The Crime of Wearing a Tallit

Empathy is never easy. As a man, I confess that I have struggled to be empathetic to the cause of the Women of the Wall (Nashot HaKotel). This group of women has been coming to the Kotel Hama’arivi (Western Wall) in the Old City of Jerusalem for close to a quarter century to pray in protest of the religious freedom they lack.

From thousands of miles away I have followed their plight after each Rosh Chodesh (new month) prayer service they conduct in the relatively small women’s section of the Kotel. In the past year or so I’ve read about the women who are detained or arrested for having the nerve to wear a tallit (prayer shawl) at the Kotel, which according to Israel law is to be treated as an Orthodox synagogue. While I took interest in their civil disobedience and was supportive of their efforts, I felt they were too focused on the Western Wall when in fact they were being allowed to hold their prayer services (women only or mixed) at the Southern Wall (Robinson’s Arch) which was historically more significant anyway.

Our group of male rabbis before heading down to the Kotel plaza

And then all that changed this morning. Together with about a dozen of my male rabbinic colleagues we woke up well before dawn and walked from our Jerusalem hotel to the Old City. I wrapped myself in my tallit, wound my tefillin (phylacteries) around my left arm and on my head, and joined my colleagues at the mechitza (dividing wall) next to the women’s section. Rather than holding our own separate service we joined the women in their prayers. Several of the women proudly wore tallitot and I even saw one woman wearing tefillin. It was exhilarating to watch the women begin to spontaneously dance during Hallel, the joyous, musical psalms for Rosh Chodesh.

Conservative Rabbis Robyn Fryer Bodzin and Debra Cantor at the Kotel 

Israeli police — both men and women — patrolled the women’s section. At first I thought this was to ensure their safety as angry protesters have thrown chairs at them in the past, but as I watched I could tell that one of the police officers was warning some of the women wearing tallitot. One female police officer videotaped the entire service, likely to prove that it was handled accordingly. A young man who works at the Kotel began moving shtenders (lecturns) and tables to separate us men from the rest of the men’s section, in effect creating three prayer areas.

At the conclusion of the Hallel service, I saw some people begin to exit toward the plaza behind the women’s section. I headed over there and saw two of the Israeli paratroopers who were in that iconic photograph at the newly reclaimed Kotel in 1967 after the Six Day War. The men were being interviewed by Israeli media and talking openly about how they liberated the Old City of Jerusalem so that all people would be free to pray there, not only the ultra-Orthodox. It was remarkable to see these paratroopers at the Kotel after seeing that powerful photo since I was a young boy. The Kotel immediately came to take on a whole new meaning for me. And a moment later I developed a much stronger connection to the plight of the Women at the Wall.

An ad hoc partition is created to separate our group in the Men’s Section

I turned around and saw two of my friends and fellow rabbis were being escorted away from the Kotel Plaza by a police officer. Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin and Rabbi Debra Cantor called me over as they were walking behind a female police officer. They told me that she had taken their passports and was going to detain them at the police station. Robyn asked if I would stay with them for as long as I could because they didn’t know what was going to happen. Immediately I began to feel concern for them. The officer wasn’t saying anything and wouldn’t explain where they were going. I was still wearing my tallit and tefillin and feeling guilty that my colleagues were getting in trouble for something that I take for granted.

Israeli paratroopers who liberated the Old City in 1967 with Anat Hoffman

Before coming to Israel, I traveled through Kiev, Ukraine with several rabbis including Rabbis Fryer Bodzin and Cantor. We spoke to Jewish people there who were forbidden from practicing their Judaism freely in the Former Soviet Union. They would have been arrested for being seen in public wearing a tallit during the Communist era. In Jerusalem this past Friday night we ate dinner with Joseph Begun, who was a Prisoner of Zion in the Former Soviet Union. He shared his amazing story with us, telling us of the years he spent in a Russian jail for the “crime” of being Jewish. This morning we met with former Refusenik Natan Sharansky on the 27th anniversary of his arrival to Israel. He has been charged by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with coming up with a solution to this problem at the Kotel. Israel was intended to be a place of salvation for the Jewish people. It is the Jewish capital and no Jew should be refused her right to religious practice as our fellow Jews were in the FSU.

Rabbis Fryer Bodzin and Cantor have provided an important example of civil disobedience. To young girls about to become bat mitzvah, these rabbis have articulated why they shouldn’t take their Jewish identity for granted. They have demonstrated to me why it is so critical that women feel comfortable acting as Jews in Israel. I have tremendous respect for both of them and they should be applauded for their courage. After this morning, the Women of the Wall have my respect and my support. Religious freedom must be a priority for Israel. The alternative will have horrific repercussions for the Jewish people.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Who Owns Jewish Ritual?

My rabbinic networks have been abuzz about the second episode of a new reality TV show on TLC called “The Sisterhood.” I first learned of the controversial episode when someone Tweeted the clip to me asking me what I thought. I then sent an article about the episode from The Christian Post to my colleagues in Clal’s Rabbis Without Borders program and an interesting discussion ensued.

TLC’s new reality TV show “The Sisterhood” has been panned by Christians for disrespecting Christianity and by Jewish people for using Jewish ritual in a Christian framework.

