Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Phrase of the Day: "Staying By" So-and-So

"Who are you staying by for Shabbos?"

The phrase "staying by" always gave me pause because it sounds "wrong" to my American English ear. However, it is standard in American Ashkenazi communities (which means most of Jewish America). Just to be clear, it is used instead of "staying with." My understanding is that the Yiddish way of "staying with so-and-so" uses the preposition that translates as "by," so immigrant Jews began saying "saying by" as a literal translation of their native tongue.

As much as I hated the phrase, I've started saying it. You just can't escape it, so you might as well join 'em. 

Monday, May 30, 2011

The Various Meanings of Aliyah

It's annoying that so many Hebrew words have multiple meanings in English. Most of the time, this is because multiple Hebrew spellings could have the same sound. Today, let's talk about the English word "aliyah," which literally means "ascent."

A. You "receive an aliyah" when you are called up to the Torah to chant the blessings before and after a section of the Torah is read. For example, there are 7 aliyahs on Shabbat morning, but only 3 on Mondays and Thursdays.

B. You "make aliyah" when you move to Israel to dwell in the land, which is a mitzvah.

C. After death, someone's soul "should have an aliyah." Our actions and tzedakah in the name of a deceased individual can help that soul ascend higher and higher in heaven. My understanding is that, as a principle, this is based on the idea that when you inspire someone to do a mitzvah (or become observant in general), part of that mitzvah is "credited" to you. Therefore, because this deceased person has inspired you to do mitzvot, their soul receives some of the reward for those mitzvot. Apparently there is a book about this: The Neshamah Should Have an Aliyah by Rabbi Tzvi Hebel.

Friday, May 27, 2011

UPDATED: Schoolwork v. Shabbat

It seems that many conversion candidates discover Judaism while in school, whether high school, college, grad school, professional school, whatever. When you already feel overwhelmed (hopefully) by your studies, how on earth could you become shomer Shabbat?

In my case, I fell victim to that kind of thought process in college. Just like I thought I couldn't dress tznius because I lived in a semi-tropical location. (Not that I've ever been an "immodest" dresser by just about anyone's standards.) I thought I could figure everything out after college ended, but I decided to stay for a fifth year (changed majors mid-senior year), and then I went to law school. School just was NOT ending. I think this quandary was a lot of the reason why I stayed on the fence about converting for so very long. Perhaps if I had started in a liberal movement, I wouldn't have felt so conflicted and would have converted, but that wasn't what happened. 

In March 2010, I decided to give a "real" Shabbat a try for the first weekend of my Spring Break because I could avoid my schoolwork without worry. And I was hooked! I've kept Shabbos every week since that time (to the best of my ability as I learned what that entailed). I am not the most disciplined student by any means. I don't get everything done that I want to, but I think every shomer Shabbat person inevitably leaves things undone. 

Part of the key to Shabbat for me is thinking, "My work for the week is done." Whether or not I accomplished everything I wanted to do, my work is done for the week. Anything that still has to be done can wait for next week (and remember that not everything has to be done - life is about choices). It is part of next week's work. And because I can't do anything about it on Shabbat, I've learned to push anxious thoughts about it from my mind. I admit, that kind of peace takes time, and I'm not always successful. Unlike some people, I find it helpful to remember what is in my control and what isn't. As long as I don't have control over changing the situation, I feel better.

In short, it's priority-setting. What is most important to you? We all think we know our priorities and that they're "right," but look at your actions to see what your priorities really are. Thinking something is important to you - but not acting in accordance with that belief - shows how you really value the issue.

All this said, as you enter each new form of school, you have to face these questions again. Case in point, I'm still figuring out how to study for two bar exams. However, I'm either busy or napping on Shabbat, which tends to make it a non-issue because there's no time left to study!

On the other hand, the following advice is going to go completely against my philosophy. However, what works for me doesn't necessarily work for someone else. And there is always that in-between time before you can fully internalize such a philosophy. 

Is there a way for schoolwork and Shabbat to coexist? Yes, and many people do that, even if only during final exam periods (or Bar exam studying, hahaha).

