Listen Up!

What does a good conversation feel like? Your partner is looking right at you, giving you undivided attention. They paraphrase what you are saying so that you know you have been heard and understood. They listen without judgment and without rushing to solution. They evidence patience and compassion. Their cell phone is nowhere to be seen!

Sometimes, just being heard in this deep way is enough.  We don’t even need to solve problems or reach agreement.   We all long for this human connection and to know that someone cares about what is important to us.

I am privileged to teach techniques of communication to US Army Reserve couples, with my colleague Chaplain (LTC) Val Sutter.  The crescendo of our training is when he looks out over these beautiful faces and asks,

“Would you like to learn some magic?”

Of course, the participants are on the edge of their seats!  So, what are the magic words?“


“I hear you, and I understand.”

The desire to be heard and understood is so powerful.  When we achieve that goal, when we have someone’s full attention and we know that they are REALLY listening, we experience a visceral, physical relaxation response.  It feels SO good!  We know that we are not alone, that someone else cares and stands with us in our pain.  Just being heard diminishes our hurt.  We know that we are not alone.

As our year draws to our close, we read the parsha of “Haazinu”.  The word Haazinu comes from the root ozen, ear.  We might translate it as “listen up”, or, “give ear.”  Our tradition consistently reinforces the fundamental value of listening- from the classic words of the Shema– Hear O Israel, to the guidance of ibn Gabirol that in seeking wisdom there are 5 steps- the first is silence, the second is listening.

When we give others the gift of listening, we affirm the divine image within them and their ultimate worth as individuals.  Rabbi Elie Spitz quotes Martin Buber as recognizing that “we find the divine not in the moment of the ecstatic experience alone but in the simple, daily task of being fully present with others and thereby with God.”  In other words, listening to each other can be a religious experience!

What does poor listening look like?  In our PREP (Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program) we focus on four communication danger signs- withdrawl, invalidation, negative interpretation, and escalation.  When we find ourselves moving in these directions, it is best to take a timeout and regroup before we say things that may cause irrevocable damage in our precious connections.

As we turn our attention to our hopes and dreams for 5772, as we seek to repair our damaged relationships and build foundations of kindness and love with our families, friends, and colleagues, there is nothing more vital than a renewed commitment to enhancing our communication skills.  So many of the sins we mention in the Al Cheyt prayer draw attention to the myriad of ways we hurt each other with words.  We have the power to bring healing through deep listening.

Here’s how Rabbi Spitz expresses it in his book Healing From Despair-

“To listen to another person is to bring comfort through connection. . . In listening to a soul in pain, sometimes all we can offer is mindful listening.  And in that act of listening, we validate that the soul is worthy of time and attention, that the burdens that cause pain are real and heavy, and that good continues to exist in a broken world. Our very presence as caring listeners attests to the kindness that exists in an imperfect but beautiful world.”


Jewish Holidays



The cycle of the Jewish holidays follows the Jewish calendar, which is lunisolar based, with an extra month added every few years to accommodate the difference between the number of days in the lunar vs. the solar year.  (354/365).  The date of the Jewish holiday never changes, but if may vary as to when it falls on the Gregorian calendar by up to a month.  Thus, we may speak of the holidays being “early” one year and “late” the next, though the reality is that the date does not change.  In many instances, the holidays are connected with the cycle of the seasons, so celebrations often take place at the new moon or the full moon.  For an urban dwelling community, the Jewish calendar is a constant reminder of our agricultural origins as a people.

In the book of Genesis, in the story of creation, we read, “And there was evening and there was morning, the first day”, etc.  The Jewish day begins at sundown, so many holidays, including the Sabbath, will begin with candle-lighting on the night before the day on which the holiday appears on the calendar.


Ahad Ha-Am wrote that, “More than Israel has kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept Israel.” Observance of Shabbat is the focal point of community and family life, a weekly opportunity for physical and spiritual nourishment. The Torah offers two reasons for Shabbat:  we rest as a reminder that God rested on the 7th day of creation.  We who are formed in the image of God also step back from our frenetic pace of work.  Additionally, we recall the Exodus from Egypt, the formative focal point of the Biblical narrative.  The essence of slavery is lack of control of one’s own time.  By celebrating Shabbat, we express our dominion over our own activities, and actively demonstrate that we are not slaves to our work.  For one day a week, we consciously withdraw from the cycle of creation and destruction, allowing the natural world to be at rest.

Shabbat begins in the home with a special meal.  This is the ideal time to invite family and friends and to disconnect from the media, which are so much a part of our lives.  Many people have the custom of giving tzedaka (setting aside money as a charitable donation) just prior to the onset of the Sabbath. Candles are lit with a traditional blessing, and, if children are present, they are blessed with the words of the priestly blessing.  Orthodox practice calls for the husband to read Proverbs 31 in praise of his wife; contemporary Jews may choose to offer thanks for loving partners and all that they do to enhance the quality of home life.

We continue with Kiddush, a prayer over wine, the ritual washing of hands and then blessing the bread. (HaMotzi).  Often a special loaf of egg bread, challah, is used for Shabbat.  The table atmosphere should be relaxed, and might include singing of traditional songs, study of the weekly Torah portion or other texts, and the offering of thanks for the meal through the Birkat HaMazon, the blessing after the meal.  We greet each other with the words, “Shabbat Shalom”, expressing our hope for a day of peace.

Shabbat is concluded on Saturday evening when there are 3 stars present in the sky with the Havdalah ceremony.  The word “Havdalah” means “to make a distinction”, and it is the moment of transition from the peaceful rest of Shabbat back into the hustle and bustle of weekday life.  We light a candle with multiple wicks, smell fragrant spices and drink from the Kiddush cup.  At the time of Havdalah, we invite the presence of the prophet Elijah, expressing our hope that the messianic age might be ushered in at that sacred moment.

Following are three prayers for Shabbat, in both Hebrew (transliterated) and English.

On Lighting Shabbat Candles

Baruch Atah Adonai Elohenu melech ha’olam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav vetzivanu l’hadlik ner shel Shabbat.

Blessed are you, Eternal our God, Sovereign of the universe, you make us holy with your mitzvot (commandments) and have given us the mitzvah of lighting Shabbat candles.