The new reality show features Texas couple Brian Lewis and his wife Tara and their children. The show premiered on New Year’s day. In the second episode, the family discusses their preparation for their son’s upcoming bar mitzvah. The couple’s 13-year-old son Trevor however isn’t Jewish and neither are his parents. In fact, Trevor’s father is a Christian pastor who was raised in a Jewish household before converting to Christianity before marriage.

In the show Tara speaks directly to the camera, explaining, “To celebrate our Jewish heritage, we are throwing him a Bar Mitzvah. A Christian Bar Mitzvah.” Brian explains it as more than just a passing of age ceremony and more of  a social event.

The notion of a Christian boy celebrating a bar mitzvah was enough to irk many Jewish viewers, but the show ruffled even more feathers by using Jewish ritual items for the occasion. Pastor Brian reveals to his son the tallit that he will wear for his ceremony.

This raises the question of whether Jewish people “own” such concepts as a bar mitzvah and traditionally Jewish ritual garb like a tallit. After all, the Jewish people were not the first people to create entering adulthood ceremonies or prayer shawls (those are likely borrowed from the ancient Egyptians). So, the episode actually encourages an interesting conversation about the kishke (gut) reaction to seeing a religious Christian family appropriating a Jewish life-cycle event and Jewish ritual items. Interestingly, some Jewish people even took exception with the cake prepared for Trevor’s bar mitzvah resembling a Torah scroll.

I’ll get back to the Christian bar mitzvah, but two very recent events forced me to consider these issues as well. Sitting in a session on Tuesday morning at CES (the Consumer Electronics Show) in Las Vegas, a gentleman wearing tzitzit (a four cornered undergarment with ritual fringes hanging out) sat down next to me. I immediately noticed that he wasn’t wearing a kippah (yarmulke) although the four braided fringes complete with threads of blue were proudly dangling around his waist. It didn’t take me long to realize that he was a religious Christian and not Jewish. Eavesdropping on the conversation he was having with the woman on the other side of me, I heard him explain that he and his family live a devout Christian lifestyle in Texas in accordance with both the Old Testament and the New Testament.

Rohan Marley shows off his gold Jewish Star necklace as I display my gold chai necklace.

The second event took place yesterday at CES when I visited with Bob Marley’s son Rohan at the House of Marley booth. House of Marley is a headphones company and part of the Marley family of brands including the Marley Mellow Mood drink that is owned by Bob Marley’s family and investors from the Detroit Jewish community including Gary Shiffman and Alon Kaufman. Rohan, a former football player for the University of Miami and the Canadian Football League, proudly displays a gold Jewish star around his neck. When I asked him why he wears a Jewish star I got a heartfelt ten-minute explanation of how his Rastafarian belief draws from both the Old Testament and the New Testament. He told me that the Jewish star is his way of reminding himself daily of the ethics of the Jewish biblical tradition and how that is the foundation of Christianity.

While some would be uncomfortable with gentiles wearing tzitzit or a Jewish star necklace, my feeling is that we Jews don’t have the trademark on such things. Yes, they are inherently Jewish in our time and in our culture, but what is preventing someone else from adopting those items and connecting their own narrative to them. Who says that only Jews can get married under a chuppah or dance the hora at a wedding? Who says that a Christian boy with Jewish ancestry can’t have a ceremony on his 13th birthday called a bar mitzvah? It might make some Jews uncomfortable, but that gut reaction should lead to a conversation about why it elicits that response.

My colleague, Rabbi Eliot Pearlson of Miami, provided me with some insightful links and images on such topics as specifically Christian tzitizit and tallit, Christian chuppas and ketubas (wedding contracts), South Koreans studying Talmud, and Christian Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. We are living in interesting times, but religions have historically borrowed and appropriated different traditions and rituals from each other.

Another one of my colleagues, Rabbi Joshua Ratner, offered that he takes exception with non-Jews “picking up rituals they (and often we) don’t understand just because they look cool. I have far less of an issue with imitation/syncretism if the object being ‘borrowed’ has some understood meaning that results in others wanting to borrow it, rather than its aesthetic content. But that just begs the question–to be Rabbis Without Borders, if we know that religious syncretism is a way of life, do we now have an obligation to educate the non-Jewish public as well as our particular Jewish communities?”

That comment reminded me of when I was a child and my father would let me borrow his tools. If you’re going to use my hammer, he would say, let me first show you how to use it correctly. But does borrowing something mean the borrower has to use it the same way the lender does? Shouldn’t everyone have the right to determine which religious rituals they want to use from other faiths and have the ability to put their own spin on them without criticism? As uncomfortable as that may make some of us, I think the answer is yes.

Here’s the clip from the “A Christian Bar Mitzvah” episode of The Sisterhood:

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Non-Jews Doing Hanukkah

A couple years ago I wrote about non-Jews observing certain Jewish customs. I looked at such examples as Justin Bieber reciting the Shema in Hebrew before each concert as well as non-Jews maintaining kosher diets, hanging mezuzahs on their front doors, dancing the Hora at weddings and erecting sukkahs.