Note that schoolwork isn't Shabbosdich ("Shabbos-y" or "in the spirit of Shabbat") by just about any definition. Some say this makes it prohibited on Shabbat because it desecrates the holiness of the day or for other reasons. Some full-time students even view school as their occupation, so they should avoid "working" on Shabbat. These are the questions you will face as you progress in your own observance.

You can't write. You can't highlight your reading. You can't use your computer. You can't drive to a study group or review session. What can you do for school that won't violate Shabbat? In short, you should talk to your rabbi about it. However, here are some common ways that students I know accomplish some studying on Shabbat when needed:
  • Simply catch up on reading without taking notes or highlighting. This isn't an option for many classes, but should work well in most undergrad-level classes. It can be particularly useful to read supplemental readings that aren't required for your class but may increase your understanding.
  • Read, but use post-it notes, post-it "flags," or other bookmarks to note reading you need to return to after Shabbat. This can be a halachic issue, so discuss it with your rabbi, especially if the flags/stickers won't be removed within 24 hours. However, it may be a problem regardless, depending on your rabbi.
  • As an alternative to post-its and flags, you can mark passages and pages with paperclips. Just slide them on the page so that it lines up with the paragraph you want to review later!
  • Study flashcards written before Shabbat. This is an excellent idea for professional students and bar exam takers. You can read them silently or aloud in order to memorize the information.
  • Print outlines or your notes before Shabbat and study them silently or aloud.
Good luck as you face these kinds of difficult questions. Rest assured, this will not be the last difficult Shabbat priority question you face in your life! If you aren't totally happy with the answer you come to at this point in your life, remember that there are always second and third chances to increase your observance. Therefore, don't beat yourself up if you're not ready to take a leap of faith yet. Judaism, like life, is a journey.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Types of Headcoverings for Women

I won't pretend this is an exhaustive list; it won't be. However, it will certainly be more than enough to get you started! (In the future, I'll do a post for men too, but that requires a bit more research on my part!) This post also does not discuss the halachic issue of how much hair should/must be covered.

As an unmarried woman, I don't cover my hair, and this means I don't know as much as I could about this subject.

Think of this post like the "Halacha in a Nutshell" series: just enough to give you a good overview and help you to not look dumb in casual conversation!

Sheitel: Sheitel means wig in Yiddish. A sheitel may be paired with another type of hair covering, which gets pretty confusing when you're learning about how much hair should be covered. (Because then you see women who have covered all of their hair, but look like they are only partially covering.) There are two types of sheitels:
  • Full sheitel: A full wig. The woman's hair is entirely covered.
  • Fall: This is a half-wig. You can tell when someone is wearing a fall because there will be a large headband of some kind. The bangs and maybe some more of the woman's hair may be exposed, but the rest of the hair will be a wig. Example 1, Example 2, Example 3, Example 4.
Tichel: These are scarves that are very popular in Israel and have really gained in popularity in the United States. I'm always particularly impressed with the Kvetching Editor's skill with tichels, based on the random "this is what I look like today" pictures she posts sometimes. It is unreasonably fun to watch YouTube videos about how to tie tichels (Example). The possibilities are endless! Example 1, Example 2, Example 3, Example 4, Example 5.

The "pirate" look: Just what it sounds like! A headscarf (that may also be a tichel) worn like a pirate :D Example 1, Example 2. The Jewish female world is divided into two groups: those who wear the pirate look and those who make fun of the pirate look.

Hats: This seems relatively self-explanatory. Here are a few common categories of hats in the orthodox community:
The chaponne: These are also known as beanies and toboggans. There is a greater variety than you think! Example 1, Example 2 (note the overlap with the newsboy cap), Example 3, Example 4 (note the overlap with the newsboy cap), Example 5.

Snood: I'm not sure how to describe a snood, so here are examples. Example 1, Example 2, Example 3 (this is the extremely common look), Example 4, Example 5, Example 6. Don't get confused by the snood scarf (and here)! Here is a video about wearing snoods.

