Holidays Jewish Spirituality

Shavuot: The Power of Community

Originally published as a guest blog post at Religion Transcends.

Tonight begins the festival of Shavuot, the holiday in which the Jewish people celebrate the revelation of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. Perhaps, the questions about the revelation of the Torah (when, what, how, if, and to whom) are the questions that divide the Jewish people today more than any other questions. The divisions among the modern denominations of Judaism all stem from the question of how the Torah was revealed to the Jewish people. The way in which individuals in the Jewish community consider the event that occurred at Mt. Sinai several millennia ago has vast implications for their approach to the Jewish faith. The sheer magnitude of that event, however, should force us all to transcend denominational differences and feel the power of community – whichever community we choose.

Never has the spiritual force of revelation affected me more than it did on the early morning of May 31, 1998. I had recently graduated college and was spending Shavuot at a local synagogue, where I served as the youth director. The assistant rabbi decided that the congregation would offer an all-night Tikkun Leil Shavuot (study session) and then a dawn service just before 5:00 in the morning.

It was a memorable night with many opportunities for Torah study with several wonderful teachers including three eighth-grade day school students. With delicious snacks and caffeinated beverages, about thirty of us managed to stay up the entire night. We decided to hold the minyan outdoors in the courtyard so we could enjoy the sunrise while we prayed.

The Torah service that morning took on new meaning for me. The Torah was paraded around and I had the sense that we really were at Sinai claiming what God had lovingly gifted to us. As I stood at the Torah for my aliyah, the sky began to get dark again. The Torah reader pronounced, “On the third day, as morning dawned, there was thunder, and lightning…” As the words “thunder” and “lightning” were uttered, a huge thunderstorm ensued. The Torah reader managed to get out a few more words, chanting “…and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the horn; and all the people who were in the camp trembled. Moses led the people out of the camp toward God, and they took their places at the foot of the mountain.”

At that point, the sky opened up and the heavy rains began. We grabbed the Torah and ran inside where the Torah reading was completed. As I wiped the raindrops from my glasses, I remember thinking that this must be divine revelation. This was the epitome of holiness. This existential experience was full of awe and majesty, thunderclaps, and lightning bolts. Best of all, it was shared with community.

This was a liminal moment in my life. That experience has had a lasting effect on my life in the decade since. Being shaken by the thunder, seeing the lightning, and hearing the words of our Torah convinced me that I really did stand at Sinai. We were all there together. As a community.

That was my revelation. What was revealed to me? The power of community. Was I really at Mt. Sinai several thousand years ago? Maybe not physically there, but with this community, during that early morning storm it was as if I were there. And that is the message of Sinai. A community gathered to receive a gift from God. How that gift is interpreted thousands of years later should not take away from the magic of that moment.

At a time when some segments of the global Jewish community do not recognize other segments as Jewish, let us put aside our denominational differences and hearken back to Sinai. One Torah was given to the entire community. Let us stand again at Sinai with our brothers and sisters, and feel the power of community.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Baseball Holidays Jewish Passover

Baseball and Holiday Conflicts

The Detroit Tigers’ 2009 home opener is this Friday afternoon at 1:05 p.m. I would get tickets and attend if it weren’t the second day of Passover. According to T.S. O’Connell, sports historian and the editor of the Sports Collectors Digest, Jews shouldn’t be the only religious group upset with the date of the Tigers’ home opener this year. On his blog, The Infield Dirt, O’Connell writes:

I saw a news item recently that said the Detroit Tigers were taking a bit of heat because of the scheduling of their home opener on April 10, more precisely noting that some Catholics were upset that the 1:05 p.m. start time came during the noon to 3 p.m. period when traditional Christian belief holds that Jesus was hung on the cross.

O’Connell then writes how this news item caused him to wonder how this particular conflict (opening day an Good Friday) hadn’t come up before. He waxes nostalgic about the 1965 decision by Sandy Koufax to forgo pitching in the World Series opener against the Minnesota Twins because it fell on Yom Kippur. He writes:

I was just a 15-year-old kid, frantically following the approaching World Series in the New York Daily News, and I was just awestruck that somebody (actually my favorite pitcher) could take a pass on what I regarded as a secular assignment with near-religious overtones. Mostly it just impressed me with the seriousness of the Jewish faith; the decision only enhanced my view of Koufax, aided neatly by the later developments that saw the Dodgers win in seven games. By my way of thinking, it was no harm, no foul. I also found it fascinating to learn years later as I became something of an amateur baseball historian that there was never really any major decision involved for Sandy. He had long since made it clear to the Dodgers’ brass that he would not play on Yom Kippur, so when the prohibition coincided with one of the holiest days in the baseball world, it was what we would later call a “no brainer.” That same thirst for reading about baseball history would lead me to Hank Greenberg’s decision to skip a game during the 1934 pennant race for the same reason.