The new trend seems to be non-Jewish celebs adopting Hanukkah rituals. While conservative pundits in the media claim there is a war on Christmas, just the opposite seems to be true about Hanukkah. More menorahs are being displayed in the public square. Chabad Lubavitch has politicians and celebrities light super-sized menorahs. Even Gene Robinson, a gay Bishop, brought a Hanukkah gift of dreidels to Jon Stewart when he visited the Daily Show during the holiday. And a call for new Hanukkah songs has been answered by a rapper.

Heeb asks, “Has Hanukkah become the must-be-seen celebration for the hip and famous, regardless of semitic bona-fides?” What prompted that question was a simple tweeted photo from singer/actress Zooey Deschanel, who is Roman Catholic. Deschanel’s tweet said “Happy Chanukah y’all!!!” and was linked with an Instagram photo of her lighting the Hanukkah menorah. That photo has received close to 100,000 likes on Instagram.

During the Hanukkah holiday this year, we also saw one NBA team pay tribute to their Jewish fans. The Houston Rockets posted a video of their players singing the Dreidel song. Some of the players really got into the spirit. The video includes former New York Knicks surprise star Jeremy Lin, but the highlight is Carlos Delfino who seems to have a lot of fun singing about the dreidel he made.


Jimmy Fallon also got into the Hanukkah holiday spirit by singing a dreidel parody to the tune of Flo Rida’s “Whistle” song. With Rashida Jones, who is Jewish, Fallon pulled a dreidel out of his pocket and began signing, “Can you spin my dreidel baby, dreidel baby, let me know. Girl I know that you’re not Jewish so I’ll start real slow. Then Rashida Jones sings, “Just put your fingertips together and you say Shalom.”

The ultimate in non-Jews doing Hanukkah this holiday season has to be the recently released Hanukkah rap by Too $hort, one of West Coast hip hop’s pioneers. While Too $hort might be best known for his hit song “The Ghetto,” his Hanukkah rap might catch on (at least in Jewish high schools). Too $hort released the Hanukkah rap song exclusively on TMZ.com and it can be listened to here. He’s not the first non-Jew to release a Hanukkah song of course. The Barenaked Ladies have sung several Hanukkah songs and rock band Incubus put out a nice Hanukkah song back in 2007.
So while many Jewish parents complain that not enough emphasis is placed on Hanukkah during the winter holiday season, many non-Jewish celebs have catapult the Jewish holiday into the mainstream. Maybe rapper Too $hort wouldn’t be Jewish parents first choice to sing about Hanukkah, but the thought is there. Hanukkah will never be as popular as Christmas, but the Jewish holiday about the miracle of light and an unforeseen victory over the tyrant Greco-Roman army is getting its due in pop culture.
(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Meeting the New Matisyahu

After posting a photo [below] with Matisyahu backstage at his recent Detroit concert, the questions began. Friends wanted to know if he was wearing a kippah (yarmulke) or tzitzit (ritual fringes), whether he was eating kosher, and if I asked him if he was still frum (religious). For the record, he still keeps kosher and mostly eats vegan (although before his concert he ate a bagel with creamed herring at NY Bagel, a local Detroit bagel store that I certify as kosher).

I understand fans’ fascination with Matisyahu’s religious transformation. After all, he’s a celebrity who became famous as a result of his Hasidic look and he now looks significantly less outwardly religious. However, Matisyahu’s transformation isn’t unique and that is precisely what I explained to those who asked those questions.

I reminded them that we all know people who became religious and then decided to make another lifestyle change by changing their level of observance We all know religious Jews who have veered “off the derech” (the path of observance). In the case of Matisyahu, because he’s in the public eye his personal spiritual and religious transformation is scrutinized.

His journey is more complicated than deciding to shave his beard and to stop wearing religious garb. His journey begins in childhood. Matthew Miller (AKA “Matisyahu”) wasn’t born into an observant family. He was brought up as a Reconstructionist Jew and went to Hebrew School at Bet Am Shalom (Reconstructionist) in White Plains, New York. He went to Israel with the Alexander Muss High School in Israel program. A devoted Phish Head, he started attending the Carlebach Shul in Manhattan and becoming more ritually observant. In his early 20’s he joined the Chabad Lubavitch movement and began using his Hebrew name “Matisyahu.” In the past year, he has left Lubavitch, shaved his beard, and stopped wearing a kippah and tzitzit.

Since Matisyahu’s religious appearance is a cause célèbre, his fans want to know if his religious observance has changed in addition to his “look.” Does he still observe kashrut (the Jewish dietary laws) and pray daily? Does he observe Shabbat anymore? How has his religious transformation affected his wife and children?

I certainly wasn’t going to ask him any of these personal questions when I met him after his recent concert (I first met him after a concert in 2004), but Heeb writer Arye Dworken didn’t shy away when he interviewed him recently over the phone. As Dworken writes, “It turns out though that while all the other media outlets focused on follicles, there was a lot more going on inside the mind of Matthew Paul Miller. Yes, the man behind the unkempt whiskers is going through some changes, stylistically, aesthetically, philosophically, artistically, and religiously. And while it saddens me to see any charismatic and talented young Jewish role model struggle with his identity especially when his unprecedented example has meant and can mean so much to many in our small and insular community, ultimately, Matisyahu’s struggle is very real and very much worth discussing.”