Turban: Every so often you see one, but it's usually accompanied by a frumpy Shabbos robe and a bad stereotype :P  Example

The doily: This is not common in the orthodox community, except in a few areas. Primarily guests and older women will wear them and will only wear them inside the synagogue. Example 1, Example 2.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Rambam's 13 Principles of Faith

Every single conversion syllabus and potential beit din question list asks about Rambam's 13 Principles of Faith. Rambam's list attempts to distill the key ideas of Judaism. If you can not accept these principles, you cannot convert orthodox. I don't know how the other movements stand on these principles, but I was required to know about them for my conservative conversion.

I don't know of a single person who has these memorized, convert or born-Jew. However, you should know this list exists and you should be able to discuss these concepts as being an integral part of Judaism. In other words, while you shouldn't need to memorize them, you should be able to have a conversation with your beit din about these concepts and recognize them as essential to Jewish belief. You should be able to volunteer at least most of them as orthodox beliefs, though not necessarily as a list.

Note: Rambam is also known as Maimonides. Don't confuse him with RambaN, who is also known as Nachmanides. RambaM and RambaN are acronyms. (See Reason #827 You Know You're Crazy: Drowning in Acronyms.)

1. I believe with perfect faith that G-d is the Creator and Ruler of all things. He alone has made, does make, and will make all things.
2. I believe with perfect faith that G-d is One. There is no unity that is in any way like His. He alone is our G-d. He was, He is, and He will be.
3. I believe with perfect faith that G-d does not have a body. Physical concepts do not apply to Him. There is nothing whatsoever that resembles Him at all.
4. I believe with perfect faith that G-d is first and last.
5. I believe with perfect faith that it is only proper to pray to G-d. One may not pray to anyone or anything else.
6. I believe with perfect faith that all the words of the prophets are true.
7. I believe with perfect faith that the prophecy of Moses is absolutely true. He was the chief of all prophets, both before and after Him.
8. I believe with perfect faith that the entire Torah that we now have is that which was given to Moses.
9. I believe with perfect faith that this Torah will not be changed and that there will never be another given by G-d.
10. I believe with perfect faith that G-d knows all of man's deeds and thoughts. It is thus written (Psalm 33:15), "He has molded every heart together, He understands what each one does."
11. I believe with perfect faith that G-d rewards those who keep His commandments and punishes those who transgress Him.
12. I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah. How long it takes, I will await His coming every day.
13. I believe with perfect faith that the dead will be brought back to life when G-d wills it to happen.

Here is a page that translates Maimonides' 13 Foundations of Judaism at Mesora.org. It states the concepts underlying each of these principles.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Four Holy Cities of Israel

Just about everyone in the Western world knows that Jerusalem is a city that is holy to Jews. However, there are four holy cities in Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel)!

The Four Holy Cities are Jerusalem, Tzfat (also known as Safed), Tiberius, and Hebron. 

Jerusalem: Jerusalem is the center of the Jewish world. We pray towards Jerusalem (and within Jerusalem, towards the Temple Mount) at least three times per day, every day. It is where our First and Second Temples were located. One day, it is where the Third Temple will stand and where the priesthood will offer the required sacrifices. Some halachic laws only apply in Jerusalem. On both Yom Kippur and at the Passover seders, we conclude with the phrase, "Next year in Jerusalem!"

Tzfat: Tzfat is the home of kabalah and Jewish mysticism.

Tiberius: Tiberius is where the rabbis composed the Jerusalem Talmud. It became a large center of Jewish learning in the 18th and 19th centuries, at a point when when Jewish existence in the land of Israel was dangerous.

Hebron: Most of the patriarchs and matriarchs of Judaism (Avraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, and Leah) are buried in Hebron at the Cave of the Patriarchs. Avraham purchased this land as a burial site for his family. Hebron was also King David's first capital before relocating to the City of David, which is in Jerusalem.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Phrase of the Day: Chas v'Shalom

In short, "chas v'shalom" is a Hebrew phrase that means "G-d forbid." The Aruch HaShulchan says that it should be literally translated as "completely disgraced." ("Shalom," peace, literally means complete or whole.)

You will hear it peppered throughout normal speech. Here is an example:

"If I fail the bar exam, chas v'shalom, at least I get to take the review course again for free."
"Chas v'shalom if you can't come to the wedding, I'll see you next month."
"I'm not saying you're wrong, chas v'shalom! What I mean is..."
"If chas v'shalom a couple divorces..."
"During difficult situations, you might chas v'shalom question Hashem's fairness."

Here was a super cute example from Imamother:
Three year old to his two year old brother: "Isn't it great?! Grandma is going to bring me LOTS of gluesticks! That way, in case one chas v'shalom runs out, we'll have another one!"
And here's another funny example from Yahoo! Answers:
"You know, mom, I might not get into Yale..."
"Chas v'shalom!"

As you begin to see above, the phrase can be inserted anywhere in the sentence. It can even be used as its own sentence! I'll avoid boring you with describing the different grammatical structures you might see. As you hang out with more orthodox Jews, you will get a feel for how to use it yourself. Thankfully (because of its grammatical flexibility), it's pretty hard to mess up if you think of it as "G-d forbid!"

Note: It is equally acceptable to say "G-d forbid!" in English. Thankfully, American English speakers don't think you're weird for saying it either.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Sunday is Lag B'Omer!

Lag B'Omer is the 33rd day of the Omer. (My understanding is that Sephardic Jews say Lag LaOmer, which is just a different literal translation of the preposition.) Forgive me for not giving you a detailed explanation of the Omer here.

This year, Lag B'Omer is Saturday, May 22, 2011, at sundown until Sunday, May 23 at sundown.

While the Omer is a time of mourning and sadness, Lag B'Omer is a day of joy! Many people observe some form of mourning rituals during the Omer, but these restrictions are lifted on Lag B'Omer. They may or may not continue the mourning restrictions after Lag B'Omer.

There are several reasons given for why Lag B'Omer is a happy day:
  • The Talmud says that 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva's students died from a divine plague because they didn't show each other proper respect. Tradition says that this plague ended on Lag B'Omer.
  • Lag B'Omer is the yartzheit of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who is considered the author of the Zohar.
  • Lag B'Omer also celebrates the temporary victory of the Bar Kochba revolt over the Romans. 
How do people celebrate Lag B'Omer? The simplest way is to have a picnic outdoors! People also schedule haircuts (many people do not cut their hair during the Omer), weddings (ditto), parties (you get the idea), and concerts (yup). In Israel (and in some places outside Israel), Lag B'Omer is celebrated with huge bonfires. If you're doing this, be careful!

Now go schedule yourself a haircut!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Phrase of the Day: Yasher Koach

You'll hear this Hebrew phrase a lot. You may also see/hear it as "yishar koah."

It literally wishes the person strength. "May you have strength!"

In short, it means something along the lines of "Good job!" It congratulates someone who has had the merit of performing a mitzvah or some other good Jewish task. Most often, it is said by many people at once when someone has finished giving a Jewish talk (a drash or d'var Torah). It is also said man-to-man with a handshake for those who have fulfilled a mitzvah during a synagogue service, such as reading the Torah, carrying the Torah, or receiving an aliyah. As a practical matter, for synagogue mitzvot, it is normally said to men. Women can certainly wish a man "yasher koach," but there probably wouldn't be a handshake. If you are not shomer negiah, you still shouldn't offer your hand to a man if you don't know whether he is shomer negiah or not. (See The Most-Thought Yet Least-Asked Question: Are you shomer negiah? and Awkward Moments: When You're Not Sure Who's Shomer Negiah.)

An interesting piece on the history of the phrase: From the Sources by Eliezer Segal

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Convert Questions: What's Up with Synagogue Membership Fees??

The existence of synagogue membership fees always seems to be a major shock to the new conversion candidate. Coming from mainstream American society, voluntary donations during a religious service are the expected way for the average person to donate money to a religious organization (whether the candidate was involved in Christianity or not). Now, as a person considering conversion to Judaism in any movement, they hear that synagogue "dues" range from $200-1,000 for a single person! Without paying dues, the person may pay more for synagogue events/tickets and also doesn't get a vote on synagogue policies. Normally, this person gets pretty indignant: "What a ridiculous idea! How could anyone afford that??" In the beginning, the inability to carry money on Shabbat helps placate the candidate a little.

