What Are Those Hands Above the Ark Doing? Originally published April 27-28, 2018

At the Second Temple, there were steps leading up to a platform, behind which sat the Holy Ark.  The Temple priests, the Kohanim (descendants of Aaron), would stand on the platform (or on the steps leading to it, depending on the source of information and the scholar discussing it) and bless the  public standing below Read More…

What Are Ofanim? Originally published April 20-21, 2018

The notion of a many-eyed many-sphered transporting creature (I envision something like an armillary sphere with eyes) which can travel in any direction and looks like shining beryl (emerald is a common type of beryl, for instance) is intriguing.  Yet for all their wonder, and even though they appear daily in our liturgy, the Ofanim Read More…

What is that young man doing: what is involved with chanting Torah? Originally published April 13-14, 2018

What does it take to chant a Torah reading?  Let’s get to the basics.  The text in the Torah scroll is handwritten by a scribe in ink on parchment, and the reader points with a pointer (a yad, a “hand”) without touching skin to the scroll.  Now, in Hebrew the vowel sounds and consonant variants Read More…

Is Profanity Prohibited in Judaism? Originally published April 5-6, 2018

With thanks to Rob Menes for posing the question and providing some of the answer, let’s look at profanity.  The English word has its roots in religion:  fanus in Latin is a temple, and profanus refers to being before or outside the temple, not yet holy, but not the opposite of holy, either – really Read More…

Does Elijah the Prophet Really Visit? Originally published March 30-31, 2018

We talk about Elijah a lot.  We sing about him every week at Havdalah, we hear his name at a brit milah, and in the blessings after reading a haftarah, and we invite him in for a cup of wine at our Passover seders.  “Eliyahu HaNavi…” We read that Elijah will return to earth to Read More…

What is the History of the Kippah? Originally published March 23-24, 2018

Basically, a kippah covers one’s head. While there is no mandate to do so in the Torah, one early reference to head covering is in Talmud, Tractate Kiddushin 31a, in which a rabbi would not walk bare-headed more than four cubits without a head covering, as the Divine Presence is above his head.  The Shulkhan Read More…

Why do we sing “OH-zee v’zimrat ya”? What is that vowel, anyway? Originally published March 16-17, 2018

Last week’s column sparked questions about Hebrew vowels, especially about the vowel that looks like a tiny “T” and is pronounced by many Conservative Jews as “ah” and by many Orthodox Jews as “oo” as in “look” or “u” as in “put” (in the International Phonetic Alphabet it is ʊ). Called a kamatz, it turns Read More…

Why Don’t Jews Pass the Collection Plate on Shabbat? Originally published March 9-10, 2018

Harkening back to the days of tithing, when Jews (and evidence shows also the Babylonians and Ugarit) would set aside one-tenth of what they had, had earned, or had taken in (there were varying definitions), this question prompts us to look at the contributions which support our religious goings-on. We might, as some do, refer Read More…

Is a Haftarah Like a Half-Torah? Originally published March 2-3, 2018

NO!  Even though the haftarah reading is associated with the Torah reading, the word does not mean “half-Torah,” and it should not be pronounced “huff-TOE-ruh.” So what is a haftarah (plural haftarot)?  I was taught that it is dessert, after the meal of the Torah reading.   The word הפטרה  refers to our taking leave of the Read More…

Why Do We Do Relevé During Kedushah? Originally published February 23-24, 2018

The Kedushah, the third berakhah of the Amidah, comes in several forms in and out of the Amidah, but always has “kadosh, kadosh, kadosh Adonai tzeva’ot…” and “barukh kavod Adonai…”  These lines quote Isaiah and Ezekiel, respectively. Tzeva’ot is often translated as “hosts,” and literally means “armies.”  It also may refer to those who “serve” Read More…