Here are a few of Dworken’s more thoughtful questions and Matisyahu’s candid responses:

I’ve got to ask about your wife’s reaction to all of this. I know you have children and you’ve raised them in a fairly strict Orthodox environment…and for a husband and a father to change his aesthetic suddenly… and perhaps his observance… that must be pretty jarring. I think I even read that you didn’t discuss the beard shaving with your wife before getting it done.

Yeah… I love my wife very much. But it had nothing to do with her. I chose to become religious. I chose all that. I never said this is permanent and this is who I will be for the rest of my life. People who are close to me who chose to be close to me, and they have to accept that. In general, the whole beard thing was very personal. I am in the public eye so I knew it was going to be discussed… but I was trying to not think of other people at the time. I wanted it to be pure.

Your beard was your identity. Like Batman has a mask. Or Paul Wall has grills. And the Jewish community respected you for your uncompromising observance, even if, to many, it started and ended with aesthetics.

Yes, but I think that I should never see myself being dependent on the Jewish community. I saw my crowd grow from being 80% Jewish to there being maybe three or four beards at a show. Maybe five or ten yarmulkes out of a crowd of thousands. If Marley shaved off his dreadlocks, he maybe would have not been as cool but his music would have still touched the souls that it did.

How do you approach spirituality now? Like, let’s get specific in terms of observance.

I’ve got a chef who cooks vegan and it’s kosher. That’s not an issue though. The concept to me is much deeper than mixing meat and milk. You shouldn’t get caught up in all the stuff. It has to be about healthy, about mind, body and soul. You can keep kosher and be completely out of shape. If I didn’t have Shabbos to turn off the phone, the computer, and to not tour–that’s a deep experience. Keeping Shabbos back in the day could sometimes be like a bad acid trip. I’m stuck in a dark place for twenty-five hours, sometimes on tour being in a hotel with no TV, being alone… that was really lonely. So I’ve come a long way as far as my relationship with Shabbos, in understanding it. In making it personal. And my thinking is, why not do that on Saturday?

I’m a blend right now with what goes with my intuition and what goes with the rules. But why do I keep the Shabbos though? Is it guilt? Is it meaningful to me? I still have to sift through it.

How does one “sift” with a family and a spotlight?

I’m very open with the kids. I’m very comfortable with what im doing. My oldest son… we have conversations. We talk about it. I could say, we could never do this before…or mom doesn’t want us to do this… but dad is okay with it. It can get confusing but it’s important for me to show them that there is a broader perspective. This world that they’ve been raised in –basically the Lubavitch headquarters and then on a tour bus –this is a beautiful opportunity for them to have these experiences. This is real. Change happens and you can’t always be sure of your decisions and beliefs. I think that they have to make their own decisions in life. They can’t have anyone telling them what to do. Not even me.

Do you want them being brought up in a Yeshiva upbringing?

I wouldn’t put them in Yeshiva, if it were up to me. There are some beautiful aspects to it. There are some holy and beautiful things to it… being outside of the mainstream culture which focuses on being cool, girls, and all that….the main thing for my kids is that they should be taught to think and question. That didn’t happen for me until college because I was in public school. I was exposed to my lifestyle, but no one else’s. The main thing [for my kids] is a place that can let them grow and learn and question. Next year, they’re going to a home school-type program where they learn differently. I think it’s important to get past the idea of who and what you are. It’s good to have identity and know what you are. I tried on different things…I wore a yarmulke on the subway, I grew a beard…that was me exploring. I don’t like the concept that we’re taught in Yeshiva of being the chosen people and that’s so rampant. I’ve seen that a lot. And my kids have said that coming home from school…and I’ve gone in to speak to teachers about that.

Are you still wearing a yarmulke?

I think basically when I took on the look of a chassid, there was a whole look. A whole vibe. It was style. I decided to be a chassid. But I was also twenty-one years old. I remember when I started wearing a yarmulke and started growing the beard and got the tzitzis all at once. It looked cool to me. It completed the uniform, but then I got pushed into the suit. That became later when I got really sucked in to Chabad. You need to wear a hat and a suit. In retrospect, it was a style thing. I know the yarmulke represents more than style… but it didn’t fit with who I was any more. Does it really represent my fear of God? That’s bullshit. I wore a yarmulke when I was drunk and puking in public. That became nothing to do with fear of God. People act disrespectfully when they’re wearing a yarmulke.

But do I feel God without the yarmulke? It did bring me to a different standard, yeah. I mean, I stopped checking out girls when I was twenty-one and wearing a yarmulke. But it wasn’t about God, it was about identity. I went into a gas station in South Carolina and had it on — I forgot to take it off — and I remember the reaction of the people in the gas station. I remember thinking, Oh yeah, I’m different. I felt proud. But then it became less important to me. My spirituality is happening inside. If it’s really happening inside, I really feel for myself and I don’t need anyone else being aware of it.

Getting back to the new record, you open it with the words of praise “Yevarechecha [you should be blessed].” Why start the record with such a strong Jewy opening?