But in short: that's the way things are, and you get used to it. In fact, over time, I've decided this is a much better system.

What are synagogue membership fees? They are a set fee paid to the synagogue for the privilege of being a "member" of the synagogue. They vary widely from synagogue to synagogue and city to city.

What if you can't afford them? Ask for a lower rate. The membership application should even say who should be asked. Yes, this will hurt your ego, but you will be neither the first nor the last person to ask. Every synagogue allows reduced rates for those with low incomes. Still, you will probably be asked to pay more than you really want to. In that case, do the math and see how much you will pay each month or week, and it will probably be a very small number. Considering the amount of money we spend on silly things without thinking, this number will probably be much less.

Worst case scenario: what if you can't pay anything towards membership? They're not going to make you leave. You will still have access to all services and any "regular" classes that don't have a separate fee. You should also have access to any other services that don't require a separate fee. For anything that requires a separate fee, you can most likely use/attend it with only paying the separate fee. For example, you should be able to pay the class or mikvah fee without having to pay a membership fee for the synagogue itself. This also comes into play when traveling, especially for mikvah use. And perhaps most importantly, you can still talk to the rabbi, get rulings, etc. Try not to abuse his time and kindness since membership dues are a significant source for paying his salary.

So what do these membership dues do? In short, they pay the synagogue's bills. The beauty of membership fees for the synagogues is that they are better able to budget their expenses without relying on an uncertain amount of cash in a plate each week.

What do membership dues do for you? First and foremost, you get voting rights within the synagogue community. (Of course, this is the source of shul politics, which is a nasty thing.) You should also get benefits, such as reduced prices for classes, events, mikvah, school for the kids, etc. Each shul will be different. The dues may or may not pay for "High Holyday tickets," which are a similar shock. Basically, the demand for synagogue seats on the High Holydays can be incredibly high because of "Once a Year Jews." Tickets allow the synagogue to guarantee seats to the people who wish to attend, as well as being sure that the number of attendees is below the occupancy limit set by the fire marshall.

Now the $1 million question: Can conversion candidates be synagogue members? It depends on the synagogue. My hunch is that most, if not a significant majority, don't allow it. It's just easier to have a blanket, easy-to-apply policy instead of considering each person on a case-by-case basis. But see the worst case scenario section above; you can still have access to the classes and rabbi, etc. Remember that a synagogue with a policy not allowing pre-converts to be members will not allow a convert whose conversion they don't recognize to join. You will be grouped with pre-converts/non-Jews. For reform converts, most conservative synagogues allow at least some reform converts to be considered Jews for the purposes of the conservative movement. However, even though the national Conservative organization "ruled" in favor of this, every conservative synagogue is able to decide which teshuvot to follow between minority and majority opinions.

All that said, some shuls allow it. Some shuls even allow Christians and other obviously-not-Jewish people to become members! You never know. So ask.

After my conservative conversion, the first thing I did was pay membership dues, and I have never felt so much pride and ownership in turning over a check. I think this is a very tangible way for converts to immediately feel some ownership of the community as a new Jew.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Awkward Shabbat Moment #4,281

After several days of Blogger being broken, it seems to be working again! But not after unpublishing a post, not publishing the scheduled post (blank because Blogger was broken for 3 days), and then posted a blank future-scheduled post. UGH. I apologize for any inconvenience! I think I've corrected everything, and last Friday's post is rescheduled to this Friday. I give future apologies for any missed days because I'm still trying to get internet at home.

Now, for your voyeuristic pleasure, an awkward story from my life this past Shabbos:

After driving 11.5 hours from my parents' house to NYC on Friday, I was pooped when Shabbos arrived. Mamish pooped. I barely made it through Friday night, but overslept significantly on Shabbat morning. When I arrived at my lunch location, beers in hand, I was locked out. They had said the windows would be open so I could yell up to the 5th floor, but I didn't see any open windows. I decided to wait beside the door.

Eventually, a nice Jewish boy came home and was unlocking the building door. Being the polite Southerner I am, I always ask permission to follow a person through a locked building door. I said, "Do you mind if I follow you in?" Being a kind person, he even opened the door for me!

But then, because I attract awkward moments like honey attracts flies, I ended up following him up all five flights of stairs. There are only five floors. Thinking back on my choice of words, I realized that could sound super creepy, like I'm going to follow him home. By the time we reached the third floor, I felt awkward enough to actually tell him I wasn't purposely following him home. Thankfully, he laughed. But by the time we reached the 5th floor, he was suspicious enough to ask me whose apartment I was going to.

Sure enough, he was my friend's neighbor. D'oh!

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Common Question: What Can't You Do on Shabbat?

I get this question a lot, as I imagine many of you do. I've finally hit on an answer that I like to use on friends. I have yet to try this on someone I don't know as well, but I would try it out.

What are you not allowed to do on Shabbat?

I don't use electricity, but I may have a light on a timer. I don't cook. I don't adjust the thermostat because that would be affecting electricity (or burning oil, as the case may be). I don't use hot water because that would cause "cooking" when the new watter flows into the water heater and heats up. I don't tear toilet paper, so I use tissues instead. I don't do any garden-related things because all "farming" related stuff is out

But what I DO is eat great meals (cooked in advance or put together cold), read good books, talk with people, take walks, and enjoy the day of peace. I always take a nap. I could play card games or some other games too, but I'm a napper/reader/walker.

The Theory:
When there is so much emphasis on the minutiae of Shabbat restrictions, people naturally gravitate towards the "negative" side of Shabbat. The focus is misguided, I think. It's easy to focus on the "bad," even when there is so much good staring you in the face.

I think most Jewish law sounds strange at best and awful at worst when taken out of context. Orthodoxy is really a system, not a collection of pieces. That was my "Ah HA!" moment when everything made sense. When I have difficulty with some area of halacha, I often find that it is my perspective that is out of whack.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Bullying Within the Conversion Community: The Enemy Within

An important read from the other convert blogger named Chavi: The Real Danger? Other Converts.

From the post: "I don't know if it's new, but all of the conversion crises talk has exacerbated this self preservation to the point that converts, in some communities, have become bullies. It is the classic case where the bullied become the bullies. What do I mean? A conversion candidate posts something online in a safe space in confidence or maybe shares a struggle with a friend. It is nothing major, maybe about doing something on Shabbos while struggling to take on observance or gripe about your experiences in the process. But someone in that community sees or hears about it. They tell your rabbi, community members, friends, and eventually you are chastised by your beth din, and, in severe cases, your mikvah is canceled."

I was a victim of convert bullying. It's ridiculous and childish, just like all bullying. The lesson: No one is safe, and be careful what you share, even when you think it is a safe space. On the other hand, the pettiness and childishness of bullies will not stop me from being who I am and saying what I think is important to say. I pick my battles carefully, and a little anonymous muckraking will not change what I say and do.

As for the bullies, remember that your actions will come full circle. Be careful how you treat other people. Hashem put us here to help each other and support each other, not tear each other down. This kind of bullying is not only lashon hara, but it violates any number of other interpersonal mitzvot. (And even if you think the original was lashon hara, that doesn't automatically make your speech an allowed exception to the laws of lashon hara. Pot, meet kettle.) If you have a problem with what a convert/candidate does, speak to them personally, privately, and in a constructive way. This is getting just plain ridiculous. Every week there is a new victim.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Halacha in a Nutshell: The Laws of Family Purity

Halacha in a Nutshell is a series that does not aim to actually teach you halacha. The goal is to acquaint you with the general ideas of a halachic issue so that you can follow conversations without looking like a total n00b.

Now here's a fun topic full of vague euphemisms. This will not be comprehensive in any sense of the word (it's a pretty technical area), but hopefully you'll get the general idea. I bring this topic up because the laws of family purity are referenced to and joked about quite commonly, particularly among women, but almost always in a very vague way. If you don't know the basics of the family purity laws, you will have no idea what someone has just said to you because it was such a vague euphemism.