Kiddush (Blessing Over the Wine)

The complete Shabbat Kiddush includes a paragraph describing both the completion of creation and a recounting of the Exodus:

Baruch Atah Adonai Elohenu melech ha’olam, boray p’ri hagafen.

Blessed are you, Eternal our God, Sovereign of the universe, who creates the fruit of the vine.

Hamotzi (Blessing over the Challah)

Baruch Atah Adonai Elohenu melech ha’olam, hamotzi lechem min ha’aretz.

Blessed are you, Eternal our God, Sovereign of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.


Rosh HaShanah (literally, “Head of the Year”) is the Jewish New Year.  It takes place in the fall, and is the time when we review the year that is drawing to a close and set our course for the year ahead.  The Hebrew dates of Rosh HaShanah are the 1 and 2 Tishrei, at the time of the new moon. Rosh HaShanah ushers in the “Yamim Noraim- the Days of Awe”, which comprise what is known as the High Holiday season.

In the month prior to the new year, we seek reconciliation with others from whom we may be estranged, hoping to enter the new year with a clean slate.  Our prayers at this season help us to focus on repentance, prayer and righteous giving as the means to seek reconciliation with the Holy One.  We acknowledge that we cannot ask God to forgive us for pain we have caused to others until we have sought forgiveness from those we may have hurt.  The holiday is known as “Yom HaDin”, the Day of Judgment.  We judge ourselves and God judges our actions.

Rosh HaShanah, fundamentally, is a reminder that our actions have consequences.  We imagine God opening the book of our lives and judging our behavior in the year that is drawing to a close.  Rosh HaShanah is also called “Yom HaZikaron”- the Day of Remembrance.   It is a solemn time, and we spend many hours in prayer in the synagogue reflecting on our life and legacy.  The shofar, ram’s horn, is sounded throughout our services, arousing our souls to repentance.

Rosh HaShanah begins, as do so many holidays, with a festive meal at home, including the lighting of candles and a special Kiddush.  Traditional foods such as apples and honey are consumed, expressing our hope for a sweet year.  The braided challah of Shabbat may be replaced with a round challah, as we pray for a year that is “well-rounded.”  On the first day of the holiday (or the 2nd day if the first day is the Sabbath), we enjoy the tashlich service.  The community gathers at a place of flowing water and casts breadcrumbs into the water, symbolizing the casting off of the sins which have accumulated during the year.

On Rosh HaShanah we greet each other with the words, “Shanah Tova- a good year”, or, more expansively, “L’Shanah Tovah Tikatevu- may you be inscribed for a good year”, continuing the metaphor of the Book of Life.

Following Rosh HaShanah, we enter the “Aseret Y’mei Teshuva”, the “Ten Days of Repentance.”  This is the time when we take the accumulated lessons of our reflections on Rosh HaShanah and demonstrate our commitment to translate them into practice.



Yom Kippur, the “Day of Atonement”, is the culmination of the High Holiday season.  It is the holiest day of the Jewish year.  For those who are physically able to do so, it is customary to fast for the entire day, beginning before sundown and for the duration of the holiday.  We refrain from food and drink and other physical luxuries, expressing our focus on spiritual values on this day.  Together we chant the “Viddui”, the confession of sins, and we specify those sins in the “Al Cheyt” prayer.  Much of Jewish prayer is in the plural, as we support each other in the acknowledgement of our many failings. 

Yom Kippur takes place on the 10th day of the month of Tishrei.  We light the holiday candles and share a final meal before the fast begins.  Those who have lost a loved one- parent, child, spouse or sibling, light a memorial candle as well. The synagogue service on Yom Kippur will include special “Yizkor/Memorial” prayers.

 Worship begins with the Kol Nidre service.  The haunting melody of this prayer is one of the most recognizable in all of Jewish liturgy.  The words “Kol Nidrei” are translated as “All Vows.”  Through this prayer, we consider the slate wiped clean of any vows to God we may have made in the previous year. On Yom Kippur day we read the story of Jonah, inspired by the people of Ninveh and their immediate responsiveness to the call to repentance. 

As the sun sets, the pace of our prayers quickens with the “Neilah” service, as the day of Atonement ends.  With one final blast of the shofar, we return to our homes to break the fast, with hearts and spirits renewed and ready to enter the new year.



Four days after Yom Kippur, a day focused essentially on the spiritual, we celebrate the fall harvest festival of Sukkot, the “Feast of Booths”, on 14 Tishrei, the full moon of the fall equinox.  Sukkot is one of the 3 Biblical pilgrimage festivals, the “chagim”, or, holidays on which adult males were expected to make a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem.  Each of these holidays has both an agricultural as well as a historical reference.  Sukkot reminds us of the temporary dwellings of our Israelite ancestors as they journeyed in the wilderness for 40 years from Egypt to the Promised Land.  Sukkot is said to be the foundation of the American celebration of Thanksgiving.

Traditional Jews construct a “Sukkah”, a harvest booth at their homes.  Many will sleep in the Sukkah for the 8 days of the holiday; certainly we should strive to eat as many meals as we can in the sukkah. A temporary dwelling, the sukkah is decorated with fruits and vegetables, with posters and lights.  Some people save their Rosh HaShanah cards and use those to adorn the sukkah.

The fragility of the sukkah is a reminder of the fragility of our lives.  We reflect on the transience of our possessions and renew our commitment to enduring values.  As we live for a week in an insecure dwelling, we think of those who do not enjoy the substantial homes with which we are blessed, as we renew our commitment, as well, to work for a time when all will enjoy secure shelter.

As we sit in our sukkah, we invite “Ushpizin” each night, mystical guests, to join the friends and family who share our harvest hut.  It is fun to consider which historical Jewish personalities we would like to include if given the opportunity.  In the synagogue, we read the book of Ecclesiastes at this holiday.

Sukkot is celebrated for 8 days in traditional communities; for 7 days by many in accordance with the practice in the land of Israel.  The first two and last two days are considered full holidays, in which we abstain from work.  These restrictions are relaxed on the middle days, known as “Chol Ha’Moed”.  The Yizkor/Memorial prayers are included on the final day of the holiday, and we recite “Hallel”, a special series of psalms of praise, on each day of Sukkot.

The Torah instructs us to shake the lulav and etrog as part of our Sukkot experience.  Known as the four species, these elements include a palm branch, willow and myrtle fronds, and a citron, or, lemon-like fruit.  There are many beautiful interpretations of the lulav and etrog, which are waved in 6 directions as part of our worship, symbolizing God’s presence which surrounds us always.  The lulav and etrog represent each person in our community:  our community is incomplete without the participation of each Jew.  They remind us to serve God with our entire being.

The following is a description of rules and regulations pertaining to the construction of a sukkah:

1) It must be less than 30 feet high. 2) The walls must be strong enough to withstand ordinary gusts of wind. 3) The shade offered by the roof covering of the sukkah must block the rays of sun, yet the stars must be visible through the roof. 4) There must be at least three walls, made of any material. 5) The sukkah must be a temporary structure, so a screened-in porch or a screened house cannot serve as a sukkah. 6) It is a mitzvah (a commandment) to eat meals in the sukkah during the holiday.

Sukkot is known as “He-Chag”, THE holiday, the time of greatest joy in our calendar.



“Hoshanah Rabba”- the great “Hoshanah/”Save Us” takes place on the 7th day of Sukkot. Tradition suggests that it is on this date that the High Holiday season truly concludes, as God seals our Book of Life.  We make 7 circuits around the synagogue, each one characterized by a prayer asking for God to save us- hence the name- “The Great Hoshanah.” The lulav and etrog are carried in these processions. In some communities it is customary to hold a tikkun, an all-night study session, in anticipation of Hoshanah Rabbah.



“Shemini Atzeret- the 8th Day of Assembly” and “Simchat Torah- rejoicing with the Torah,” are the conclusion of the fall holiday season.  They may be combined as a one-day observance in many non-Orthodox communities.

Shemini Atzeret marks the 8th day of Sukkot.  This season marks the beginning of the rainy season in the land of Israel, so, on Shemini Atzeret,  we add prayers for rain to our daily liturgy.  On Sukkot we offer prayers for each of the nations of the world.  On Shemini Atzeret, God invites the Jewish people to linger in the holiday spirit, expressing the unique closeness between the Holy One and the people of Israel.

On Simchat Torah, we celebrate the completion of our cycle of Torah reading, from Genesis through Deuteronomy, and we begin our study for the year ahead.  We demonstrate our devotion to learning as we immediately read the first words of Genesis upon completion of Deuteronomy.  It is a special honor to be called to recite the blessings for either one of these readings.  Simchat Torah is characterized by joyous singing and dancing.  In many congregations, the entire Torah scroll will be unfurled. 


Hanukkah is one of the best known of the Jewish holidays, though it is, in reality, a minor festival. “Hanukkah” means “Dedication”- we commemorate the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.  In the year 168 BCE, Antiochus Epiphanes forbade the practice of the Jewish religion.  Led by the Maccabees, the Jews fought for 3 years to reclaim the right of freedom of religious expression.  In the year 165 BCE, they rededicated the Temple.  Legend suggests that they found enough oil to light the menorah, the candelabrum in the Temple for only one night, and that oil miraculously lasted for 8 days. Thus, Hanukkah is celebrated with the kindling of a 9-branched menorah known as a “Hanukkiah”.  The shamash, or helper candle, is lit each night, and used to light the other candles.  One candle is added each night from right to left; the menorah is lit from left to right, with the newest candle lit first. Hanukkah initially was a belated celebration of Sukkot.

As we recall the miracle of the oil, it is customary to eat foods cooked in oil- primarily latkes/fried potato pancakes and sufganiyot/jelly donuts.  The themes of Hanukkah- the victory of the few against the many, light in the face of darkness, martyrdom and miracles, religious freedom- have resonated with Jews throughout the centuries.  Hanukkah is the only Jewish holiday that celebrates a military victory. The Rabbis tempered this emphasis by including as the reading from the prophets the text from Zechariah, “Not by might, not by power, but by My spirit, says God.”

Two blessings are said each night. A third, the Shehecheyanu (a blessing recited at joyful occasions throughout the year), is said on the first night only. Following is the transliteration for the Hebrew, with English translation:


Baruch Atah Adonai Elohenu melech ha’olam, shehecheyanu vekiyemanu vehigiyanu lazman hazeh.

Blessed are you, Eternal our God, Sovereign of the universe, who has given us life, sustained us and brought us to this holy moment.

The following are said each night:

Baruch Atah Adonai Elohenu melech ha’olam asher kideshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu l’hadlik ner shel Hanukkah.

Blessed are you, Eternal our God, Sovereign of the universe, who makes us holy with your mitzvot and has given us the mitzvah of lighting the Hanukkah candles.

Baruch Atah Adonai Elohenu melech ha’olam she’asah nissim la’avotenu bayamim hahem bazman hazeh.

Blessed are you, Eternal our God, Sovereign of the universe, who performed miracles for our ancestors in those days at this time.



Tu B’Shevat- the name of this holiday is synonymous with its date- the 15th day of the month of Shevat.  Tu B’Shevat is the Jewish New Year of the Trees.  There are many Biblical precepts which require us to know the age of trees.  Tu B’Shevat is their birthday celebration.

With the renewed emphasis in the contemporary world on the importance of protecting the natural world has come a renewed emphasis on this holiday.  Within the Jewish mystical tradition, a custom evolved of a Tu B’Shevat seder, a ritual meal where 15 types of fruits and nuts are consumed, 4 cups of wine or juice are blessed, readings about trees are shared and prayers are said on behalf of our fragile ecology.  Many people donate money to plant trees in Israel at the time of Tu B’Shevat.



The holiday of Purim, or “Lots”, comes at the time of the last full moon of winter.  Based on the Biblical megilla, or scroll of Esther, we rejoice as, once again, the Jewish people were saved from the forces of destruction.  We read the story of how the wicked Haman conspired with King Achashverosh to kill all of the Jews, and how the brave Esther, working with her relative Mordecai, saved the day.  As the megilla is read, graggers/ra-ashanim/noise-makers are used to drown out the name of the villain each time it is mentioned. 