Shaved beard and blonde hair. He’s obviously given up on Judaism, most people will say. On the contrary, I feel more spiritual than I ever have. It’s not that simple as people want to see, and so I think it’s cool that the first thing someone heard on this record is yevarechecha. It’s a message that we [just] can’t all have simple.

So if there are so many changes here, then why keep the name Matisyahu? Why not go back to Matthew if this is about reinvention?

Judaism is still very important to me. It’s still a big part of who I am. Looking here next to me…the books I have are Burnt Books, a comparison of Rebbe Nachmun of Breslov and Franz Kafka. Another is a tehillim, another is a siddur and another is a biography of the [Rebbe] [Note: Matisyahu mentioned a specific Rebbe but I was unable to hear it]. The name “Matisyahu” means a lot to me and it’s not hard to say. Like, it doesn’t have a “chh” in it. It has a spiritual life force. My real name Matthew or Paul are both Christian names and so I don’t relate to them. But Matisyahu feels like it has a spirit I relate to.

If we learn anything from Matisyahu’s very public religious transformation it should be that our identity isn’t static. Our lives are journeys and the only thing different about Matisyahu’s journey is that it is being lived out in the public eye. We all change our outward appearance, our religious observance and our convictions. Matisyahu’s look may have changed drastically, but his music will continue to be full of faith, fervor and spirituality. Personally, I have tremendous respect for Matisyahu’s courage in making these changes. He’s proving that being religious isn’t about a long beard, dangling tzitzit, and a black hat and suit. It’s what’s inside that matters most.

Here’s video of Matisyahu’s encore performance of “One Day” this past Sunday at the Fillmore in Detroit:

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Savvy Auntie Blessings

There is something very special about an aunt and uncle’s relationship with their nieces and nephews. No one has demonstrated the importance of the relationship between an aunt and her nieces and nephews better than Melanie Notkin, who launched SavvyAuntie.com. Here is the second column I have published on the SavvyAuntie.com blog and it is in honor of my children’s Aunt Stephanie:

Blessing my children is something I do every Friday night before we begin our family Sabbath dinner. Last week, I had the opportunity – actually the honor – to bless my children’s Savvy Auntie. Officiating at the wedding of my sister-in-law Stephanie made me realize just how meaningful she is in the lives of my children. More important than being my wife’s sister or my sister-in-law is her role as “Auntie Steffi.”

The focus of any wedding is on the bride and groom (or on the two brides or the two grooms for that matter). But my children were made to feel so important and special during their aunt’s entire wedding weekend. She was constantly giving them little tasks to perform, having them believe that the success of the wedding depended on their help.

Photo: Nutdanai Apikhomboonwaroot

For months leading up to the wedding, all my children talked about was Auntie Steffi’s wedding. They anticipated her big day as much as she did. Part of the excitement for them was venturing to a beautiful, tropical destination where they would play with their favorite aunt on the beach and in the pool before watching her get married and celebrating well past their bedtimes. They haven’t stopped talking about Auntie Steffi’s wedding weekend since returning home.

My children’s aunt is always showering them with gifts. As a librarian, she makes it a point to send books every few months that are carefully selected based on the interests of each child. The first thing she did when we arrived at the hotel at the beginning of her wedding weekend was present her nephews with embroidered groomsmen shirts and an adorable pink flower girl shirt for her niece.

When my daughter was a toddler, Auntie Steffi had her convinced that she was a princess. At school, she would tell her friends about her aunt who was a “real live princess.” Seeing Stephanie walk down the aisle in her beautiful wedding dress, perfectly applied makeup and fashionable hairstyle even had me convinced she was royalty on this special day.

As the rabbi standing under the chuppah (wedding canopy) with my children’s aunt and her groom, I had the pleasure of helping them sanctify their marriage. I offered my blessings that their now intertwined lives would be full of love and security, romance and peace. I have the good fortune to bless many happy couples during their wedding ceremony. The difference was that at this wedding I also blessed my children’s Savvy Auntie and gave thanks for everything she does for my children.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Counting the Omer in the Digital Age

Today is the 13th day of the Omer, the period of forty-nine days between the Jewish holidays of Passover and Shavuot.

The Jewish people are commanded to count these forty-nine days which commemorate the day on which an omer (unit of measurement) of barley was offered in the Temple until the day before an offering of wheat was brought to the Temple on the festival Shavuot. We begin this counting on the second day of Passover and each night announce what day of the Omer it is.

Omer counting devices and special Omer calendars have long been relied upon to help individuals remember the correct count, but in the Digital Age there are websites and apps and text message reminders to help keep the counting correct.

There are also some fun tools to help us count the Omer. For the past 13 years the Homer Calendar has been a fun destination on the Web for Jewish Omer counters who are also fans of The Simpsons. The website, which has had about 225,000 visits, cites Howard Cooper with the idea of an Omer calendar that pays homage to The Simpsons and Homer Simpson, the patriarchal head of the cartoon family. In addition to providing an easy-to-use omer calendar, the site is also a resource for Simpsons fans who want to learn more about the many Jewish references on the show. Brian Rosman, the Homer Calendar’s administrator, also tweets the daily Omer count @CountTheHomer on Twitter.

An introduction to the website explains that it is now in its 13th year, which it calls its “Bart Mitzvah”. The site also mentions that, “When we started, we got a ‘cease and desist’ order from Fox, claiming a copyright violation. Interestingly, the letter was dated on Shavuot. We wrote back, claiming a ‘fair use,’ and haven’t heard anything since.”

Seth and Isaac Galena over at Bangitout.com have come up with two fun ways to count the Omer. With a nod to pop culture, the brothers have created the Movie Lover’s Omer Counter and the Sports Lover’s Omer Counter. The movie counter uses movies with numbers in their titles to remind users which day of the count it is, while the sports counter relies on athlete’s uniform numbers. Perhaps next year they’ll create an omer counter for NASCAR fans with car digits.

There are several mobile apps that help remind users to count the Omer and provide the correct day of the counting. Rusty Brick first released its Counting the Omer app (Free) back in 2009 and it is still an industry leader. The app provides an Omer calendar and includes the blessings and spiritual information pertaining to each day of the period. The free version of the app does not provide a daily reminder to count, but the 99-cent version does. Moshe Berman’s Ultimate Omer 2 ($2.99) not only reminds you to count the Omer, but it also lets you keep track of the days you remembered to count. The app also plays the phone’s default alarm sound to remind you to count.

Mosaica Press released a new app ($4.99) that is based on Rabbi Yaakov Haber’s Spiritual Grow book. The app, which is available in iPhone and iPad formats, helps count the Omer and also provides daily insights with a Kabbalistic flavor. An example of the Jewish spiritual wisdom the app provides is: “Day 10: Make sure that today you not only give people the benefit of the doubt, but even when it seems that they are definitely in the wrong, try to find some way of justifying their actions. Try to see their point of view…Find two things in your life that conflict and make them harmonize.” Some of the app’s features include the proper blessing to recite before counting each night, automatic adjustment for time zone and location, and social network integration to share on Facebook and Twitter.

In addition to the mobile apps, there are other ways that technology is playing a part in the Counting of the Omer. Josh Fleet, one of the editors of the Huffington Post’s religion vertical, came up with the idea of offering a liveblog on the HuffPost Religion site during the Omer period this year. The Omer Liveblog features blogs, prayers, art and reflections for all 49 days of spiritual reflection during the Omer.

Rabbi Heather Altman turned to Google Docs to help assemble other rabbis who would contribute their wisdom to a Counting the Omer project she conceived of to raise money for the Global Seva Challenge. Rabbi Altman launched the seven week email subscription series called Countdown to Freedom which offers a different spiritual insight each day via a subscription-based Constant Contact newsletter. Subscription costs of the daily Omer reflection newsletter raises funds in the fight against human trafficking. Her 49-day project also raises awareness of the global problem of human trafficking, which is now a $32 billion business.

A generation ago, Jewish people simply counted up the days of the Omer until Shavuot arrived. The more spiritually inclined might have delved into the mystical traditions of the counting period. However, no one could have imagined that technology would create so many new aspects to this seven week observance. New technology has certainly opened the door to new ritual.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Selling Chametz Online

When I posted a link to my recent NY Jewish Week blog post on Twitter with the question “Can One Sell Chametz Online” I received a response from Rabbi Elli Fischer (@adderabbi) which stated, “Obviously, one CAN sell chametz online” with a link to CookiesDirect.net. Okay, he’s got a point there!

Jokes aside, the selling of chametz has been one of the more prevalent ways the Jewish community has used modern technology to perform Jewish ritual (I don’t recommend selling your chametz on eBay). Here’s my blog post:

Can One Sell Chametz Online
Originally Posted on the Jewish Techs blog (The Jewish Week)

On the Jewish Techs blog we have looked at the way several Jewish rituals are now performed using the Internet. Not every Jewish ritual can be transferred to the medium of the Internet, but even the question raises some interesting points for discussion. With the latest Web technology, we have seen how Jewish life-cycle events can be more inclusive and we have also looked into the legality of convening a minyan (prayer quorum) over the Internet.

With Passover beginning at the end of this week, let us take a look at the question of mechirat chametz (the sale of leavened products) using the Internet. Since the popularity of email messaging began in earnest about twenty years ago, there have been those who have used email to sell their chametz – a legal fiction by which any leavened products that could not be eaten, donated or thrown away are sold by a Jew to a non-Jew (usually through the agency of a rabbi) for the duration of the Passover holiday and then bought back at the holiday’s conclusion.

Like many Jewish rituals, the sale of chametz requires legal documentation to ensure that the transaction is according to Jewish law and custom. In a community without a rabbi or individuals who are knowledgeable about Jewish law, it is difficult to perform such rituals. The advent of the Internet has rendered the physical distance between Jewish communities nonexistent and allowed Jewish people in remote areas to perform Jewish rituals they were once unable to perform. So let us look at the feasibility of using the Internet to sell one’s chametz.

