Judaism from A to Z—”Birkat ha-mazon, grace after meal”

One of the most important prayers in Judaism and one of the very few that the Bible
commands us to recite, is never recited during synagogue services. That prayer is the birkat ha-mazon, grace after meal.

In Deuteronomy 8:10 we are commanded that, when we eat and are satisfied, we must bless the Eternal, our God. This commandment is simply fulfilled by reciting a birkat ha-mazon (blessing of the food) after each meal. Reciting birkat ha-mazon is commonly referred to as bentsching, from the Yiddish word meaning “to bless.”

Importantly, the grace after meals is recited in addition to the various brachot over food recited before our meals (e.g. Ha-Motzi). The most well known birkat ha-mazon consists of four blessings, three of which are dated back by our tradition to the time of Ezra and the Great Assembly (around 500-300 BCE) and a fourth which was added after the destruction of the Temple (70 CE). These blessings are:

· Birkat Hazan (the blessing for providing food), which thanks God for giving food to the world,

· Birkat Ha-Aretz (the blessing for the land), which thanks God for bringing us forth from the land of Egypt, for making God’s covenant with us, and for giving us the land of Israel as an inheritance,

· Birkat Yerushalayim (the blessing for Jerusalem), which prays for the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the coming of the messianic time; and

· Birkat Ha-Tov v’Ha-Maytiv (the blessing for being good and doing good). It emphasises the goodness of God’s work, that God is good and does good.

In addition to these four blessings, the full birkat ha-mazon incorporates many psalms and additional blessings for various special occasions (weddings, holidays, guests, etc.)

If you would like to hear the birkat ha-mazon sung and a download of a full version of the text, please  click here: https://bit.ly/2UtWfXl (reformjudaim.org). You can also find there  a shortened version, which is a wonderful way to start incorporating bentsching into your home rituals.

Rabbi Adrian M Schell

(Source: Jewish FAQ/ReformJudaism.org)

Judaism from A to Z—”Afterlife”

Judaism from A to Z—”Afterlife”
The afterlife (Olam haBa) is rarely discussed in Jewish life, be it among Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox Jews. This is in marked contrast to the religious traditions of the people among whom the Jews have lived. The afterlife has always played a critical role in Islamic and Christian teachings, for example. Jewish teachings on the subject of the afterlife are sparse: Our Torah has no clear reference to the afterlife at all.

Since Judaism does believe in the “next world,” how does one account for the Torah’s silence? I suspect there is a correlation between its nondiscussion of the afterlife and the fact that the Torah was revealed just after the long Jewish sojourn in Egypt. The Egyptian society from which the Hebrew slaves emerged was obsessed with death and the afterlife. The holiest Egyptian literary work was called The Book of the Dead, while the major achievement of many Pharaohs was the erection of the giant tombs called pyramids. In contrast, the Torah is obsessed with this world, so much so that it even forbids its priests from coming into contact with dead bodies. The Torah, therefore, might have been silent about the afterlife out of a desire to ensure that Judaism not evolve in the direction of the death obsessed Egyptian religion.

In Judaism the belief in the afterlife is less a leap of faith than a logical outgrowth of other Jewish beliefs. If one believes in a God who is all-powerful and all-just, one cannot believe that this world, in which evil far too often triumphs, is the only arena in which human life exists. For if this existence is the final word, and God permits evil to win, then it cannot be that God is good.

According to Judaism, what happens in the next world? As noted, on this subject there is little material. Some of the suggestions about afterlife in Jewish writings and folklore are even humorous. One story teaches, Moses sits in heaven and teaches Torah all day long. For the righteous people (the tzaddikim), this is heaven; for the evil people, it is hell. Another folktale teaches that in both heaven and hell, human beings cannot bend their elbows. In hell people are perpetually starved; in heaven each person feeds his neighbour.

All attempts to describe heaven and hell are, of course, speculative. Because Judaism believes that God is good, it believes that God rewards good people; it does not believe that Adolf Hitler and his victims share the same fate. Beyond that, it is hard to assume much more. We are asked to leave the afterlife in God’s hands.

Rabbi Adrian M Schell
(Source: Joseph Telushkin. Jewish Literacy )

What in God’s Name is God’s Name?

This is one of the more profound theological questions. To be able to name something or someone is to have a specific relationship to it or them, even a form of control. One can call out not just “Hey, You!” but “Hey, David!” or whatever, and expect some form of response. By using a name one potentially opens a dialogue. It is, therefore, no coincidence that most prayers begin with “Baruch Atah – Something.” “Blessed are You…”and then a Name.

The problem is: The Name. What is the name, what can we use to address God, what does it mean?

In Exodus 3:14, God has refused to answer Moses directly, saying simply, “Ehyeh asher Ehyeh”, “I am Who I Am”—or even “I Will Be whom I Will Be”. So, no name for God, or……..?

We have the Four-Letter Name, the ‘Tetragrammaton’ which is used in many places in the Torah for God’s name. Traditionally, one reads “Adonai” instead of the consonants ‘YHVH’ – but this is only a tradition because we have to say something. The fact is that No-one actually knows. Which makes it theology, not physics.

At the outset of this parashah (Ex. 6:3) God simply tells Moses, “I am the same God who appeared under a different name to your ancestors”. That’s a bit of a relief, because we can learn from here that God has not only one name and that there are many ways to encounter God. And it opens up a range of other possibilities when God appears but is described as something or someone else; it leaves the gender issue open; it allowed the rabbis to determine whether different names indicated different qualities—such as justice or mercy. It allows modern theologians to discuss whether ‘God’ and ‘Allah’ are the same, it allows archaeologists to place bits of inscription with ‘Shaddai’, and it allows translators to find alternative words like ‘Lord’ or ‘The Eternal’ or ‘The Creator’, and so on.  But being honest, No-One knows, God’s name remains a secret from us. 

In the end, I suppose what is important is that we pray, that we say ‘Baruch Atah’, Blessed are you – that we open a dialogue regularly—and that God knows who God is, and will listen, and may respond.

–  Rabbi Adrian M Schell

(Source: Rabbi W Rothschild on Vaera)

Shemot: A story, which can challenge our assumptions

At the beginning of 2011, while protests were happening in Egypt against the regime of Hosni Mubarak, a joke did the rounds, which claimed that the Jews had warned the Egyptians that they would refuse to rebuild the pyramids if they got destroyed by the violent protests which swept through the country. This joke may be related back to this week’s
Torah portion in which we read that as the Israelites became numerous Pharaoh began to persecute them, and ‘they did set over them taskmasters to afflict them with their burdens. And they built for Pharaoh treasure cities, Pithom and Raamses’.

This week we begin the book of Shemot, also known as Exodus, and the first of half of the Book as a whole focuses on the persecution of the Israelites by Pharaoh and the Egyptians, with their eventual escape from slavery to freedom. Pharaoh and the Egyptians are the bad guys at the start of this book. Pharaoh worried that if the Israelites continued to multiply one day they could be a fifth column joining their enemies in a future war. And so he responded by making ‘their lives bitter with hard slavery, in mortar, and in brick, and in all kinds of service in the field; all their service, which they made them serve, was with rigour’.

And yet almost at the beginning of the book we get a short little story, which can challenge our assumptions about the Egyptians. Having failed to check the growth of the Israelites through hard labour, we read that ‘the king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, and the name of one was Shifrah, and the name of the other Puah’. Pharaoh told them that when they were helping the Israelite women during their labour if they gave birth to ‘a son, then you shall kill him; but if it is a daughter, then she shall live’. The ultimate ruler of Egypt, a man considered to be a god, gave Shifrah and Puah a direct instruction and yet we then read: ‘the midwives feared God, and did not as the king of Egypt commanded them, but saved the male children alive’. They even lied to Pharaoh to defend their actions.

In studying this story, the commentators have been primarily concerned by the identity of Shifra and Puah; were they Israelites or were they Egyptians who served the Hebrew community? In reading the text it seems unlikely that they were members of the Israelite community. For one, it is hard to believe that Pharaoh expected Israelites to kill members of their own people. But in terms of the text the statement that ‘the midwives feared God’ seems superfluous if they were members of the Hebrew community, but highly relevant if they were Egyptians rebelling against their Pharaoh.

Shifrah and Puah provide us with the first example of civil disobedience, but more importantly, they demonstrate that not all of the Egyptians were necessarily evil and wicked. As we read the first half of the book of Shemot it is easy to negatively characterise all of the Egyptian people, but Shifrah and Puah show that this was not true of everyone, they call on us to be more nuanced in our view of the Egyptians. And they set a secondary example as the first righteous gentiles, risking their own lives to save others.

Shabbat Shalom Rabbi Adrian M Schell (Source: Rabbi Danny Burkeman) 

CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=383344

Lehitra’ot Rabbi Avidan

Desmond Sweke’s Farewell Address and Presentation to Rabbi and Ruth Avidan

Shabbat Vayechi  11 January 2020

On this very special occasion, it is a great honour to share the bimah with Rabbi Hillel Avidan and Ruth.

Ashley and I have been members of Bet David for 33 years. For most of that time, Hillel was either the Rabbi or Rabbi Emeritus of Bet David and, for all that time, they have been our close friends. Rabbi Avidan prepared our sons for, and officiated at, their B’nei Mitzvah, while Ruth was the force behind the Religion School, also working tirelessly with the Sisterhood. We share with our congregation, fond memories and a deep appreciation for all that you both have done for us. All those years ago, when Hillel left Bet David, he said that he was retiring. I did not believe it then and I don’t believe it now! Rabbi Avidan had already retired when I became chairman and the task of finding a new Rabbi was made very difficult for those involved, as we needed to find a Rabbi to fill Hillel’s shoes.

As an aside, it seems appropriate that we are now standing above The Middleton, as the development of the original hall was largely Hillel’s “baby”! Furthermore, in his sermon today, Rabbi Avidan spoke of Avraham and Sara. I would like to point out that the roof of this synagogue was designed to resemble the tent of Avraham and Sara and, just as their tent was open on all four sides to welcome travellers approaching from all directions,  our synagogue  has also been designed to open on all sides to be welcoming to everyone.

Today is a special moment in time which we wish to mark by presenting Hillel and Ruth with certificates and a special challah cover embroidered with the Bet David logo, today’s date and a note of appreciation.

On behalf of Rabbi Schell, the Management Committee, our congregation and all gathered here, we wish Rabbi Avidan and Ruth much joy in the new chapter of their lives, as we say thank you and Lehitra’ot.