Purim begins with a festive meal at home and many people wear costumes to the reading of the megilla in synagogue.  It is a mitzvah to hear the megillah and to give money to the poor to ensure that they have the means to celebrate (matanot l’evyonim.)  We are also to send gifts of food to at least two other individuals- mishloach manot or shalachmones.  Among the traditional foods are hamantaschen/oznei Haman- 3-cornered cookies which are said to resemble Haman’s hat.  



The holiday of Pesach/Passover is one of the most beloved holidays of the Jewish calendar.  Passover is observed each year on the 14th of Nisan, the full moon of the spring equinox.  It is the 2nd of the 3 Biblical pilgrimage festivals and commemorates the exodus from Egyptian slavery.

The Torah tells us that our ancestors fled from Egypt in haste, with no time for their dough to rise. Therefore, we are commanded to eat unleavened bread, matzah, throughout the 7 or 8 days of our observance.  Traditional Jews will remove all chametz, leavened products, from their possession in the weeks prior to Passover. This culminates in the bedikat chametz, the search for chametz, on the night before the onset of the holiday.  The next morning, any remaining chametz is ritually burned.

Services are held in the synagogue on each day of the holiday, with the first two and last two days having special religious emphasis.  The Hallel service of praise is included each day, though the Hallel is abbreviated after the first two- our rejoicing is diminished as we reflect on the suffering of the Egyptians through the ten plagues which were a necessary part of the process of our liberation.  Yizkor takes place on the final day and we read the Biblical text, Shir HaShirim, the Song of Songs.

The highlight of Pesach is the seder, a ritual meal in which symbolic foods are used to tell the story of the exodus.  There are hundreds of versions of the Haggadah, the text for the seder meal.  Bitter herbs remind us of the bitterness of slavery, charoset suggests the bricks our ancestors built as slaves, parsley dipped in salt water recalls the spring time origin of the holiday and the tears of the captive Israelites.  Four cups of wine are consumed and the youngest child present poses four questions.  The seder is characterized by much singing and leisurely celebration.  Seders are held on each of the first two nights of Pesach.



Yom Hashoah is the day established by the State of Israel in remembrance of the devastation of the Nazi era, the Holocaust.  It is a somber reminder of this darkest moment in our history.  Most communities will hold services and ceremonies to recall the 6 million Jews and 5 million other children of God killed during the Shoah.  We give thanks for the righteous individuals who risked their lives to save our people, and we reflect on the human capacity for evil.  We remind the world that “never again” can genocide be tolerated.



In Israel, Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day for the Fallen and Victims of Terror, takes place on the fourth day of Iyar, the day before Yom Ha’atzmaut. On Yom Hazikaron a siren is sounded twice throughout the country (at 8 p.m. and 11 a.m.) and all traffic and daily activity stops as the entire nation observes two minutes of silence. Outside of Israel, Yom Hazikaron is often commemorated as part of the Yom Ha’atzmaut observance.



Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Israel’s independence day, is celebrated on the fifth day of the Hebrew month of Iyar, the date the nation was founded. While there is no particular liturgy for this day, it is an emerging practice to recite Hallel, psalms of praise, as we give thanks for the establishment of the Jewish state. The words of “HaTikvah- The Hope”, Israel’s national anthem, remind us that contemporary Israel is the fulfillment of 2,000 years of the Jewish yearning to return to our homeland.



Lag B’Omer is the 33rd day of the omer.   Beginning on the second night of Passover, we count each night until the next major festival of Shavuot.  The omer was a measure of grain, and the time of sefirat ha-omer, counting the omer, is a solemn period of 7 weeks as we work for a successful harvest.  This time period was also characterized by Roman oppression   Through this counting, we connect the season of our liberation with the giving of the Torah which provides structure and meaning to that freedom.The Jewish mystical tradition suggests that each day of the counting of the omer expresses a unique combination of Sefirot, aspects of the Divine.  As we count each day, we focus on the attributes of God associated with that day.

On Lag B’Omer, we enjoy a one-day reprieve within this subdued time period.  Lag B’Omer is celebrated with picnics and other outdoor activities. In Israel, picnickers light bonfires. Traditional Jews mark the holiday by giving the first haircut to 3-year-old boys. Lag B’Omer sometimes is known as the “scholars’ holiday,” because of its association with Rabbi Akiva, who died a martyr to freedom, and Rabbi Simeon Bar Yochai, who taught in a cave when the Romans forbade him to study Torah. When Bar Yochai died, he asked his followers not to mourn but rather to celebrate his death.

In traditional communities, weddings are not held during sefirat ha-Omer.  This prohibition is lifted on the 33rd day, so Lag B’Omer is often a day for weddings and other personal celebrations.



Yom Yerushalayim, a relatively new holiday, honors the city of Jerusalem. It celebrates the unification of the city after the Six-Day War in June 1967.



Shavuot, the feast of weeks, is the third of the 3 pilgrimage festivals.  We celebrate God’s giving the Torah to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai; the harvest in Israel; the end of the counting of the omer; and the beginning of a new agricultural season.

Reform Jews usually observe only the first day of the holiday. Traditions of Shavuot include decorating the home and synagogue with green plants and branches to celebrate the season, eating dairy foods because the Torah has been compared to  “milk and honey”, and reading the Book of Ruth.  The story of Ruth is set at the time of the harvest, and her devotion to her mother in law Naomi and dedication to the Jewish way of life inspire us a role model in our own religious lives. 

Legend has it that the Israelites fell asleep while waiting for Moses to return from the mountain.  We demonstrate our commitment to receiving the Torah through a Tikkun Leyl Shavuot, an all night study session in anticipation of the morning service.  The synagogue services follow a regular festival liturgy, including Hallel and Yizkor. 



Tisha B’Av, the 9th day of the month of Av, is the second most significant fast day in the Jewish calendar, second only to Yom Kippur.  We fast from sundown to sundown as we recall the destruction of the First (586 BCE) and Second (70 CE) Temples in Jerusalem.  Tisha B’Av is also associated with many other tragedies in the Jewish calendar.  We sit on the floor and chant in a mournful key the Biblical text of Eicha/Lamentations, which describes the horrendous history of destruction. 


The Jewish Lifecycle




The birth of a child is a time for joyous celebration for the family and community.  “A baby,” wrote Carl Sandburg, “is God’s opinion that the world should go on.”  In contemporary American practice, children are often given a secular, English name, and, additionally, a Hebrew name.   In Jewish families of European origin (Ashkenazic), a child usually is named after a deceased relative. Couples might choose the same name, a name with a similar meaning or a name that begins with the same initial letter as that of the deceased loved one.  In families of Mediterranean origin (Sephardic), a child is usually named after a living relative the parents wish to honor. 

Brit Milah (Circumcision)

The circumcision ceremony, or Brit Milah, takes place on the 8th day following the birth of a male child. (The first day is included in the calculation.)  Brit means covenant; milah is word. Circumcision is a symbol of the covenant established by God with Abraham and has been continuously performed as a sign of that covenant for many thousands of years. It is a mitzvah, a religious obligation, for the parent.  Most parents choose to delegate that responsibility to a mohel, a professional who is trained in the medical and religious aspects of this ceremony. Brit Milah is often referred to as “bris”, reflecting the Yiddish pronunciation. The bris consists of two parts- the circumcision itself and the announcement of the child’s Hebrew name. The presence of the prophet Elijah is invoked, and prayers are said that the boy will grow to a life of “Torah, sacred relationship and mitzvot.”

Simchat Bat (Ceremony for the birth of a girl)

Traditionally, the name of a female child is announced in synagogue on the Sabbath following her birth, including prayers for the recovery of her mother.  It has become the custom to hold an expanded ceremony to welcome the birth of a girl and to announce her Hebrew name. This ceremony might be part of the Torah service, or, it might be held in the home of the family. The timing of this event as well as the liturgy is more fluid than that of the bris for a boy. The rabbi will assist you in creating a unique celebration to inspire your family and welcome your daughter to the family and community.

Pidyon Ha-Ben (Redemption of first-born)

The pidyon ha-ben, redemption of the first born, takes place on the 30th day after the birth of a son who is the first-born child of his mother. According to the Torah, all first borns are dedicated to the service of God, and the son must be redeemed from this commitment. The parents exchange five shekels (five silver coins) with a Kohen, a descendant of the priestly tribe, in a symbolic ceremony. This money will be donated to tzedaka. In some communities, it is the practice that first-born children, male or female, are redeemed.


Bar/Bat Mitzvah

Bar is the Aramaic word for son, Bat is Hebrew for daughter. At the age of twelve for a girl, or thirteen for a boy, the child assumes religious responsibility for their own actions.

In the non-Orthodox world, the Bar or Bat Mitzvah, son/daughter of the commandments, will be called to the Torah to recite blessings and will read from the sacred text, as he or she leads the congregation in worship. In the Orthodox community, the girl will give a learned discourse reflecting on themes of the weekly Torah portion. In many congregations, Bar/Bat Mitzvah both take place at age thirteen. 

Bar/Bat Mitzvah is a reminder to parents that their children are growing up and moving towards independence. The young person is reminded that they are becoming responsible to take the lessons they have learned from their family and from their religious education and use them to make good choices and to be positive influences in the world. 

It is not required to have a ceremony in order to become a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, and one assumes the same rights and responsibilities of Jewish adulthood regardless of whether or not an event is held. Typically, this is a meaningful time for family and friends to gather in the synagogue, usually on a Saturday but occasionally on another day when Torah is read. Often, the Bar/Bat Mitzvah is accompanied by a celebratory meal. 

Many adults who did not have the opportunity to celebrate Bar/Bat Mitzvah in their youth choose to participate in the Adult Bnai Mitzvah programs offered at synagogues throughout the Valley.


Jewish education is a lifelong process; it does not end with the Bar/Bat Mitzvah. Young people are encouraged to continue their commitment to Jewish learning through a program culminating in a Confirmation Ceremony, typically held at the conclusion of 10th or 11th grade. This ceremony will often be structured by the students themselves and offers an opportunity to “confirm” their ongoing role in Jewish life. It may take place at the holiday of Shavuot and is most common in non-Orthodox congregations.


Judaism accepts the validity of many spiritual paths and has typically not sought out converts from other religious traditions. It has been customary for many years to discourage conversion, in consonance with our belief that ‘the righteous of all faiths have a share in the world to come’. We are, however, open to those who join our people. The decision to become Jewish should not be undertaken likely. The process will begin by scheduling an appointment with a Rabbi. You might wish to visit a number of synagogues to find one that feels comfortable. The Rabbi will direct a program of study, often lasting a year or more. Depending on the community, an immersion in the mikve, a ritual bath, and a meeting with a bet din, a Jewish religious court, will be the culmination of the conversion process.


The Hebrew word for marriage, kiddushin, expresses the essential nature of the holiness of the marriage relationship. (The root is the word kadosh – holy.) In describing the creation of the world and humanity, God is depicted as saying that it is not good for humans to be alone- we are designed to be in relationship. 

Tradition recognizes three ways to sanctify a marriage — through a written contract, through the exchange of an object of value in front of witnesses, or through sexual intimacy for the purpose of marriage. Contemporary wedding ceremonies incorporate all three of these elements. The couple selects a ketuba, a written wedding contract; an exchange of rings takes place (in Orthodox practice only the bride will receive a ring); and the couple shares a few moments of yichud, alone time, following the ceremony.

The couple may choose to immerse themselves in a mikve, a ritual bath, prior to the wedding ceremony. The ceremony will begin with the signing of the ketuba and the bedeken, or veiling, of the bride. Tradition suggests that the patriarch wished to marry his beloved Rachel and discovered after the ceremony that his heavily veiled bride was actually her sister Leah. Since that time, grooms are given the opportunity to “check out” and make sure they are marrying their intended.

A chuppah, marriage canopy, is erected and the couple proceeds towards the chuppah, often surrounded by family and friends. The chuppah symbolizes the home they are establishing together. It is open on all four sides, representing the sense of openness we hope will characterize their relationship.

It has been traditional for the bride to circle the groom seven times as the ceremony begins. Many couples do not include this ritual, though there is an emerging adaptation for the groom to circle the bride three times, the bride to circle the groom three times, and the couple to join hands for a final circuit together.

The Rabbi will continue by welcoming the participants and chanting the Erusin, or engagement blessing, after which the couple will share a sip of wine or juice. This is followed by the exchange of rings and the reading of the ketuba. Sheva brachot – seven blessings are chanted, expressing our hope that each day of the couple’s life together will be filled with blessing. Occasionally the couple may ask friends to read the translation of each of these blessings.

The Rabbi will often share some words of wisdom about the nature of marriage and the unique attributes of the couple, and the ceremony concludes with the breaking of a glass. Laden with meaning, the breaking of the glass is a reminder of our connection to history and a warning to the couple of the fragility of the marriage relationship. Following the ceremony, the couple should be allowed a few moments alone to share their first experience as husband and wife.

Many local Rabbis will work with gay and lesbian couples to adapt these traditions and create new ceremonies to celebrate their love and commitment within the context of Jewish tradition.


Many moments in Jewish life call for immersion in the mikve, a ritual bath of “living waters.”  Immersion in the mikve is a profound and moving way to experience transitions in our personal lives within a Jewish context. In traditional homes, a woman will go to the mikve to mark the end of her menstrual cycle as she renews a sexual relationship with her husband. Brides and grooms sometimes go to the mikve before the wedding, and mikve is an important part of the experience of conversion. It is customary to bring new pots, pans and dishes to the mikve before they are brought into our home.

Mikve rituals have been developed for a whole host of contemporary experiences, including divorce recovery, healing from rape, adult Bar/Bat mitzvah and many other powerful moments in our lives.

Chanukat Habayit (Dedicating a home)

We read in the Torah that “you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and your gates.”  We fulfill this mitzvah by putting a mezuzah on the right side of the doors of our homes (with the exception of the bathroom), 2/3 of the way up, facing in to the room. The mezuzah is a constant reminder of God’s presence in our home and should be hung within 30 days of moving in. 

The Rabbis debated whether the mezuzah should be hung vertically or horizontally; the slanted position encourages us to remember the importance of compromise as we strive for shalom bayit, peace in our homes. 


Jewish tradition recognizes that sometimes divorce is the best option for a couple. A get, a Jewish certificate of divorce, is prepared for the couple and presented in front of a bet din, a Jewish religious court. The Reform movement does not require a get as a precondition for marriage by a Rabbi if there has been a civil divorce. Since the marital status of the parents may affect the status of future children, a Rabbi should always be consulted with regard to issues of personal status in the community.


The Jewish traditions related to death and mourning are intended to recognize death as a part of life. The traditions of preparing the body, sitting Shiva (a seven-day period of mourning immediately after a funeral), saying Kaddish (prayer for the dead), and observing Yahrzeit (anniversary of a death) provide a sense of structure at this difficult time of loss. Through the observance of Jewish rituals, the mourner remains connected to a caring community who can offer support and be part of the healing process.

From the time one learns of a loss until the burial, one is relieved of all religious responsibilities in order to focus on one’s own grief and the practical arrangements which must be made. Jewish practice mandates in-ground burial as soon as possible after a death. The realities of contemporary life often dictate a delay of a day or more as family members gather from many far-flung corners. Some non-Orthodox rabbis will provide services for families who choose cremation as well.

The body is treated with great respect, as befitting the image of God, lovingly washed and dressed in tachritim, shrouds. Members of the immediate family will tear their clothing or attach a ribbon to their clothing, which is rent. This is a way of expressing outwardly the sense of being torn up on the inside.

A simple coffin is place into the graveside as part of the funeral service. The service will consist of traditional prayers and excerpts from psalms, and includes a eulogy in which we highlight the life and legacy of the deceased. 

The family will adjourn to their home for a meal of consolation and to begin the process of shiva, the first seven days of mourning. In some non-Orthodox communities, the period of mourning may be abbreviated to a shorter time period. During this time, friends will visit the home to support the family with food and prayer.

The next period of Sheloshim – 30 days (incorporating the shiva) – is the time when the mourner begins to reconnect with the world, still avoiding celebrations and reciting the mourner’s kaddish prayer daily. Mourning continues for eleven months. We continue to honor our deceased loved ones at the Yizkor service four times per year and on the yahrtzeit, the anniversary of the death according to the Jewish calendar.

Derech Eretz: A Sermon for Rosh HaShana

Delivered this sermon on the importance of good manners and civility at Temple Chai on Rosh HaShanah 5771.

[Holding Blackberry Device]

Wait just a minute, I have one more text message I need to respond to and then I’ll put this on vibrate and be right with you. . . )  Here it is Rosh HaShana, a day to address grand themes, deeply meaningful and inspiring themes, themes of ultimate importance. However, I have chosen instead to speak to you about something petty, in fact, about a lot of petty things, because, more and more, the lack of civil behavior has become a plague in our society. It was just last month that a flight attendant on Jet Blue bailed out of the flight. An editorial in the AZ Republic commented that, “Good manners weren’t designed to just win your grandmother’s approval. The purpose of good manners is to keep civilization civil and to allow people who may have differing opinions to engage in conversation.”

[1]  “Manners?  What Manners?”, read the headline in the USA Today on July 22nd. The High Holidays were barely over last year when I wondered what would be an appropriate theme for this year. My question was answered when I read Harvey Mackay’s column a week after Yom Kippur:  “Civility, Good Manners are Timeless- and Free.”

We really don’t need newspapers to alert us to this epidemic. When was the last time you had all your invited guests RSVP in a timely fashion to your invitation. Enough said? A recent survey invited readers to write in regarding what was the rudest thing that had happened to them lately? Responses poured in by the hundreds. A lady in Indiana reported that she and her husband went to a buffet restaurant. Her husband put his jacket on the booth, and they laid out table settings. When they returned from the buffet line, they found another couple sitting in “their” booth, eating. She concludes, “My husband asked the man to pass him his jacket and silverware, which he did, without a word. We had to find another table to eat at.”  A capital offense? Hardly. Khutzpadik? Guilty as charged.

And this story from California —  “A woman in my casual carpool was drinking coffee from an insulated coffee mug.  When we reached the drop-off point, she dumped half the contents onto the back seat of my car as she got out. She said, ‘Well, it doesn’t look like the first time that’s happened,’ then shut the door and walked away. There was no apology and not even a token attempt to clean the spill.”