There are several ways to transact the sale of chametz using the Internet. Some may send a signed form attached to an email to an agent (a rabbi or other figure) and others will simply send text in an email message giving permission for the agent to perform the sale. Websites now exist that allow individuals to sell their chametz through an agent without ever seeing or speaking to the agent performing the sale making the seller further removed from the transaction. Does this satisfy the Jewish legal requirements of a valid chametz transaction?

Rabbi Gil Student takes up the question on his Hirhurim Torah Musings blog. He writes:

Technically, one may appoint an agent merely by stating that you are appointing him (Shulchan Arukh, Choshen Mishpat 182:1). However, the Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Mekhirah 5:12-13) records a custom to solidify an appointment of an agent by making a kinyan sudar, performing a symbolic act of acquisition which demonstrates the transfer of authority. In this way, the Rambam says, you make clear that you truly want to appoint this agent to act on your behalf.

The custom in most places is to make a kinyan from some of these things or the similar and we say he made a kinyan from this person and appointed him an agent… This kinyan that is the custom does not affect anything except making known that he is not saying it as a joke but made a firm decision and afterward said [that he appoints someone as an agent]. Therefore, if he says “I wholeheartedly said and decided this” he does not need anything else.

We normally follow this custom only when appointing a rabbi as an agent to sell chametz, not when otherwise appointing an agent. When the seller signs a document appointing an agent, some consider this kinyan unnecessary (She’arim Metzuyanim Ba-Halakhah 114:8 kuntres acharon), others a stringency (She’eilas Shlomo 4:111), but others — most notably R. Soloveitchik — consider it an established custom (Nefesh Ha-Rav p. 179; see Nitei Gavriel, Hilkhos Pesach, vol. 1 38:1). Presumably, this custom arose because of the danger inherent in the distance of the seller from the actual sale. When it comes to chametz, even if only rabbinically forbidden, we try to strengthen the agency and minimize the risk of the sale becoming a mere ritual.

Since there is no absolute requirement that the appointing of an agent be done through a physical act of kinyan or in the presence of witnesses (private verbal instruction suffices in this case), it is acceptable to perform the sale of chametz through the medium of the Internet. Even a website in which the seller appoints an agent without his knowledge is sufficient. So signing an agreement via the Internet, which is becoming standard practice in many Jewish communities around the world is considered equal to a traditional contract with a signature and is sufficient in the sale of chametz for Passover.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

The Barack Obamulke Yarmulke

There is much discussion about “The Jewish Vote” in the ongoing presidential race. While “Jews for George” made headlines during the 2004 campaign and more Jews than expected voted for McCain in 2008, in the 2012 election the political pundits are already predicting a large shift among Jewish voters, who historically have voted overwhelmingly Democrat.

Aside from polling numbers, another way to determine how the Jewish vote is shaping up will be from yarmulke sales. In the past few presidential elections the nominees from both major parties have had their name and logo embroidered on suede yarmulkes (or kippahs) as one more way for supporters to promote their candidate.

Already, yarmulkes featuring President Obama’s re-election campaign logo are being offered for sale on the Web. The Obama Yarmulkes were famously known as “Obamulkes” when they first appeared in 2007. The ivory suede yarmulkes with the 2012 Obama re-election logo are available for pre-order online or in person at J. Levine Books & Judaica in NYC. Of course, it is being emphasized that these kippahs are made in the USA as it would be scandalous if they were made anywhere else. The yarmulkes are selling for $9 each at Obamulkes.com (with a $5 shipping charge). No doubt they’ll be on the heads of many Obama supporters at the upcoming AIPAC Policy Conference at the Washington Convention Center in early March and on college campuses around the country.

Matthew Walters, the creator of the Obamulkes, isn’t naive. He knows that there will be many Jews who aren’t fans of the president and won’t like seeing the Obama re-election campaign logo featured on a Jewish religious item. But he offers a different perspective: “As a Jewish American who’s also a vocal supporter of President Obama, I see the Obamulke yarmulke as a unique conversation starter. With so much at stake at the ballot box in 2012, there’s a real value in wearing your politics on your sleeve — or in this case, keppe (Yiddish for head),” he explains.

During the 2008 campaign, more than 1,500 Obamulkes were delivered to Jewish supporters all around the country, but the most memorable recipient turned out to be Barack Obama himself. “In November 2007, then-candidate Barack Obama came to New York to give an historic speech at the Apollo Theater in Harlem,” Walters remembers. “I had a chance to meet him, so I handed him one of our 2008 Obamulkes. He laughed and showed it to his Secret Service guys. I think he got a little kick out of it.”

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Making Shivah Easier Using Technology

Originally published in the Detroit Jewish News

When Sharon Rosen’s mother passed away in July 2009 she had the same eye-opening realization that many survivors do during the week of shivah: The death of a loved one can be a stressful, anxiety-ridden time. Overwhelmed with sadness and the reality of her loss, Rosen experienced planning a funeral and coordination of shivah in her home for the first time.

During the shivah period, Rosen felt like she took on the job of logistics director and wasn’t able to be fully in the moment to reflect on her loss. She was frustrated with all of the planning taking place for the shivah at her home. Even though friends were taking care of many things, it was still a hectic, difficult time for her.

