yeshiva is where the pursuit of these studies take place.

          The institution of yeshiva is one of the unique aspects of Judaism which distinguishes it from all other religions. It takes a very short time spent in a yeshiva to realize Judaism is not about mindless religious fervor and dogma, but rather, involves a demanding intellectual process based on critical analysis and intense study.

          Entering a yeshiva, one is immediately struck by its sights and sounds. Unlike a library setting, students are sitting in pairs, arguing loudly and gesturing emphatically. They are discussing legal intricacies. The volume is no barrier to concentration; quite to the contrary, the great din enhances focus. A sharp focus is necessary because every detail of the Torah must be consistent and in-sync with each other. By analyzing each point, questioning and defending its merit, and arguing its implications, consistency is achieved.

          The majority of yeshiva scholars are young men who pay a tuition fee and who have been studying for years; many have been in yeshiva since first grade. There are also a select few who receive a small stipend for their scholarship. They are members of the yeshiva “kollel” and have dedicated themselves to Torah study, forsaking more lucrative pursuits. Study in yeshiva after high school is known as “learning l’shem shomayim”, learning for the sake of Heaven, because there are no material motives. Their study is purely for the love of Torah.

          Not every Jew is interested or qualified to study in a yeshiva. The Jewish world, however, as a whole, greatly respects and admires these scholars. They are viewed as the very foundation of our existence, without whom we could not survive.

          There are probably more than 1,000 post high school yeshivot in Israel and 100 more in the United States. Some are tiny places with no more than 10 to 20 students, a few enroll several thousand. Many yeshivot are named and modeled after yeshivot in Europe before World War II and reflect a particular style of study and worldview.

          There are two noteworthy yeshivot that are most impressive to see: one in America the other in Israel. The one in America is located in southern New Jersey, in a town named Lakewood. Because the Jewish population of the town is comprised mainly of yeshiva students, it is known as the Lakewood Yeshiva. Its formal name is Beth Medrash Govoha and it is the largest yeshiva in the world.

          In Israel there is a yeshiva called Mir, named for a town in Polish Russia where its predecessor stood. There are several thousand students there as well, many from the United States. They are both quite impressive sights to behold.

          Why are they so impressive? Nowhere else in the world can you see up to 1000 men in the same study hall locked in intellectual battle. You are struck by how seriously these men take their studies and how it seems to define their existence; they are totally absorbed in pursuit of understanding texts thousands of years old, which they find relevant to their lives today. This is no Intro to Psych course given in a large lecture hall. While most of the men are in their  twenties, there are some older rabbis in their forties and fifties and some even in their eighties who have been studying their entire lives. Although many years they’re senior, they learn side by side with the younger men, toiling equally to get an ever sharper understanding of the Torah. The excitement generated by words on a page is unparallelled.

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III.     A Yeshiva for you, the Beginner

          Of course, the best way to experience what a yeshiva is all about is to enroll in one as a student.

          Nowadays there are many yeshivot with beginners’ programs. They study curriculum's designed especially for students who are interested in learning more about Judaism, but without any formal background. These yeshivot exist in Israel and the United States and many were established for the sake of students, like yourself, who never had the opportunity for serious Jewish study. There are programs for both men and women; the only qualifying criterion is that you be Jewish.

          During the late 60s and early 70s there was a movement among the younger generation away from the Western culture’s emphasis on materialism, and towards seeking more spirituality.  A great number of Jewish students were among those searchers.  Many turned to their own, ethnic and religious heritage and rediscovered its meaning and values. Jews, who had been raised to assimilate and were deprived of a Jewish education, began to investigate the teachings of their ancestors and were thoroughly intrigued. Due to their lack of background however, many of the ideas and texts were inaccessible to them.

          In response to this situation, a few pioneer rabbis dedicated themselves to making Jewish wisdom available to all who desired to seek it.  They opened beginners’ Yeshivot whose purpose was to provide any Jew with an understanding of his religion and the skills to study it. As a result, a great many Jews altered their lifestyles and became completely observant. They are known as “baalei tshuva”(masters of return) and today they number in the many tens of thousands.  Interest in authentic Judaism continues to grow, spawning more and more programs that cater to Jewish beginners.

          These programs basically operate on two levels. There are classes which talk about Judaism, its values, beliefs and practices. These lectures and discussions serve as an introduction to basic Judaism. Then, there is a second level of learning which involves actual first hand study of Jewish texts. Because so many of these sources have, over the past few decades, been translated into  English, it is possible to examine their meaning without having the requisite language skills. Of course, obtaining the skills necessary to study in the original is a high priority as it allows a student to analyze these texts on a deeper level.

          Among Yeshivot with beginners’ programs, there are several types with various emphases. There are yeshivot that stress the intellectual, those that are more emotional or spiritual, and some that strongly encourage Zionism. A prospective student has many options and should try to select a program, which emphasizes the kind of observance with which he is most comfortable.

          There are also programs in the United States where a newcomer to observance can begin to study Judaism without any previous background. It is, however, greatly preferable to have this experience in Israel because Jewish consciousness and commitment are so greatly enhanced there. (See above “Israel”).

          For the beginner there is even the possibility of visiting a Yeshiva in Israel, all expenses paid, through the Birthright Program.

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IV.     Synagogue (Shul)

          Jewish communities are almost always literally centered around the synagogue; and a visit should be a high priority for you, and a continuing one.

          And so before your Jewish explorations have taken you very far, you'll probably find yourself in a shul, typically on a Shabbat, the likely consequence of invitation or self-generated curiosity.  And you should be there, even if the sequence and meaning of the prayers are lost on you for now. That perplexity will be relieved soon enough; but first you must enter.

          A synagogue is how you can become connected to the Jewish community in your area.

          In the synagogue you will find other Jews who will welcome the opportunity to integrate you into their community, will almost always ask if you would like to share a Shabbos or Holiday meal with them, and it is where you will find out the various goings on in the community.

          But you can’t be shy.  People in the synagogue will reach out  to you if you reach out to them. They will be happy to find you a seat, an appropriate prayer book, show you the place in the prayer book, explain what is going on and make sure you get some honors that are normally given out in the synagogue. But initially you may need to ask for their help.  

          The primary function of a synagogue is as a communal setting for obligatory prayer services which take place three times daily: morning service - Shacharis, afternoon service - Mincha, and evening services Mariv. Although a Jew may recite these prayers almost anywhere alone, it is preferable to pray with a minyan (a collection of at least ten men). Jewish tradition tells us the Almighty is more inclined to accept the prayers offered from a minyan and being part of the minyan enhances one’s concentration and inspiration. Also, there are parts of the service, which may only be recited in the presence of ten Jewish males e. g. the Kaddish (memorial prayer for a deceased relative) and Torah reading (from a Torah scroll). , All this attesting to the collective spiritual life our faith encourages.

          But the synagogue is more than the site at which the technical accomplishments of the minyan are engineered.  In a very real sense it serves as spiritual center as well, a space in which Jew communes with Jew in a synergy of purpose that girds them for the decidedly more profane world outside.  Inside it is possible to be only Jewish; the identities of occupation and class do not matter when one stands in prayer before God. If in the synagogue you are in, wealth and its trappings do matter, you must find yourself another synagogue.

          Make sure the synagogue you choose is the genuine article.  Like computers, synagogues come in all sorts of configurations these days, and as with computers, it is best to get one with certain service guarantees.  Look for a synagogue ruled by Jewish law - and that means in the first instance a place in which the genders are separated.  Jewish law absolutely requires such a demarcation, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise.  A synagogue is dedicated to prayer, not to flirtation and gossip.  The manner in which the genders are partitioned may vary with the synagogue, however; in some the women are situated in the balcony, emulating the practice in the Temple in Jerusalem; other places interpose a physical divide - called a mechitza - between men and women when the latter sit at ground level.

          Once you've found your shul, it's time to acquaint yourself with your new spiritual environment. If you're a man, it's wise to enter with a yarmulke, which should be positioned on your head, not in your pocket. Once inside, take a look around. Ideally but not necessarily, the synagogue in this part of the world faces east, because Jewish law bids us to pray toward Jerusalem. Toward the front of the shul you'll find a small lectern, called the amud, at which a designated leader prays a part of the service, often heightening his voice to lead a collective phase, or so doing to simply apprise the congregation about the progress of the prayers.  In addition, a small, bounded-off platform in the center of the synagogue - the bimah - is one of the three physical focal points of the service, the place at which the cantor conducts other parts of the liturgy, and where the Torah scroll is read.

          The synagogue's rabbi often looks out at his congregation from a seat near the ark in which the Torah scrolls are stored, but this is not the universal practice.  Indeed, some synagogues, particularly small ones, may have no rabbi at all.  In fact, no aspect of the service requires a rabbi's direction, and in practice the rule is for him not to conduct any part of it.  The several phases of the service are almost always apportioned to practiced laymen; the rabbi instead often speaks during a selected break in the service.

          Once stationed in your seat, you may find the service more than a little daunting. It is, after all, pronounced entirely in Hebrew, which may in turn be Greek to you.  Thus you would do well to learn which synagogues in your area keep prayer books with English translations, information which can be turned up by phoning the relevant shuls during the week.

          Still, an English prayerbook, or siddur, is no fail-safe shortcut to comprehension of the service.  The best solution to following the service is by studying its various parts beforehand with a Rebbe or more learned friend. The lack of such a resource however, should not keep you from shul.  During the actual service or at its conclusion, muster a little gumption and ask a shul veteran about the prayer itinerary, or even approach the rabbi himself.  He'll likely be able to point you toward some kind, informed soul who'll be glad to walk you through the text.

          In summary, a synagogue is an almost indispensable tool to find out more about Judaism and to become integrated into its society.

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V.  Every Place Else


          Although it is possible to lead an observant life anywhere, most Jews choose to reside in a Jewish community, in the midst of other Torah observant families, where their practical needs are best served.

          What comprises a Jewish community, besides the presence of Jews?  First and foremost, the presence of a synagogue within walking distance is an absolute necessity.  After that, all of the following contribute to the community’s general livability, but are not absolutely essential: a kosher butcher, a kosher bakery, a kosher restaurant, a mikva (ritual bath) and Jewish schools.

          There are dozens of such communities in big cities all over America, but nowhere are they as large and impressive as those located in New York, where the options for glimpsing Jewish life are as varied and wide as can be imagined.  Indeed, so central is New York to the American Jewish experience, all other locales are referred to as “out of town”.  In Brooklyn alone we find the heavily Chassidic communities of Crown Heights and Williamsburg (dominated by Lubavitch and Satmar, respectively), the enormous, more polyglot neighborhood of Boro Park and many sizeable Jewish sectors in Flatbush.  It is well worth a visit to these places to get a taste of Jewish life, where minyanim (prayer groups of ten or more) can be found at almost all times of the day or night, kosher stores and businesses closed on Shabbos are pervasive, and synagogues and yeshivas abound.

          If one prefers a more suburban setting, growing towns such as Lakewood (home of the world’s largest yeshiva) and Monsey are noteworthy in their own right.
  
          “Out of town” Jewish communities, while located in and around big cities, tend to have a small town feel.  All the religious Jews seem to know each other and pull together for both joyous occasions and trying times.  Because of its small population, community members cannot be anonymous; others are aware of you and your actions.  For some, this may feel intrusive but for others it is a gratifying experience, well worth the sacrifice of other conveniences.
   
          Finding the right community certainly involves assessing one’s personal preferences and lifestyle needs.

          Most important is finding a place where you feel comfortable and are able to continue to grow in observance and spirituality.

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VI. The Important People in Judaism (Who To Meet)


          In the culture of Orthodox Judaism there are heroes.  Their pictures don’t appear on boxes of Cheerios nor are they pulling in mega-million dollar salaries.  They are not captains of industry nor are they political leaders.  Nonetheless, they are extraordinary people, who have reached the highest levels of human achievement.  They are referred to as gedolim (great ones) and they toil in relative obscurity, unknown to most outside the Torah observant world.

          The reader is probably unaware of their existence, and in fact, most of the world would not even believe that they are for real. They are men who have accumulated vast amounts of Torah wisdom and have worked on themselves to internalize these lessons so that their actions and emotions reflect what they have learned.  Their lives are devoted to serving the Almighty and being considerate of their fellow man.  They are the epitome of character, refinement, integrity and honesty and have served as role models for their fellow Jews in each generation.  Stories regarding their actions, observations and holiness are inspirational for any audience. 

          Throughout the centuries, these gedolim have made themselves accessible to the public.  Jews from far away have traveled great distances to see and meet with them. Gedolim alive today are also available to Jews who wish to gain an audience with them.  There are many good reasons to meet with a gadol: to seek out their advice regarding  issues one may be struggling with; to request their blessing for success with a particular endeavor; just to be in their presence and observe their behavior in order to have a concrete image of what a Jew should be trying to emulate.

          Meeting with or even just seeing a gadol, can be an inspiring experience; one has the opportunity, to observe first hand the end product of a life dedicated to G-d and His Torah. Seeing, up close, and feeling the G-dliness that rests upon a gadol is a major spiritual experience; one’s belief is inspired and elevated by sensing the G-dly aura surrounding a Gadol.

          Seeing a gadol is not so difficult to do.  First, one must find out who they are.  They are not listed in the yellow pages under “G”, nor are they elected to their position.  Instead, they are acknowledged by a consensus of the observant world to be great people and our leaders.  One need only ask around to find out their names and how to arrange seeing or meeting with them.  Usually, there are designated times when they make themselves available to privately confer with those who come to see them.  Often there is a wait after one arrives, so bring along a friend or something to read; there are many others also wishing to see them.  The wait, however, should be well worth it.

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VII.    Shabbos: Judaism Illuminated

          To anyone becoming more involved with Judaism, probably the most valuable experience is Shabbos.  Its proper observance within an appropriate environment provides a uniquely expedient opportunity to appreciate the beauty and sanctity of Jewish life through experiencing it first hand.  Few Jewish experiences offer the beginner as lucid a vantage point from which the beliefs, ideals and values of Judaism are so immediately apparent and so brilliantly illuminated.

          Throughout Jewish history, while Torah learning has been the Jew’s internal engine and life force, Shabbos has been the Jewish family’s fortress, protecting its belief and faith. As the oft quoted saying goes, “More than the Jews have kept the Shabbos, the Shabbos has kept the Jews.” It has proven true throughout all the ages, when the Jews abandoned Shabbos they quickly assimilated into the prevailing dominate culture.

          The Jews’ acknowledgement of Hashem as the Creator and Sustainer upon whom we are totally reliant, as well as our commitment to infusing the material world with holiness and spirituality is all readily perceptible on Shabbos.  In addition, the very laws of Shabbos themselves, which so greatly succeed in shutting out the intrusiveness of the mundane world, make up an ingenious demonstration of how Jewish ideals are clearly manifest through Jewish law.

          The opportunity to glimpse so clearly these attributes of Judaism in such a concentrated way, make an authentic Shabbos experience an absolute "must" for the Jewish newcomer.  In fact, we recommend it as the ideal Jewish experience with which to inaugurate your Jewish expedition.

          Let us proceed to guide you through the Shabbos experience by means of a question and answer approach.

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What is my best opportunity to view Shabbos?

          As we've already noted, it is the religious laws of Shabbos, which create the beauty and pleasure of the day. It is, therefore, imperative that the beginner find a Shabbos observant family who keep those laws, with whom to spend Shabbos.


          In addition to experiencing the "real thing", there are several other important benefits that can be gained spending Shabbos with an observant family.

          Firstly, it is certainly the most effective means of learning.  Observation and first hand experience are indispensable tools in acquiring working knowledge of any kind; Judaism is no exception.  One can study for months the details of myriad Shabbos laws and still not be as certain about them; watching them being done properly just one time brings clarity and understanding.  It is crucial to see how Jewish law is observed to be assured knowledge learnt is properly applied.

          Secondly, it is also important to spend Shabbos with a family for the social benefits.  While there is great importance attached to personal reflection on Shabbos, it is also meant to be a time for happiness and sharing.  It is necessary to interact with other Jews and to share the beauty of Shabbos with people you feel close to.  Judaism is intended to be observed with others, not in solitude.  Much of the joy of Shabbos comes from the time you can spend with people you care about; a luxury our hectic, fast paced society, rarely affords us the rest of the week.

          Thirdly, it's important as a beginner to be able to experience the different customs of Shabbos and Judaism.  For many people who didn't grow up observing Shabbos in their own homes, it's essential to see how different families celebrate.  They can then determine how they will one day conduct Shabbos with their own families, incorporating what they've experienced at the homes of others.

          Finally, if you’re foolish enough to stay at home by yourself and attempt to keep the myriad laws of Shabbos by referring to a “Laws of Shabbos” book, know that you are doomed to failure; you’re guaranteed to extract all the joy and beauty from the Shabbos experience.  Needless to say, it is not recommended.

          Now that you're convinced of the necessity of experiencing Shabbos with a family, let us present you with some basic information and a few simple rules to follow to help insure your Shabbos experience will be enjoyable for both you and your hosts.

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          How do I get invited?

          If you're puzzling over how to secure an invitation for Shabbos, deterred by the notion that a family would have to be crazy to welcome a perfect stranger into their midst for an entire day - stop worrying!

          What you are heretofore unfamiliar with, is a very beautiful mitzvah in Judaism known as "hachnosas orchim", loosely translated as hospitality but meaning so much more.  Hoping to fulfill this mitzvah, many Jews not only welcome the opportunity to have guests but actively search them out.  In fact, Shabbos guests are often in much greater demand than Shabbos hosts.

          The only thing a potential guest needs to do is to make himself available.

          Contact a Jewish outreach organization. Tell them that you would like to experience Shabbos. This type of organization should be your first option because they do this regularly.

          They will probably want to meet you in person and do an intake interview. Be cooperative: they really want to help you.

          After asking where you live they will either get in contact with an appropriate Sabbath-observing family they know in your vicinity, or put you in touch with your local synagogue rabbi. In the latter case, the rabbi will most probably want to meet you first before making Sabbath arrangements.

          The arrangements will initially be for a Sabbath meal and, if things go well at that meal, many more invitations are bound to follow.

          If, for whatever reason, these organizations cannot place you, feel free to call an orthodox synagogue or a yeshiva directly and let them know of your interest.  Most likely, they will go out of their way to help you. They can set you up with member families or even the rabbi.

          Once you have the name of a family and are calling or being called to arrange your Shabbos, keep in mind a few things:

          Don't leave anything vague or unspecified. Generally speaking, a Shabbos invitation can be: 1) for a meal only (Friday night dinner or Saturday lunch), or 2) first meeting at the synagogue for the Friday evening service followed by dinner; or 3) spending the entire Shabbos with the host family i.e. the full 25 hours, starting with candle lighting (before the onset of Shabbos) until the ‘havdalah’ service, a little after nightfall on Saturday evening (which concludes Shabbos). Make certain you know what is included in the invitation.

          Finally, be sure to mention any sort of special needs you may have before you come.  It can be embarrassing and uncomfortable for a host to serve a beautiful roast that required hours of preparation, when the guest announces that he is a vegetarian.  Of course, one should not read off a list of demands to the prospective host, but it's better to tactfully let them know about any special needs you have, before you arrive.

          As you'll most assuredly find out, securing a Shabbos invitation requires little more than a few simple phone calls and at most, a couple of brief meetings.

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          What will happen?

          In order to maximize the Shabbos experience that awaits, it is wise to be familiar with the Shabbos routine.  Although, intended as a day of rest and pleasure, it can prove a little wearing to the uninitiated.  The following sample itinerary represents a "typical" Shabbos.  Undoubtedly, different places will follow a somewhat varied schedule, but this example is universal enough to allow the beginner an idea of what to expect.


          Arrival

          Let's begin even before the beginning.  A guest should be careful to arrive at his host's home anywhere between 30 to 60 minutes before Shabbos starts.  Earlier than that and you're in the way; later than that, can cause anxiety.

          When you do arrive at your hosts, be aware that erev (time preceding) Shabbos at many homes can resemble a cyclone.  Everyone in the family is involved with some type of Shabbos preparation and they're all frantic to finish and be ready before all work ceases at sunset.  For this reason, it is most preferable that you arrive at your host's home already showered, dressed and ready for Shabbos.  Coming with your own preparatory needs will just add to the general pandemonium; we strongly recommend against it.


          Welcoming the Shabbos: Candle Lighting and Sunset

          Shabbos begins officially when the women of the house bentsch licht, light and make the blessing over the candles.  This typically happens 18 minutes prior to sunset, and at that time all work ceases for the women of the house; the men may still do work until sunset. At sunset all work must cease for all and the home becomes "Shabbosdik"; a perceptible calm begins to pervade the house.

          Around this same time, the men head off to shul for the afternoon service, kabalos Shabbos (welcoming the Shabbos) and finally, the evening service. Women usually do not attend shul Friday night but there is certainly nothing wrong with them going if they wish.  Each of these services are relatively short (15 to 20 minutes) and easy to follow.  It is highly recommended that the novice try to arrange for the use of an English prayerbook in order to follow what's going on.

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          Friday Evening Meal

          When everyone has returned from shul, the family gathers around the "set table" and sings two songs: ‘Sholom Aleichem’ - Welcoming the angels that accompany them home and Aishes Chayil - a song in praise of the Jewish woman.

          The meal itself then begins as the man of the house sanctifies the day of Shabbos by reciting Kiddush (the sanctification blessing) over a full cup of wine.  Typically everyone is given a small amount of this wine to drink.

          Everyone then makes their way to the sink in order to ritually wash their hands (Netilas Yadayim) before eating the special Shabbos ‘challah’ (bread). Because these two activities are related - ritual washing of the hands and eating challah - speaking between them is prohibited until you have eaten some of challah.  After the ritual washing of hands and its accompanying blessing, the man of the house recites the HaMotzi blessing over the challah, cuts the challah, puts some salt on it and distributes it to everyone at the table.

          At this point, most of the rituals are completed and the evening gives way to the serious business of indulging your appetite with various culinary delights. This feast is usually punctuated with singing and discussion of the week's Torah portion and will probably last a good deal longer than any other dinner you have attended.

          After dessert and before wondering how and why you ate so much, the concluding blessings called birkat hamazon (grace-after-meals) are recited.  Here also, it is well advised for a beginner to make use of a bentscher (booklet containing grace-after-meals) that includes an English translation and transliteration in order to understand and appreciate these blessings.

          The remainder of the evening’s activities is varied, but all are pretty "laid back".  Many Jews are quite content to slip into bed early and take advantage of the restful nature of Shabbos.  Others will study Torah or just relax and talk with friends and or family; something the rest of week rarely, if ever, seems to allow.

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          Shabbos Morning

          After a good night's sleep, people awake, put on their Shabbos clothes and head off to shul. The Shabbos morning services are comprised of three basic parts and can be somewhat lengthy (anywhere from 2 to 3 hours).  Besides the morning service, the additional sections include the public reading of the Torah and a service called mussaf.  If possible, secure a siddur which includes an English translation and try to recruit a more experienced synagogue goer to help keep you apprised of what's happening.  (Without these two aides the morning can seem interminable.)  In most shuls, it is customary for the rabbi to speak on Shabbos morning.  At best this can be a real Shabbos highlight or at worst will help you to get even more Shabbos rest.


          Shabbos Day Meal

          Upon returning home, the family reconvenes at the center of most Shabbos activity, the dining-room table.  The procedure is similar to that of Friday night.  A shorter version of Kiddush is recited, hands are washed ritually, hamotzi blessing over the challah is made and, once again, an array of delectable Shabbos dishes is consumed amidst intermittent singing and Torah discussion.

          One such delicacy traditional for Shabbos day, unique to the Jewish people, cholent, constitutes the main course and the piece de resistance.  It mostly resembles a stew, as it is composed of meat, potatoes, beans and barley; and is spiced and or flavored by innumerable other ingredients indigenous to the family serving it.  Its main characteristic though, is that is has been left warming since sunset of the previous night.  This unusual method of preparation, not only accounts for its distinct and recognizable flavor but is also a practical illustration of Jewish law.  Shabbos is intended as a day of pleasure, which means a hot meal.  Since cooking on Shabbos, however, is prohibited, Jews prepare this dish so that it is already cooking before sunset, and then leave it warming until it is served the next day.  Perhaps it is the cholent's origins in the complex laws of Shabbos that give it such a lofty and revered place on the Shabbos table.

          Birkas Hamazon (grace after meals or ‘Bentsching’ in Yiddish) follows the meal.

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          Shabbos Day Menucha

          Once the second meal is concluded, Shabbos afternoon is dedicated to a concept called "menucha", loosely translated as rest.  There are a number of activities consistent with this theme: napping, studying, talking, taking a walk - all of which can be enjoyed on Shabbos afternoon.  During this time one can really appreciate the sense of peace Shabbos creates.  It's the time when nothing is scheduled and a Jew relaxes and uses for pursuits the hectic, pressured weekdays don't permit.  This sense of calm and isolation from the intrusions of the world can seem a bit disarming to the novice and may take some getting used to.  Since we generally live in a fast paced world that bombards our senses, Shabbos menucha can be a very drastic and, perhaps at first, uncomfortable change of pace.  Don't let that discourage you however, there isn't an observant Jew who doesn't enjoy and look forward to Shabbos menucha.  Most Jews develop a kind of Shabbos biological clock, which adapts readily to heavy meals, afternoon naps, and early bedtimes.


          Mincha, Shalosh Seudos and Maariv

          About an hour or so before sunset, the pace of Shabbos is stepped up a little as the day starts to draw to a close.

          At this time men return to shul for the Mincha (afternoon) service.  It is a relatively short service and includes a preview of the Torah reading for the coming week.

          The third meal called Shalosh Seudos (or Seudah Shlishit) generally follows mincha.  It is usually a light meal, intended more to fulfill the mitzvah of eating three meals on Shabbos than satiating any hunger.  Shalosh seudos is often partaken of in the Shul (synagogue), although many people prefer to return home.  There is no kiddush, but one does ritually wash and says hamotzi over the challah.  The Birkat HaMazon is said just as Shabbos is ending and is followed immediately by Maariv (the evening service) that marks the end of Shabbos.

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          Havdala

          Of course Shabbos is far too important to allow it to end without some acknowledgement or fanfare.  Its departure is marked by a brief but dramatic ceremony called Havdala (separation).  In it, we make blessings over wine, spices, and fire before declaring the separation between the holy and the mundane.  With that final reminder, we extinguish the candle in some wine spilled off from the cup and wish one another well for the coming week.


          When to Leave

          Once Shabbos is concluded, it's generally best to thank your host and to leave promptly.  Most people become very busy immediately after havdala and need to tend to matters other than entertaining.  Be considerate of that and, unless you have been invited to stay longer, a quick departure will not be seen as impolite.

          You can generally tell how much your host enjoyed having you by measuring how much you enjoyed being there.  Should you require a more concrete indication - "please come back again" from your host is a good sign.

          Don't be reluctant to follow up on their offer.  While every Jewish home creates its own singular Shabbos atmosphere and it is beneficial to gain a variety of experiences in order to broaden your knowledge and to appreciate the rich gamut of Jewish life; we strongly recommend that when you've found a place where Shabbos is enjoyable and comfortable, frequent it. Many beautiful, life-long relationships are established between guests and those with whom they shared Shabbos!

          These relationships, besides serving as a way to experience an authentic Shabbos, can provide the beginner with an invaluable resource for exploring Judaism. In fact, often times one’s Shabbos host can also serve as one’s teacher or rebbe.

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          Common Sense Tips & How to Get Invited Back

          While the custom of hachnosas orchim (hospitality) is very much present in the Jewish world, making Shabbos invitations plentiful and easily obtainable, be advised that a guest who proves to be difficult will find them quite scarce.

          Now that you're prepared for what to expect from Shabbos and from your host, it’s fitting that you take note of what is expected from you.  Don't get nervous; these expectations are minimal and can probably be summed up with a concept you're probably acquainted with, even if the term sounds foreign - "derech eretz" i.e. common courtesy.

          This is an extraordinarily important concept to be familiar with and to practice; not only on Shabbos and not only in someone else's home, but always and in every facet of life.  Exercising derech eretz means to conduct yourself politely, pleasantly, and with consideration to others.  In Yiddish this is called acting like a Mentsch.

          As a Shabbos guest, your behavior should be similar to that which would be expected in most social situations: be polite and complimentary, try to be helpful and don't impose or attempt to run the show.

          Remember every Shabbos table is different: some sing a lot, some speak about the Torah portion, and some will discuss Jewish community issues.  Try to adapt yourself to your host’s style.  Allow your host to lead - you follow!

          The expression:  "When in Rome, do like as the Romans do," is most appropriate for a Shabbos guest to keep in mind.  This even applies to customs like standing or sitting during Kiddush.  Unless it's halachically inappropriate, one should do as his host does.  (If it is halachically inappropriate, one probably should not be there in the first place!)

          A word about children:  Chances are great that your hosts are going to have some.  Try to enjoy them - where that's not really possible, at least be patient and tolerate them.  Remember they are the pride and joy of your hosts.  Just as you wouldn't say the soup is awful, so you shouldn't express anything disparaging about the children.  The truth is they are not only a big part of the Shabbos experience (parents getting time to be with children) but they are also a most treasured and prominent part of Jewish life.  If you don't already, learn to like them.

          Leave nothing to chance regarding your arrangements.  As mentioned previously, Shabbos invitations generally include meals and lodging if you’re coming from outside the host’s neighborhood; make sure you've coordinated these plans before your arrival.

          Advise your host ahead of time of any specials needs you may have (especially dietary).  Most hosts would much prefer (and some even welcome the opportunity) to accommodate your needs than to have you sitting at their table unable to partake in the elaborately prepared meal as you politely attempt to assure them that "salad is plenty".

          As we mentioned earlier, try to time your arrival to be between thirty to sixty minutes prior to candle lighting.  Given the customary erev Shabbos pandemonium, you should arrive already showered and dressed.

          Many guests feel obliged to bring a small gift.  This is not at all necessary, although it is a nice gesture.  The most common gifts are flowers for the Shabbos table or a bottle of wine.  Be certain that if you bring the latter it is certified kosher, as should be the case with any other food items you choose to bring.  Be sure to present them with the gift before Shabbos to avoid any halachic complications.

          While these tips are intended to prevent some possible Shabbos faux pas, try not to be overly apprehensive.  Many newcomers consider Shabbos with trepidation, conjuring up a day rife with mysterious strictures and halachic booby traps set to trip at the merest wrong move.  Indeed, the laws of Shabbos are complex but nobody expects the beginner to be fluent with them.  Don't feel intimidated; a host family will certainly be indulgent towards the "classic" mistakes and should you happen to accidentally switch off the bathroom light, they will manage to endure.  In fact - and get ready for a real shocker – sometimes even a veteran Shabbos observer can also inadvertently slip up.  All that is expected of a guest is to make a polite earnest effort, not halachic expertise.

          It shouldn't take too long before you start to develop a real love and appreciation for Shabbos yourself.  You'll begin to understand how it really is one of the foundations of Jewish life and a source of great pleasure.

          If you didn’t enjoy this Shabbos experience, it’s possible the fit with the synagogue or the host family was just not right. We urge you to try to be placed in other communities and with other families. If after several attempts (where you have made a serious and genuine effort) you still don’t find Shabbos an enjoyable experience, your future as an observant Jew is pretty "iffy".  Most likely though, you'll start to wonder how you were ever able to live without it.

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VIII.    The Holidays

          In addition to Shabbos, there are five major holidays in the Jewish calendar whose observance includes many of the same laws.  They are called “Yom Tov” and each one has its own special mitzvos, mood and focus.


          Rosh Hashana

          The first holiday, in chronological order, is Rosh Hashana and means “head (beginning) of the year.”  It is the beginning of the Jewish year and inaugurates a ten day period of serious reflection and repentance, culminating with Yom Kippur.

          On Rosh Hashana, the entire world is judged by the Almighty and we proclaim Him as our King.  To evoke His mercy, we blow the shofar (ram’s horn).  The mood of the day is somber, yet celebratory, because we believe that G-d is merciful in his judgment and will grant us a good year.


          Yom Kippur   (the tenth day from Rosh Hashanah)

          On Rosh Hashana we are judged and on Yom Kippur our verdict is sealed.  It is our final chance to show our regret for our past misdeeds and to plead for forgiveness.

          Jews are not permitted to eat on this day; we fast for an entire 25 hours. We try to maintain our focus upon spiritual matters exclusively, hence prayer services are the only activity of the day and many spend the entire waking time in the synagogue.  We are taught Yom Kippur is a holy day when G-d is more accessible to receive our true repentance.

          The mood of the day is very serious, reflecting our constant awareness of standing before the Almighty judge, confessing our wrongdoings and pleading for His forgiveness; yet the Talmud advises us that Yom Kippur is the happiest day of the year precisely because on this day those who truly repent are granted forgiveness.

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Last updated on: 07/25/2017
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