As a sidenote, the laws of family purity are generally not practiced by liberal Jews. You will very often hear jokes about the laws of family purity in liberal Jewish circles. In orthodox circles, it is usually not considered an "appropriate" area of public discussion, and no one should ever ask details about your personal observance of these mitzvot. If they do, feel no shame in telling them that you don't think it's an appropriate discussion to have or change the subject. This is a very personal mitzvah and is no one's business but your own (and maybe your rabbi's).

Known in Hebrew as taharat hamispacha, the laws of family purity govern the sexual relationship. It is presumed that this is a relationship between a married husband and wife. Because people aren't supposed to have "relations" before marriage (and you wondered why frum kids marry young!), this area of the law generally isn't taught until someone is engaged. In fact, several people were shocked to see it required in some detail on a conversion syllabus for a well-known American beit din. The idea is that women are taught this area by the kallah teacher (kallah means bride) when a girl is engaged. I'm really not sure when men are taught this, and my suspicion is that they're given the rudimentary details by a rabbi during engagement and are then told to trust their wives. Whether it's right or wrong, this (like kashrut) is an area where women are given significant leeway to make their own rulings in questionable situations.

At its most basic, there should be no "relations" (sorry, I feel silly saying that) during the woman's menstrual cycle and the 7 days after it ends. The days of the menstrual period are called "red days," and the days after are called the "white days." The red days last the longer of your cycle or five days. So if your cycle is 9 days, you have 9 red days. However, if your cycle lasts 2 days, you still have to count 5 days before you can count the 7 white days. This is the period called "niddah." If you say a woman "is niddah," it's during these red and white days. Niddah is usually translated as "unclean," but a more accurate translation is "ritually impure." That isn't a value judgment that women are impure, anything can potentially be ritually impure (and all of us today are ritually impure for the purposes of entering the Beis HaMikdash). This mitzvah is the source of a lot of battles with feminism, but both sides are arguing past each other because they're not talking about the same issue.

For couples who are shomer negiah, this means that they are shomer negiah to each other (and with some additional restrictions according to their minhag) during this time. So to spell that out, in addition to no "relations," they also don't touch each other, hug/kiss each other, etc. This can also extend to passing each other items, eating from the same plate, or even looking each other in the eye. An example often joked about (though a totally serious halachic ruling) is not playing tennis because that is passing the ball to each other. As a practical matter, this means that the spouses are more restricted with each other than with other members of the opposite sex. As you can imagine, this can be a very difficult mitzvah to keep! On the other hand, couples say this means they have to be especially careful to develop their ability to communicate. You can't end an argument by distracting yourselves with make-up sex. More common is to separate the beds during the niddah period. Most people have 2 twin beds that they can push together as one bed after the niddah period. However, twin beds aren't necessary. You can keep your full, queen, or king size bed so long as you can fit two of them in your bedroom!

In order to count the white days, the woman performs an internal inspection with a tampon or a "bedikah" cloth (yes, using the finger). This is where things get technical. She has to examine the cloth or tampon by daylight, and any sort of discharge (internal on the cloth or external on the underwear) has to be examined carefully to determine its origin because some discharges count for red days and some don't. For instance, blood from an injury doesn't start niddah (for example, from a gynecological exam - though an exam could also cause niddah bleeding). As you can imagine, this can get very complicated, and a trusted halachic advisor is essential to the proper observance of this mitzvah. Because this can be a very embarrassing discussion, more and more women are being trained as halachic advisors in this area. After all, you may have to show the person a stained tampon, underwear, or bedikah cloth. I'm sure you get used to it (and it doesn't come up all that often for the average woman), but the first few times will be unavoidably awkward for 90% of us.

Once the 7 clean days have passed, the woman can go to the mikvah, which will end the niddah period. If you want more information about preparing for the mikvah, read The Conversion Mikvah Visit in a Nutshell because the same supplies and preparation applies. There are just less dips in the mikvah and one less blessing. It is against halacha to unnecessarily delay going to the mikvah, which is something I find very interesting. After all, a wife could use that as a weapon against her husband, which isn't fighting fair.

Financially, there is normally a "recommended donation" for using the mikvah, though there may be a set fee. Every mikvah can and will be different. Some will be prettier than others, some will be cleaner than others, and some will be more crowded than others. You may or may not need to make an appointment.

Some say that the woman can't/shouldn't bathe off the mikvah water until she's had "relations" with her husband.

Here are some awesome first-person discussions of the mitzvah of mikvah:
My Mikvah, My Mitzvah
The Mikvah Is Lost on Me
The Ladies' Club (About a bride's first experience at the mikvah)

Monday, May 9, 2011

Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut

Yesterday and today are two “Jewish” holidays. I only put Jewish in quotes because the existence of the state of Israel is a hotly debated topic within Jewish groups.

So yesterday was Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day. Someone in particular was on my mind: Elad ben Kochava. I went on a Birthright trip to Israel last summer, and we accidentally stumbled across the funeral of a young Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) soldier, Elad ben Kochava. Kochava is a relatively unusual name, so I was very struck by the mother of this soldier sharing my Hebrew name. The funeral was a very emotional experience, even for this normally even-keeled girl. But on the other hand, there was a beauty in hundreds of people grieving as one family. I’ll never forget that day.

A person in our group summed up the experience well: “I never thought I could grieve for someone I didn’t know.” I think that’s how I will always think of Yom HaZikaron.

And today is Yom HaAtzmaut, which is Israeli Independence Day. As is so often true of the Jewish people, sadness and joy intertwine.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Word of the Day: Nebbish

As you know, I'm driving cross-country at the moment. Driving all day, every day since Sunday morning is totally awesome. Not. Well, it mostly is, but after four days, I'm tired of it. I want to be in my new home already! But tonight, Wednesday night, I'm only 2 hours away from New York City, so I'll be home soon enough!

While driving, I listened to some old shiurim from Aish Audio. They're of varying quality, both in substance and recording. One interesting lecture talked a lot about nebbochs. I'd forgotten how much I enjoy the Yiddish words nebbish and nebboch (aka nebech). My friend Ilan taught me the word nebbish over Shabbos several months ago. He had a great way of defining it, but I don't think it works as well in writing. However, Southern speech has a great way of conveying the idea: "Bless his heart, he just tries so hard." Southerners are masters of "concerned criticism." If you are a visual learner, I suggest taking a walk down memory lane with Screech (Saved By the Bell) and Steve Urkell (Family Matters). 

Nebbish seems to be both an adjective and a noun, but nebboch seems to only be a noun.

Dictionary.com defines them as "A person, esp. a man, who is pitifully ineffectual, timid, or submissive." My favorite definition I discovered online was "a sad sack." If you're unimaginative, a nebboch is a perpetual loser.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Months of the Hebrew Calendar

You may be asked to memorize the months of the Hebrew calendar. I'll admit I don't have them memorized, at least not in order. But here's a handy list! Keep in mind that there are four new years in the Hebrew calendar, so you can begin counting the months at multiple places. 

For the purpose of months, most people begin listing them with Nisan. On the other hand, for holidays, most people will begin with Rosh HaShanah. Also, keep in mind that there are several transliterations of these names.
  1. Nisan
  2. Iyar
  3. Sivan
  4. Tammuz
  5. Av
  6. Elul
  7. Tishrei
  8. Cheshvan (Marcheshvan)
  9. Kislev
  10. Tevet
  11. Shvat
  12. Adar
  13. Adar II if a leap year

Chodesh tov! The month of Iyar begins tonight!

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Awkward Conversation of the Week

Masseuse: [Some question about church attendance]
Me: Oh. I'm Jewish.
Masseuse: Oh... Like Christian Jewish?
Me: Nope. Just Jewish Jewish.
Masseuse: ...Oh.

On the bright side, the awkwardness ended there, and the rest of the time went pleasantly. But that was a conversation-stopper.