What a statement it would make if Mike Ilitch, owner of the Detroit Tigers, told the commissioner of baseball that the Tigers would have to reschedule their opening day game at Comerica Park because of Good Friday and Passover. Of course, with my luck, they’d reschedule the game to Shabbat and I still wouldn’t be able to go!

On the same subject, I laughed when I read an email circulating about the Boston Red Sox home opener this year. Here it is:

The Red Sox home opener this year will be postponed for Passover.

Red Sox general manager, Theo Epstein announced that the Boston Red Sox home opener will be postponed to April 14 to avoid the eight days of the Passover holiday. He noted, because three of his starters (Kevin Youkilis, Gabe Kapler and Adam Stern) are Jewish as are his box seat holders, he was forced to make this change in scheduling. There have been several complaints from fans, who are enraged at Epstein’s decision. In fact, protests are being tendered to the commissioner of baseball’s office. However, Bud Selig, commissioner of baseball, will not be able to address these protests; mainly due to a scheduling problem. This has been caused by the family seders he and Mrs. Selig will be attending.

Also, unable to attend the opener: Al Gore and Tipper will be unavailable as they will attend a seder at their son in law’s home. Bill and Hilary Clinton will be attending the seder at the home of their daughter Chelsea’s boyfriend. In addition, former mayor of NYC, Rudy Guiliani, whose wife will be busy preparing their seder. And finally the Obamas will be out of town enjoying a seder at Michele’s cousin’s house, Rabbi Capers Funnye.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Holidays Jewish Jewish Law

New Fruits

It has long been a pet peeve of mine that most Reform congregations only observe one day of Rosh Hashanah. According to the Torah, Rosh Hashanah is just one day, but it has been celebrated for two days for over a 1,000 years. With the exception of Yom Kippur an extra day was added to all Torah-mandated holidays.

What differs about the extra day added to Rosh Hashanah is that it is observed in Israel (whereas the extra day of the other holidays is not observed). Truth is, the two days of Rosh Hashanah are not really even seen as two separate days, but rather as “one long day” (yoma arichta in the Aramaic of the Talmud). It is because of this that there is question as to whether Jews should recite the Shehecheyanu blessing on the second night of Rosh Hashanah. Thus the custom of having a new fruit (one that hasn’t been eaten yet this season) on the table when lighting the candles and reciting Kiddush on the second night of the holiday. The new fruit gives us a reason to make a Shehecheyanu blessing.

I’ve always liked this custom since eating new fruits is both delicious and adventurous. There’s also no shortage of exotic fruits, especially with new fruit breeding taking place as in the case of Apriums and Pluots.

Last year I posted something about William (the Jewish Robot) Levin’s viral marketing animations called “The Adventures of Todd and God”. Well, another episode of Todd and God has just been released and it focuses on the custom of eating a new fruit on the second night of Rosh Hashanah!

Here’s the new Todd and God video:

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Holidays Humor Jewish

Seder Sidekick

The guys at (Seth and Isaac Galena) have published a Passover Seder Sidekick. It is 46 pages, contains many song parodies, and is available online at the Bangitout website.

One of my favorite Passover related videos on YouTube is an instructional video in Japanese teaching how to cut a matzah perfectly in half. Check it out:

Of course, there’s also the creative JibJab “Matzah” video created by Smooth-E (Eric Schwartz). And I would be remiss if I didn’t recommend the cute video of Rabbi Paul Freedman and his wife Nina rapping from their Jerusalem apartment about Passover to the tune of Snoop Dogg’s “Gin ‘n Juice”.

Wishing everyone a chag sameach – a joyous Passover holiday!