Friends sent food for the mourners gathered at Rosen’s home, but despite their best intentions, some of the platters were delivered when there was already ample food and no room to refrigerate the remaining food overnight. Questions and concerns about food created unnecessary additional anxiety. Rosen felt like she had lost control as friends gathered in her home for a week, cleaning, setting out food and rearranging furniture.

Rosen used this stressful experience to create an innovative new website so others mourning the death of a loved one could find shivah to be an easier ritual. Realizing that increasing numbers of people rely on the Internet for information and as a convenient way to communicate, Rosen created a comprehensive website that organizes every aspect of the shivah experience. She dedicated the new endeavor to her mother’s memory and, after a year of research, design and building, she launched ShivaConnect.com.

“I thought of other registry technologies like a wedding registry or baby registry where information is posted, and I worked with my programmer to develop a shivah registry,” Rosen said.

What Rosen created was a quick and convenient way to connect with people online. Recognizing that mourners have several matters to take care of immediately following a death, the site allows for the quick entry of information and creates a link to the registry that is sent to the creator of the registry entry and is additionally emailed, texted or tweeted to relatives and friends. There is also a “Search for a Registry” option on the site, but the registries are not visible to search engines and a lock-down privacy option is possible.

Visitors can express their condolences and learn about the Jewish mourning rituals from educational articles. A yahrzeit reminder feature will email annual notices like many funeral home websites. A zip code search is built in to locate food options to send to the shivah home. Additionally, a link to ShivaConnect’s donation section is provided, where visitors find direct links to charity website donation portals.

Rosen has extended an invitation to hospices, funeral homes, synagogues and Jewish organizations to be listed as “Helpful Resources,” with links to facilitate charitable donations. Many synagogues are using the site to enhance the support they already provide to their members to inform of deaths.

In the past year, ShivaConnect boasted more than 75,000 page views with about 20,000 unique visitors. Rosen is looking to social media to help publicize the site. As the site has grown, she frequently posts updates about ShivaConnect on her personal and public Facebook pages, and on LinkedIn, Yahoo Groups and Twitter.

Rosen has become something of an expert on shivah observance. She recently spoke at the National Institute for Jewish Hospice’s annual conference hosted by its president Rabbi Dr. Maurice Lamm.

How has ShivaConnect.com begun to make shivah observance more manageable and less stressful?

“Nothing can ease the pain of loss, but the convenience and accessibility of the Internet to learn about sitting shivah can be tremendously helpful,” Rosen explained. “ShivaConnect also is serving as an outreach tool, providing information to non-practicing and unaffiliated Jews who want to honor a Jewish relative and want to learn more.”

In Rosen’s home state of Florida, 30 funeral homes are participating in ShivaConnect. There is no charge to funeral homes to be listed and no charge to synagogues to use the service, but Rosen allows some food establishments and florists to advertise on the site for a fee.

What began with an anxiety-ridden experience has turned into a meaningful way to honor her beloved mother’s life and make grieving a little easier for others. While observing shivah will never be totally stress-free, Rosen’s ShivaConnect has utilized the technology of the Web to provide the right resources to simplify the process.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Revised USCJ Luach

Today is the second day of Rosh Chodesh Tevet, the beginning of the new Jewish month. It is also the seventh day of Hanukkah. That means that the past two mornings have been long, complicated prayer services with Torah readings from two separate Torah scrolls, Hallel (songs of praise for both Hanukkah and Rosh Chodesh), and a Musaf service for Rosh Chodesh that includes an insertion for Hanukkah. It’s unusual for morning minyan to last for a full hour, but Rosh Chodesh Tevet is always a long service (of course, it’s even longer when it falls on Shabbat).

There are a few days when morning minyan gets complicated and requires a road map (like Hoshanah Rabbah for example). A gabbai (one who runs the synagogue service) often uses a luach (calendar and service guide) for assistance in coordinating the services and making sure that nothing was left out that should have been included or included that should have been omitted. There are several Orthodox versions of a luach and many Conservative Jewish leaders will use those, however, the newly revised official luach of the Conservative Movement is a wonderful resource.

My teacher Rabbi Miles Cohen (pictured below) took over the responsibility as editor of the USCJ Luach (or Luah with a dot under the ‘h’ as its rendered therein). Kenneth Goodrich created the first Luach for the Conservative Movement 17 years ago for the Jewish year 5755. Upon Goodrich’s untimely death in 2004, Rabbi Robert Abramson edited and managed the publication of the Luach. This is the first year that Rabbi Cohen has taken on the editorial tasks.

I studied with Rabbi Cohen at the Jewish Theological Seminary and found him to be an amazing teacher who takes synagogue skills very seriously. He is punctilious when it comes to nusach (Hebrew pronunciation and melody) and is one of the world’s experts in Hebrew grammar pertaining to the Torah text and liturgy. Rabbi Cohen is also a master typesetter, and has created guides and interactive software for learning to read Torah, haftarah, and megillot, as well as guides for nusach skills and Hebrew grammar.

The USCJ Luah can be purchased from the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism online book service. It is an indispensable tool for the Conservative synagogue and Rabbi Cohen has superbly improved this important resource.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller