Archive for the ‘Judaism’ Category

Bible Translation, the Ten Commandments, and the Next Generation

September 27, 2011 1 comment

I’m pleased to announce that my TEDx presentation on Bible translation, the Ten Commandments, and the next generation is on-line on and YouTube, as well as on my Exploring the Bible Videos site. Enjoy!

Categories: Bible, Judaism, other

What does the “pur” in Purim really mean?

March 18, 2011 4 comments

Pur in PurimSoon we will bake hamentaschen, dress up in costume, and read the Book of Esther (“The Megillah”) to celebrate the joyous holiday of Purim. According to verse 9:26 of that very book, we get the name “Purim” from the pur that was cast: “Therefore, they called these days `Purim’ after `pur.'” But while purim is the Hebrew plural of pur, pur itself is not a Hebrew word. For this reason, twice before in Esther, when pur is mentioned, we are told, “…pur, that is, the goral.” So a pur is a goral, but what is a goral?

In all likelihood, goral originally referred to a bunch of small pebbles or similar objects used to make decisions by chance: they would be cast down on the ground or put in a vessel of some sort, from which one would be drawn at random. (A similar practice, in which stones were placed in a helmet, is clearly documented from Homeric Greece. The Greek verb for casting these objects was ballo, from which we get our English word “ballot.”)

For example, in Leviticus 16, Aaron takes “two goats,” “a goral for God” and a “goral for Azazel.” Then the goat that God’s goral lands on is God’s goat, and the goat that Azazel’s goral lands on is Azazel’s goat; this latter goat is sent “to Azazel” in atonement. (Based on an ancient misunderstanding of the Hebrew “to Azazel,” a 1530 translation reads “to scape” instead of “to Azazel,” giving us the English phrase “scapegoat.”)
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Accidental Mutineers

September 14, 2009 Leave a comment

With Rosh Hashanah less than a week away, our thoughts turn to starting a new year, and, we hope, improving on the old one. The theme of asking for forgiveness is a common one. But we pay less attention to the other side of the same coin: have we created an environment that lets others apologize to us?

We usually find it easier to see the faults in those around us than to recognize our own. The shortcomings of family members, coworkers, and friends leap out at us in vivid detail, while our own imperfections remain obscured behind veils of psychological obfuscation.

So what do we do when we see that a parent is needy or a boss insecure, a spouse jealous or a friend unsupportive, a child ungrateful or an employee combative?

Like all instruments of power, our knowledge of other people’s faults — so clear to us and yet invisible to them — can be a force for betterment or for destruction.

In this regard, the 1954 film The Caine Mutiny is a brilliant study of how we deal with what’s wrong with other people.

Captain Queeg, in command of the U.S.S. Caine, is a well-meaning and capable commander, but years of combat have taken their toll and he is also nervous, obsessive, and prone to paranoia. As is frequently the case, those around him see his faults right away, while he himself remains practically unaware of them.

What, then, do his shipmates do?

Rather than try to work with their captain, rather than accepting his failings and trying to help him overcome them, rather than compensating for what he cannot do, the officers of the ship antagonize Queeg. They scoff him. The provoke him. They follow the letter of his orders even when they know it’s a bad idea.

In this combative and unsupportive environment, Queeg’s insecurities worsen and his paranoia becomes more pronounced. “Sometimes the captain of a ship needs help,” Queeg pleads. But his subordinates use his weakness against him. “Look at the man. He’s a Freudian delight,” one officer tells another, hoping to make a case that the captain is unbalanced.

Eventually the ship finds itself maneuvering around a typhoon. The crew no longer trusts their isolated captain, and they relieve him of command.

The key to the movie is the trial for mutiny. The crew are found not-guilty, because by the time the typhoon hit, Captain Queeg was unable to make sound decisions. But they are also found morally culpable, because they paved the way to the captain’s demise, in the process almost destroying the boat and ending their own lives.

What will we do next year when we see the shortcomings in those around us?

Like the officers on the Caine, we have a choice. We can try to create a tolerant, forgiving environment. Or we can use other human beings’ flaws to our own short-term advantage and amusement.

Will we choose well?

Or we will become accidental mutineers?

Categories: holidays, Judaism, spirituality

Holy Hanukah Lights

December 2, 2008 1 comment

By Joel M. Hoffman

“These lights are holiness — haneirot hallalu kodesh hen.

This famous line about the Hanukah lights, now part of the standard Hanukah liturgy, comes from masechet sofrim, an 8th-Century Palestinian work that describes the practices of our ancestors in and around Jerusalem. Masechet sofrim goes on to warn that we are not allowed to use the Hanukah candles for anything except looking at them.

Unlike the Shabbat candles, then, which can be used to provide light for reading, or, presumably, warmth (though obviously not much), the Hanukah candles just sit there.

In fact, this is why we have a shamash. The shamash, the “ninth of the eight Hanukah candles,” is technically not actually a Hanukah candle itself. We use it to light the real Hanukah candles, while the shamash sits next to or above the Hanukah candles.

This way, in case you’re walking around the house reading a book, say, and if just as you walk by the Hanukah menorah the power goes out, and if by accident you keep on reading, you can maintain the fiction that you weren’t reading by the Hanukah lights. No! You were reading by the light of the shamash.

Or, if just as you walk by the menorah you suddenly find yourself in pressing need of a candle, you won’t be tempted to use the real Hanukah candles. You can grab the shamash instead.

This is why the shamash is supposed to be the first candle lit and the last candle to go out. (This is possible, even when the candles are identical. Can you figure out how to do it?) You wouldn’t want to find yourself with Hanukah lights and no shamash, not even for a moment.

At first glance, this all seems a bit silly, particularly in our modern day of electricity. I like to think of myself as fairly creative, and yet I have trouble conjuring up a situation in which I might be in dire sudden need of a burning candle.

But the real point has nothing to do with ambulatory reading or candle emergencies or any other practical concern. The real point goes back to the first line: these candles are holiness.

The light from the Hanukah candles, we are taught, is different than any other kind of light. Most light is just, well, light. (Photons, we might now call it.) But the light of Hanukah is the embodiment of holiness itself.

It’s hard enough to understand light, let alone holiness. We speak of light and darkness, even though there’s no such thing as darkness. (The old photography joke about opening the darkroom door and letting the dark leak out comes to mind.) Scientists have studied light and concluded that it is both a wave and a particle, though it’s also neither a wave nor a particle. It’s true, but it doesn’t help most people understand light. Still, we know what light is when we see it, and we know it’s part of our every day life.

Holiness is even harder. We may have a vague sense that God is holy, or that we are supposed to be holy. Holiness is involved in childbirth, perhaps, and according to some in the majesty of mountains and glory of nature. But, unlike light, most of us don’t think much about holiness. Would we even know it if we saw it?

Not surprisingly, the combination of light and holiness is even more difficult. How can light be holy? Even more vexing, how can a Hanukah candle emit holy light when the seemingly identical shamash gives us mere ordinary light? And what would that even mean?

I certainly don’t know. But I do know that we only get once chance a year to see the holy light.

So as we approach the darkest time of year and get ready to celebrate light, amid the stress of the holidays and the curious combination of exuberance and disappointment that accompanies gift-giving, let’s remember that life is mysterious. And let’s not miss our opportunity to gaze on the faces of the people we love as they are illuminated by flickering flames of the Divine.

Halloween and the Jews

October 20, 2008 27 comments

Jewish Star Jack O'LanternWhen I was 11 years old, a grumpy Israeli teacher told me that good Jews don’t dress up for Halloween because it’s a Christian holiday when Christians persecuted Jews.

He couldn’t have been more wrong.

First of all, Halloween began as a Pagan holiday, not Christian. The Celtic Pagan year was divided into two halves. The first half, roughly from spring to fall, was for the world of light, and the second half was for the world of darkness. Holidays marked the transitions from each half to the other.

In spring, Beltane celebrated the spiritual beginning of light-filled summer days and the life-giving force of the sun.

By contrast, Samhain (pronounced “sow-an”), the precursor to Halloween, fell on November 1 and represented summer’s end, winter nights, and, in general, darkness. As is typical of gateways and transitions (which are known technically as “liminal” times), Samhain was regarded with suspicion and even reverence. It was seen as a bridge between two opposite worlds: the human world of light and good on one hand, and the netherworld of darkness and evil on the other. Samhain was the time when the inhabitants of the latter might cross over to the former.

The custom of masks and costumes probably comes from the holiday’s general celebratory character. Some people may have dressed up specifically as ghouls to chase away the real evil powers, perhaps hoping that the denizens of the netherworld would try to distribute themselves evenly, and, seeing an abundance in one place, would go elsewhere. Or they may have thought that even the goblins were afraid of other goblins.

The Catholic Church highlighted the theme of the dead on the holiday when it adapted Samhain for its own purposes, merging it into its existing day for saints. All Saints Day, as it was called, was a time for recognizing the power the saints have over the still living. In some traditions, people paid special homage to the newly dead or offered prayers on behalf of the souls stuck in purgatory, hoping to pave a way to heaven rather than hell. Some people carried candles in turnips to represent the souls stuck in purgatory. In America, these would become our jack o’lanterns.

Since Catholic mass was held on the day, All Saints Day was also called All Saints Mass, the Middle English for which is Alholowmesse, and the Modern English for which is Hallowmas. (Christmas similarly gets its name from the mass held for Christ.)

Because the Catholic Church at the time still followed the Jewish tradition of reckoning days from sundown to sundown, Alholowmesse actually began on the evening before November 1, that is, on the evening of October 31, which was called Alholowevening, or more colloquially Alholowe’en. That gave us our Modern English name Halloween.

In addition to offering words of prayer for the dead, some Christians prepared physical food for their departed loves ones. Once food was potentially available, the poor wanted in on the action, and before long, the holiday became, in part, a day for begging (leading to Shakespeare’s image of “a beggar at Hallowmas.”) Some poor people asked for food outright. Others combined two Hallowmas traditions and agreed to offer a prayer for a provider’s dead relatives in return for a little sustenance.

But the Puritans who largely founded America despised both the Pagan and Catholic aspects of Halloween, and in this country Halloween was never regarded as a sectarian celebration. It wasn’t even on most American calendars until the mid-nineteenth century. When it finally did take root, it was a mixture of pranks, dress up, jack o’lanterns, and candy, none of which is un-Jewish in any way. So my grumpy Israel teacher was wrong.

He was equally wrong when he told me that Halloween was created to persecute Jews. There were no Jews living among the Celts when Samhain arose, and the Jews had already been exiled from England by the time the Christians turned Samhain into All Saints Day there.

But he was most severely wrong in his general approach. He failed to distinguish the history of the holiday from the holiday itself. If we abandoned everything that had a disagreeable history, we’d have to give up many of our favorite Jewish rituals, too.

Whatever their non-Jewish roots, American holidays such as Thanksgiving and Halloween are now symbols of pluralism, yearly signposts advertising America’s freedom and tolerance. These holidays are an opportunity for Americans, regardless of background, to come together and share an experience. And they can even be an enormous amount of fun.

Pluralism, tolerance, community, and fun are all Jewish ideals, and I, for one, am looking forward once again to greeting bizarrely dressed children as they come to my door and ask for treats.

Categories: education, Judaism

I Have a Little List

September 22, 2008 2 comments

By Joel M. Hoffman

“These things have no limit,” begins a nearly 2,000-year-old list in the Mishnah, our earliest collection of Jewish law. The list details commandments for which more is always better.

Leaving unharvested crops (“pe’ah“) for the poor, for instance, is the first item there. Leviticus (23:22) asks farmers to leave the corners of their fields unharvested so that the poor can — free of charge and anonymously — gather food. The more crops left for the poor, the more people eat. Feeding some hungry people is good; feeding more is better. That’s why there’s no limit.

But the real point of the list is that good things come in two varieties. For some, the more you have the better. That’s what we all expect. But it turns out that some good things — perhaps even most — are only good in moderation, and even turn detrimental with quantity. They not only stop being good, but they can actually become bad.

Food, for example, falls in this second, non-intuitive category. We think of food as a good thing because it’s yummy and we need it to survive. But while 2,000 calories of food a day is twice as good as 1,000, 4,000 calories is not twice better than that. 16,000 calories a day will kill most people. After a certain point, otherwise life-sustaining food becomes a health hazard.

Modern readers may be surprised to find that prayer is not on the ancient list of things that have no limit, because prayer is like food. You should have enough, the rabbis say, but don’t overdo it. By contrast, g’milut chasadim, being kind, does appear. You can never be too kind or kind too often.

A related list, traditionally juxtaposed with the first, comes from the Talmud. It details things that offer inherent reward in return for doing them: honoring parents, for example, or helping people work out their differences. Honor your parents and you’re more likely to be happy yourself. It’s the right thing to do, but even if it weren’t, it would still be a good idea, because it just so happens that it will make your own life better. Similarly, help two people stop fighting and you don’t have to live amid strife.

The second list even details how these good acts will reward those who do them. Good deed doers earn interest on their investment of beneficence “in this world,” and enjoy the principal “in the world to come.” In other words, you get a little bit of benefit for doing the right thing now, and you get even more benefit later.

We find g’milut chasadim (“being kind”) from the first list on the second list as well. Not only can you never be too kind, but the more kindness you can show, the better things will be for others and for you as well. Karma, some people call it.

Studying Torah is also on both lists. Unlike food, whose benefits turn deleterious after a point, more learning is always better. That’s why it’s on the first list. Its role in the second list is more oblique. We read: studying Torah “is like” all the other things on the list. (A common translation misses the whole point, wrongly claiming that studying Torah “is equal to them all.”) The list doesn’t tell us in what way studying Torah might be “like” honoring parents, helping two people get along, or being kind. Perhaps one has to study Torah to find out? That’s why we spend so much energy on studying Torah, giving children and adults alike a path into Jewish learning. We may not know why, but somehow, the more we study, the more we augment the world’s supply of the other good things, too.

Considerable unhappiness comes from mixing up lists like these. Addiction, for example, is the inability to keep things off of the first, short, list. What about money? Is more always better? Capitalism says yes, but Judaism says no. Wealth isn’t on the list. Maybe, like food, after a certain point money stops improving our lives and even makes them worse.

These complex and important issues are masked in a deceptive facade of simplicity. So as we celebrate a new year together, let’s also find time to reevaluate the lists of our lives.

Shanah Tovah.