I’m told that in some parts of the country parents are required to put two deposits down to reserve a location for a Bar or Bat Mitzva celebration — one to hold the room and a second to cover the costs of vandalism that may be done to the facility. The message is clear. Our kids have no concept of the value and respect with which the property of others ought to be treated. We can expect that they will wreak havoc at the event. Simply put, they have no derech eretz.  Derech eretz in Hebrew literally means “the way of the land”, but it is the term we use to describe good manners, common decency, civil behavior.

George Will offered his own, “Theory of Vulgarity in Our Contemporary Life.”  In his column he referred to “today’s casual coarseness” which he described as a “facet of a larger phenomenon of which incivility is a part.”  “Incivility”, he suggests, “is becoming normal.”   He also suggests that the pervasive use of technology has cut us off from social connection, leaving us dissociated from any social context and resulting in pervasive boorishness. “Can you hear me now?”  This sense of disconnection explains why people will exhibit behavior while driving that they would never consider if they were in situations where they might be recognizable and accountable as individuals.

I’m sure you could add your own examples and I think I’ve made my point. When the Jewish people left Egypt and Moses needed to provide water for them in the wilderness, he was instructed to strike a rock and water spewed forth.  After the people had experienced freedom and a new generation arose, God told Moses to speak to a rock to bring forth water. Why the difference? In a free society to function successfully, we must learn to speak to each other, to find gentle ways to live together and not resort immediately to violence, whether physical or verbal.

The notion of what is socially acceptable changes from one generation to the next, but throughout the generations Judaism has emphasized the principle, “Derech eretz kadma la-kol- Good manners comes before everything else.”  What does it mean to be a religious person? The answer of our tradition is that it doesn’t matter how strictly we observe Shabbat, how often we come to shul, whether we keep kosher inside and outside our homes, or even how much we contribute to tzedaka- none of it means anything if we do not live in a gracious manner.

The Seder Eliyahu Rabba (26) depicts God as teaching us, “My beloved children, am I in want of anything that I should request of you?  But what I ask of you is that you should love, honor and respect one another.”  The way we treat each other is the one thing which is out of God’s control and the ultimate expression of our humanity. Reb Shlomo Carlebach used to say, “God created man with feet so that he could stride ahead, but man generally prefers to advance by using his elbows.”

Our own Rabbi Barton Lee has spent many years studying a text on derech eretz, written in 1885 by Rabbi Joshua Briskin. He quotes Rabbi Briskin, for example, on the subject of table manners:  “One should accustom one’s self not to converse at meals with food in his mouth, not even words of Torah- because of the danger lest he swallow so that it goes down the wrong pipe. Further, he should not let the food in his mouth be seen by others while speaking and eating, for that is repulsive.” The category of what constitutes derech eretz, Rabbi Lee concludes, includes things which may be harmful to us as well as things which are offensive to others. Elsewhere in Eliyahu Rabba we are also taught that we should choose as our table companions those from whom we can learn Torah.

What is the ultimate goal of Jewish life?  Judaism does not suggest that the highest goal is to withdraw from life and to live a life of contemplation and solitude.  Rather, it challenges us to live with all the frustration and temptations of life in the world, and to find a way to elevate every moment, to seek the holiness in our smallest gestures and behaviors.

Since eating is one of our most frequent activities, it makes sense that there is an enormous body of literature offering guidance as to how we might make our eating into a religious activity. We read in the Shulkhan Arukh that, “Even things of personal choice, such as eating and drinking, walking, sitting and standing, sexual intercourse, conversation, and everything connected with the needs of your body- all should be for the service of God, or for something that leads to the service of God.”

[2]  Washing our hands and saying a blessing before we eat are much-needed reminders that derech eretz is the foundation on which all other goals of Torah rests.

Rabbi Abraham of Slonim was a man who knew how to enjoy a meal, “Contrary to what you might think, it is possible sometimes to come closer to God when you are involved in material things like eating and drinking, than when you are involved with ‘religious’ activities like Torah and prayer. Because when the heart opens up due to the sense pleasures, and there is a feeling of satisfaction and happiness, then is the fit time to come close to holiness.”

[3]  So what we’ve suspected all along is true, good food is a religious experience!

“Similarly, Rabbi Briskin holds, it is a rule of derech eretz that:  ‘one should always be careful that his nose not be runny and that a bad odor not come forth from his mouth’.”

[4]  Wearing nice clothing, which is appropriate to the time and place, is also a concern of derech eretz.  Greeting others warmly and greeting them first, using their name if we know it, is one of the principles of derech eretz we can put to use here in our congregation. A contemporary rabbi offers this example, “. . . when I was growing up. . . If you came to the table improperly dressed, my father would just say two words. Derech eretz. And then you went upstairs and changed.”[5]

Watching what we say and how we too often use words to hurt others is critical. The medieval Orchot HaTzaddikim details specific rules for good manners in speech.

[6]  Speak gently- if someone embarrasses or misleads you, do not attack and reciprocate. Share the burdens of others and try to soothe them when they are angry or worried. Avoid speaking about others in a derogatory manner.  “Good manners require us not to ask someone for information we know they don’t have, or praise them for virtue or talents they don’t possess, or speak to them in ways which would embarrass them publicly. When we do have to rebuke or criticize people, we are to speak gently and privately to them.”

Our tradition does not tell us that we must be total conformists, that we must abandon our own individuality in order to fit in to a preconceived model of behavior. It does expect us to be sensitive to the situation in which we find ourselves and to conduct ourselves in a manner which will endear rather than alienate us from those around us. So, we read in the Talmud, “A person should not be awake among those who are sleeping, nor sleeping among those who are awake; one should not cry among those who are laughing, nor laugh among those who are crying. One should not stand among those who are sitting, nor sit among those who are standing. One should not study Bible among those who are studying Oral Torah, nor Oral Torah among those who are studying Bible.”

[7] I mean how rude can you get!  “The general rule is that a person’s behavior should be in accord with people around them, as long as their behavior is not foolish and is for the sake of heaven.”

Derech eretz kadma la-kol- good manners are more important than anything else. The midrash relates a poignant tale which illustrates how a great sage learned this lesson- “Rabbi Yannai was taking a walk and he saw a man of impressive appearance. Rabbi Yannai said to him, ‘Would you be my guest?’ He said, ‘Yes.’  So Rabbi Yannai took him to his house, and gave him food and drink. He spoke to him of talmudic matters and found that the man knew nothing; then he spoke about the Mishna, the Aggada and the Bible and saw that the man was ignorant of all of them.  Then he said to him, ‘Take the wine cup and recite the blessing.’  The man said, ‘Let Yannai make the blessing in his own house.’  Rabbi Yannai said, ‘Can you repeat what I say to you?’  He said, ‘Yes.’  ‘Then say, ‘A dog has eaten Yannai’s bread’.’  The man jumped up, seized Yannai and said, ‘You have my inheritance, which you are withholding from me.’  Yannai said, “What inheritance of yours do I have?’  The man answered, ‘Once I passed a school, and I heard the voices of children reciting, ‘The Torah which Moses commanded us is the inheritance of Jacob’; they did not say, ‘the inheritance of the congregation only of Yannai’.’  Then Rabbi Yannai said, ‘What merit have you, what good deeds have you done, that you should eat at my table?’  The man said, ‘I never heard malicious gossip and repeated it, particularly not to the person being spoken of, nor did I ever see two people quarreling without making peace between them.’  Said Rabbi Yannai, ‘You have such fine qualities, such derech eretz, and I called you a dog’.”

[8] The lesson, my friends, is simple. It’s great to have you all here in shul. But the true test of how religious you are will come when you close the siddur and go out into the courtyard. Will you treat each other with kindness and consideration, with derech eretz, or will you trample each other in your haste to be the first one out of the parking lot?   As Leonard Fein put it so succinctly, “It is not the services we attend but the services we perform which define us.”

When we close the ark and put the Torah away, we sing, “Dracheha darchei noam, v’kol netivoteha shalom- The ways of Torah are ways of pleasantness, and all her pathways are peace.”  This is the challenge for all of us as the new year begins, to make pleasantness and peacefulness the guiding principle in all our relationships.  Derech eretz kadma la-kol- Good manners, civil behavior, are the most important thing.

©   Rabbi Bonnie Koppell
Temple Chai

4645 E. Marilyn Rd.
Phoenix, AZ 85032
(602 ) 971-1234

[1] AZ Republic, Aug., 11, 2010

[2] 31:1,2

[3] Torat Avot, p. 195

[4] Lee, Rabbi Barton, “Derech Erez- Good Manners:  A Jewish Viewpoint”, American Rabbi

[5] from an unpublished sermon, source unknown

[6] quoted in Lee, op. cit.

[7] Massekhet Derech Eretz

[8] Leviticus Rabba 9:3

Respect for Law Alliance

On June 1, 2010, I had the privilege of being honored by the Respect for Law Alliance as their Military Leader Honoree.  Below is the text of my remarks on that occasion.  — Rabbi Bonnie Koppell

In the book of Deuteronomy, chapter 16, verse 20, we read, “Justice, justice shall you pursue, in order that you may thrive.”  Jewish tradition is founded on many beautiful values- loving acts of kindness, humility, righteous giving to the needy- but justice is the foundational and fundamental value on which all others rest.  We believe that we are formed in the image of God, and obligated to imitate the qualities we attribute to the Holy One, the Righteous Judge.  Society will quickly deteriorate without a commitment to a system of justice and the means to enforce it.

I encounter many people who tell me that they are not religious, but they observe the Ten Commandments.  When asked to name them, most people fail.  We believe in, we pray and work for a messianic age, a time of universal peace, but, until that blessed time arrives, we recognize the need for law and for an impartial system of law enforcement.  Sadly, we cannot rely on individual conscience. “The lamb may lie down with the lion, “ it has been said,  “but the lamb won’t get much rest!  We all rest better knowing our law enforcement professionals are on the job!

For 32 years, I have had the humbling privilege of serving in the United States Army Reserve as a chaplain.  Now, you may wonder, how can a self-defined religious individual function in an environment such as the United States Army, whose stated goal is to “break things and kill people.”  The answer is that Judaism is not a pacifist tradition.  We believe not only in the right, but the obligation to self-defense.  If someone is seeking to kill you, we read in the Talmud, rise up earlier and kill him first.

A contemporary Orthodox Professor, Michael Wyshograd seeks to define a category of what he calls “abnormal evil”.  He writes that, “basically it comes down to recognizing one when you see one. . .When dealing with normal evil, noninterference, at least in the military sense, ought to be the rule. But when the situation reaches the level of abnormal evil, this principle of noninterference cannot remain absolute. . . We are commanded:  ‘Do not standby idly at the blood of your brother’ (Leviticus 19:16). There comes a time when military intervention is justified and the religious community,” he concludes,  “has a duty to speak clearly when that point is reached.”

While war may at times be necessary, as Jews we are taught never to rejoice in the suffering of our enemies- at the Passover seder, we spill a drop of wine from our cups, symbol of rejoicing, as we recall the 10 plagues which were a necessary part of our journey towards liberation.  Our celebration is muted. We are adjured in Psalms (34:14) to seek peace and pursue it, and prayers for peace are a major focus of our liturgy.  It was King Solomon, whose very name comes from the root “shalom”, meaning peace, who built the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, not King David, the triumphant warrior. When Golda Meir was asked if she could forgive Egypt for killing Israeli soldiers, her poignant response was- “It is more difficult for me to forgive Egypt for making us kill their soldiers.”  Ultimately, we must pray as if everything depends on God, and act as if everything depends on us. We give thanks this evening for the opportunity to come together in peaceful fellowship, and take a moment to offer prayers on behalf of our brave comrades who are, even now, deployed in harm’s way, away from their loved ones and prepared to lay down their lives in service to these United States of America, and for all of the courageous service members who serve in our military. How blessed are we all to live in this land of freedom and justice for all!

I will conclude by thanking you for this amazing honor, and to remind all of us of one of my favorite verses in Psalms, (29:11), “God will give strength to the people, God will bless us with peace.”  Peace, we learn, must come from a position of strength.

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