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Charity Holidays Jewish Purim

New Purim Tradition

Tomorrow night begins Purim, a holiday on which the Jewish people celebrate our survival and rejoice that our ancestors were redeemed from the evil tyrant Haman. It is also a holiday on which we are commanded to share our good fortune with those in need. The mitzvah of sending gifts to the poor is based on Megillat Esther 9:22.

As Lois Goldrich explains the importance of matanot l’evyonim (gifts to the poor) on the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism website:

Gifts can be given directly, e.g., bringing food and clothing to a homeless shelter, or indirectly, through an organized charity. It is important to keep in mind that whatever additional tzedakah we give throughout the year, donations must still be given on Purim itself. How important is this mitzvah? As Maimonides writes in his Mishneh Torah (Hilkhot Megillah 2:17): “It is better for a person to increase gifts to the poor than to increase his feast or the mishloah manot to his neighbors. There is no joy greater or more rewarding than to gladden the heart of the poor, orphans, widows, and strangers. For by gladdening the hearts of the downtrodden, we are following the example of the Divine.”

Rabbi Menachem Creditor has shared a new Purim tradition that he learned from his teacher Marcia Brooks. She encourages people to bring boxes of Kosher pasta to synagogue to use as graggers (noise makers); shaking them for noise and then donating them to a food pantry once the Megillah is completed. With this new tradition, one fulfills the custom of drowning out the name of “Haman” from the Megillah reading while also performing the mitzvah of matanot l’evyonim.

And in my opinion, shaking a box of pasta is much safer than using those dangerous metal graggers that get rusty and sharp and can cut your finger!
(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Christianity Holidays Humor Jewish

Mike Huckabee

Mike Huckabee - Jewish CommunityMany Jews have made it a family tradition to eat Chinese food on Christmas. Of course, this is the case because there aren’t any other restaurants open on Christmas except for Chinese and Japanese restaurants. Well, according to the JTA Blog it turns out that presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee shares this Christmas tradition with the Jews. And this might just be the only tradition that Huckabee shares with Jewish people. JTA picked up on the story from the end of a MSNBC report about Huckabee and religion:

“The only thing that I know that for sure we’re going to do that we have always done is we’ll go to our church Christmas Eve service,” Huckabee said. “It’s a huge community-wide celebration, and we do that every year. And then we have an unusual tradition that after the Christmas Eve service we go out and eat Chinese food. Don’t ask me why.”

Asked if the tradition is intended to help him better relate to the Jewish community, Huckabee said, “No, it’s Chinese food.”

He was unaware of the Jewish Christmas tradition.

Well, if you were also unaware of this widespread Jewish Christmas tradition, you should check out Brandon Harris Walker’s hillarious music video “Chinese Food on Christmas” (below).

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Christianity Holidays Interfaith Jewish

Jews and Trees

The title of this blog post might lead you to believe that I am jumping the gun on the Tu Bishvat (Jewish Arbor Day) holiday. But actually I have been thinking a lot about Jews and trees after reading Gil Mann‘s wonderful article about Jewish people putting up Christmas trees. Gil’s article has been republished in several Jewish publications, but I read it first in the Ohio Jewish Chronicle today. Gil opens his response to “Should Jews Have Christmas Trees?” as follows:

Should Jews have a Christmas tree in their home? One thing is clear, quite a few do!

How many? In a list of 35 cities in the North American Jewish Data Bank, in most cities, 20% to 30% of the Jewish households say that they “always, usually or sometimes” have a Christmas tree. Here are a few examples: Washington D.C. 27%, Philadelphia, 23%, St. Louis 22%, Los Angeles 20%, and Detroit 15%.

A Christmas tree in a Jewish home has been one of the hottest topics in emails people have sent me over the years as a Jewish advice columnist on AOL and now on my own website,

Why so much interest in this topic? Jewish demographers ask because they want to know, in a Christian society where Christmas is pervasive, how Jews react to and assimilate into the larger culture. For these researchers, having a Christmas tree is something of a barometer of Jewish identity, assimilation and the impact of intermarriage.

The many people who have emailed to me asking about the appropriateness of having a Christmas tree are also essentially grappling with questions of assimilation and Jewish identity. Specifically, they are asking whether and how Jews should celebrate Christmas?

Gil MannI agree with Gil (right) that this is a hot topic for interfaith families. The litmus test interfaith couples seem to use in establishing whether their family has a “Jewish home” is whether they put up a Christmas tree. For Jewish people who have converted to Judaism from Christianity (or are in the process of converting), this is also a very delicate subject. While many converts are able to bid farewell to their Christian past and all Christian theology, it is often the Christmas tree that is the hardest tradition to forgo.

The statistics are revealing. Almost 30% of Jews have a Christmas tree? So many people see the Christmas tree as an innocuous, innocent holiday ritual with no religious significance. However, as Gil Mann points out in his article, “the star that adorns the top of these trees is meant to symbolize the Star of Bethlehem which marked the birth of the messiah Jesus. I see this as a very religious [symbol].” I have also heard that the actual tree is symbolic of the wooden cross.

Gil doesn’t address the issue of Santa Claus, but I think this is a separate matter. The Christmas tree is brought into the home and makes a statement about the religious values of the home during the holiday season, whereas getting your children’s photo taken on Santa’s lap is closer to being photographed with Mickey Mouse at Disney World. True, Santa represents Saint Nick, but he has come to be more of a cartoon figure in our modern society.

When I asked my son if he knew that his buddy and classmate at the Jewish Community Center Preschool was not Jewish, he responded that he did. I asked him how he knew that. He responded that his friend’s father had picked him up one day from school and told him to hurry because they were going to see Santa Claus at the mall. I didn’t have the heart to tell my son that his dad, the rabbi, sat on Santa’s lap too when he was a kid!

I like the way Gil Mann closes his article with advice from Joel Grishaver:

What Jews should accept and adopt from the dominant culture is at the root of the Christmas tree question. My personal response for myself and my children is advice I heed from Jewish educator Joel Grishaver. We have gone to Christian friends and celebrated their holiday with them in their home. In turn, they have come to our home to celebrate Passover and other Jewish holidays.

Going to a friend’s home for their holiday is similar to attending a friend’s birthday party. I can enjoy their celebration even though I know it is not my birthday party. In this case, they are celebrating Jesus’ birthday. My children understand this and respect our friends’ celebration of his birth.

We happily wish our Christian friends and neighbors a Merry Christmas in their celebration. In fact, I love Christmas, Christmas music and the holiday spirit. Still in our home, we do not celebrate this birthday or have a tree because this is not our party. That’s OK with me because as a Jew, I have plenty of Jewish holidays to celebrate and I am delighted to share our parties with my non-Jewish friends and neighbors.

Gil Mann has a lot of great advice about these thorny issues (he first tackled the Christmas tree issue five years ago). He has really made a name for himself on the Web with his candid responses to thousands of “Ask the Rabbi” questions (even though Gil is not a rabbi). His recent book, “Sex, God, Christmas and Jews: Intimate Emails about Faith and Life Challenges”, has proven to be a great resource for Jewish educators and rabbis like me. My review of his book can be found on my website.
Bottom line on the trees? No, Jewish homes should not have Christmas trees. Seems pretty simple, but nothing is simple anymore.
(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Antisemitism Education Holidays Jewish

New York Post Mishegas

I’ve never been a reader of the New York Post… not even when I lived in Manhattan. But I’ve visited the New York Post website twice in the past few days to check out articles that were recommended to me by other rabbis.

The first article is about the crazy story on the New York City subway (Brooklyn’s Q train) where a man was beaten for offering a “Happy Hanukkah” greeting. Thanks to Conservative Rabbi Michael Friedland of South Bend, Indiana for bringing the story to my attention. Rabbi Friedland was able to use the story for a sermon about Jewish identity last Shabbat.

The story broke on December 11 in the New York Post, where it was reported that “a Hanukkah greeting among passengers on a Q train set off an altercation that resulted in ten people being charged with hate crimes yesterday… It began after the four victims exchanged Hanukkah greetings and one of the assailants made anti-Semetic remarks about Jews killing Jesus.”

Apparently these subway riders were beaten for responding “Happy Hanukkah” to a group who wished them a “Merry Christmas.” The story turns odd, however, when the facts come out:

1) The guy who beat up the “Happy Hanukkah” greeter on the train and is charged with a hate crime is Joseph Jirovec. He says that this couldn’t have been an anti-Semitic hate crime because… (ready for this?) his own mother is Jewish.

2) The person who instigated the altercation by wishing “Happy Hanukkah” is not Jewish at all. The other two people who were beaten up are self-described “half Jews” whose mothers are not Jewish (making them not Jewish according to the traditional Jewish legal definition).

3) The hero in this case is Hassan Askari, a Muslim from Bangladesh, who saved the victims from a more serious beating.

So, to recap we have a Jewish hoodlum instigating a fight with some non-Jews on a Brooklyn subway for wishing him a Happy Hanukkah in response to his Merry Christmas. After stating that “Hanukkah is when the Jews killed Jesus,” the Jewish guy beats up the non-Jews who are then saved by a Muslim. Happy Holidays everyone!

The other news item I checked out at the New York Post is an article titled “Rent-A-Rabbi: Execs Pay Big for On-The-Job-Religion”. Aish HaTorah has taken the concept of “Torah on the Go,” in which rabbis take their Torah study sessions into the corporate boardrooms downtown, and is profiting big time from it.

For guilty Jews who can pay as much as $250,000 a year, a rabbi from Aish New York, a nonprofit educational center, will get religious with you anytime, anywhere. Everyone from Kirk Douglas to executives at Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan and major hedge funds are clients, the company says.

There is no set curriculum, and the only expectation is that the students contribute a minimum annual donation of $10,000. Clients use their half-hour to hour sessions to talk about Torah verses, relationships – even how to make Jewish bread.

Ten-grand to learn to make challah with an Aish rabbi on your lunch hour at Goldman? Seems a little steep. But if these money managers can sign up the Aish rabbis as clients it might be money well spent.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
History Holidays Israel Torah

Introducing Shek 2

2Shekel JohnHyrcanusIt is appropriate that Israel unveiled its new two shekel coin last Tuesday on the first night of Hanukkah. As reported on The New Jew blog, “The new two shekel coin features a pomegranate and horn of plenty symbol, modeled after an ancient insignia by Johanan Horcanus. Horcanus (also known by the Greek name John Hyrcanus) was the Jewish high priest from 135 to 105 BCE. He was the son of Simeon Maccabaeus, one of the original Maccabees from the Hanukkah story.”

Two Israeli shekels are currently worth fifty cents.

Interestingly, the the new two shekel coins are not made in Israel. Rather, like all Israeli currency they are produced in South Korea and shipped to Israel for circulation since Israel has no mint in operation.

Unfortunately, Israel will now be phasing out the five-shek coin, which next to the ten-shek is my favorite shekel coin.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Holidays Jewish

Jewish Traverse City

A few months ago, I received an odd e-mail from the brother of a high school classmate. He explained that his synagogue in Traverse City, Michigan had found itself without a rabbi. He asked if I could help. My first response was, “There are Jews living in Traverse City?”

That initial e-mail message turned into several back-and-forth messages until we finally settled on a Shabbat that I could visit the congregation as a guest rabbi. There is something very special about small town Jewish communities in remote areas. The Jewish men and women living in the Northern Michigan town of Traverse City might not be active synagogue-goers or Jewish communal leaders if they lived in a more densely populated Jewish community. Like Congregation Beit Kodesh in Livonia, Michigan (the small synagogue I consult as Rabbinic Advisor), I was very impressed with the close-knit, do-it-yourself atmosphere I found at Congregation Ahavat Shalom in Traverse City. I found a similar positive “small shul” atmosphere as well at Sha’are Shalom, the fledgling congregation I led in Leesburg, Virginia during rabbinical school. Without the presence of a rabbi, lay people truly rise to the occasion and do what needs to be done.

Unlike larger congregations where the members might take it for granted that there are a plethora of Torah scrolls in the ark when they arrive at services, at Ahavat Shalom this past Friday evening I met synagogue president Fred Goldenberg as he walked into the Unitarian Universalist church carrying a large white duffel bag with the Torah inside. As soon as we started talking it occurred to me that the game of “Jewish Geography” can still be played no matter how far “Up North” one is in Michigan (Fred’s son David went to college with me and was involved in Hillel).

A nice story about this Northern Michigan congregation and how they celebrate Hanukkah, featuring the Goldenbergs (at right) and our hosts Jay and Rachel Starr, was published in the Traverse City Record-Eagle. I hope this congregation, and other small Jewish communities in remote areas like this, persevere and go from strength to strength.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |