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What We Believe In
 

 

   

THE TRUTH ABOUT WHAT WE BELIEVE IN
 


Q: What does the word "Torah" mean?
A: Literally, it means a teaching or doctrine. In the narrow sense, it means specifically the Five Books of Moses, but it is more often used to mean the full body of teachings that G-d gave to Moses.  In other words, the Torah means all the teachings that encompass Judaism. The Torah is how we know what we are supposed to do.


Q: What does the term "Halachah" mean?
A: (noun - Halachot, or Halachos, plural) Literally, "gait," or "path." The Halachah is the full body of Law that mandates our conduct, beliefs, and practices. Since this is for us a way of life and not just a religion, it envelops us in everything we do. We therefore call it "Halachah," "The Way For Us To Go." One may say "This Halachah," in referring to a specific Law, or "The Halachah," when referring to the Law in general.

Q: What does the word "Mitzvah" mean?
A: A commandment. (noun - mitzvos, or mitzvot, plural) There are 613 Commandments in the Torah, and each of those Commandments has its associated Halachot to detail the parameters of that Mitzvah. There is a common misconception that there are only ten commandments. Actually, the term "Ten Commandments" is not of Jewish Origin. The Torah refers to them as the "Ten Statements" (Exodus 34:28, Deut 4:13, and Deut. 10:4).  The word mitzvah is used by the Torah to refer to all we are required to do. There are over 180 examples of this usage in the Tanach. A primary example of this is Deut. 6:2, in which it says:  "Remain in awe of G-d your L-rd, so that you keep all His rules and mitzvot that I command you. You, your children, and your children's children must keep them as long as they live..." (See Leviticus 26:3, and 26:14, for two other examples.)  In a deeper sense, the word "mitzvah" can be said to come from the word "tzavah," which means "to bind." The Mitzvot are that which establish our relationship to G-d, thus binding us to Him. We therefore fulfill these Mitzvot eagerly, and with joy.

Q: What is a mezuzah?
A: (noun - mezuzot, or mezuzos, plural) Literally, doorpost. The Torah commands us to write a certain two chapters from the Bible on a kosher piece of parchment, and place it on our doorposts. There are many intricate Halachot involved in this, including the precise shaping of the letters used in the writing. If there is any slight deviation in even one small part of any one letter, the entire mezuzah is not kosher. This same Halachah applies to tefillin and Torah scrolls.  The essence of the mitzvah of mezuzah is the concept of the Oneness of G-d. The very first verse written on the mezuzah is the Shema: "Hear oh Israel, the L-rd is our G-d, the L-rd is One." When we pass a doorpost, we touch the mezuzah and remember that G-d is One: a Oneness that is perfect and unique, a Oneness that is not one of many, nor one of a species. G-d is One without parts, partners, copies, or any divisions whatsoever.

Q: What are tefillin?
A: The Torah commands us to write a certain four chapters on parchment and insert them into two specially constructed leather boxes. While the mitzvah of mezuzah has only a few minor Laws about the casings in which they are placed, this is not so with tefillin. Both the insides and the outside of tefillin are heavily regulated by Halachah.  The entire tefillin must consist of kosher animal products, including the attached straps we wrap around our arms and heads. The boxes must be perfectly square, and constructed according to certain specifications.  Each morning, all male Jews aged thirteen or older don these tefillin and pray the morning prayers while wearing them. First the tefillin of the hand is placed on the biceps, so that when the arm is held close to the body, the tefillin more or less faces the heart. Then the strap is wrapped around the arm from the biceps to the wrist, according to specific customs. Next, the tefillin for the head is placed on the head just above the hairline, in a direct line above the nose (but not behind the anterior fontanelle). The strap is then adjusted around the head, which also helps prevent the tefillin from falling off the head. Finally, the hand strap is wound around the fingers. Ultimately, the placement of the strap around the arm and fingers will spell out one of the Names of G-d.  It is forbidden to engage in any mundane activity while wearing tefillin.  The essence of the mitzvah of tefillin is embodied in the concepts written in the four Biblical chapters contained within the tefillin. The concepts are three of the most prominent fundamentals of the Jewish Faith: acceptance of the yoke of Heavenly sovereignty; the Oneness of G-d; and the Exodus from Egypt.  The term "tefillin" is not found in the Torah, but is rather an Aramaic word used by the Talmud. The word used in the Torah is "totafot." The King James version of the Bible incorrectly translates it as "phylacteries," which means "amulets."

Q: Why do some Jews write "G-d," instead of spelling it out?
A: The Halachah says that it is forbidden to deface or desecrate the Name of G-d in any way, or to cause any possibility thereof. Some Rabbis are of the opinion that this applies to the word "G-d" in any language. Many therefore do not write the Name of G-d where someone might throw it out.  This Law has nothing to do with taking G-d's Name in vain; that refers only to speech.

Q: What is Kosher?
A: (Kosher, adj. - Kashrut, or Kashrus, noun.) Literally, the word "kosher" means properly prepared, and thus you may see the term "kosher mezuzah," or "kosher tefillin." In the specific sense, Kashrus is most often used to refer to the Jewish Dietary Laws. This is a rather complex set of rules and regulations, involving both Biblical Laws and Rabbinical extensions.  The Laws of Kashrus involve three major aspects, which I have labeled Determination, Preparation, and Exclusion. (These are not standard terms; I am using them until I discover better or more standard terms.)

Q: What is Shabbos / Shabbat?
A: Sabbath. Literally, rest. We keep Shabbos because G-d created Shabbos as a day of rest from certain types of creative labor.  It is not "work" or physical exertion per se that is forbidden. G-d did not "labor," nor exert Himself, neither did He need to rest to catch His breath. Thus, the defining factor of forbidden activity on Shabbos is not the difficulty of the act, nor the amount of exertion. Rather, what are forbidden are certain specific creative acts, as delineated by the Torah.  There are 39 categories of forbidden "creative" acts that are forbidden on Shabbos. Each of the 39 categories has at least 39 examples of forbidden acts. These particular acts are forbidden, not the various acts that the average person might consider work. It is not our own common sense that has determined which labors are forbidden: these Laws of Shabbos were taught by G-d to Moses at Mount Sinai.  Thus, it is sometimes permitted to move your couch a few inches even though this may make you sweat and exhaust you. Yet it is forbidden to carry a feather across the street during the Sabbath.  About the length of Shabbos: In the Jewish system, the night precedes the daytime. A full day's cycle starts with the night, and ends at nightfall the next day. Therefore Sabbath always starts Friday just before Sundown, and ends Saturday night. However, due to the difficult exile and persecution the Jews have suffered, a very important detail has become clouded. Does the nighttime start at sunset, or when it is fully night? (Full night is judged by when it is dark enough to spot three medium-sized stars.) Since the Sabbath is a Biblical Law, we act stringently. We do not wish to desecrate even one second of the Sabbath. So, we start the Sabbath at sunset, but Shabbos does not end until full night the following day, about twenty-five hours later. (The actual time will differ depending on the astronomical variations of each locale, and the season.)  Why does the daily cycle start at nighttime? Well, that is how the world began. According to the Book of Genesis, first there was darkness, and then came light. And each day is announced with the phrase "And it was evening and it was day . . ." Thus, we see that the nighttime precedes the daytime.

Q: What is a bagel?
A: A donut with rigor mortis. Actually, it's a very delicious, crusty circle of bread best eaten the way you like it. You haven't enjoyed lox and cream cheese until you've tasted them on a bagel.  But here's the shocker: It seems that bagels may not actually be a "Jewish" food. You can't seem to get them anywhere outside of New York, as far as I know. At any rate, some places have some sort of soft thing they call a bagel, but true connoisseurs know better. So, if it is a Jewish food, it must be a New York-Jewish food, which makes it either a Jewish food found in New York, or a New York food made by Jews.

Q: Please explain the Jewish Calendar.
A: The Jewish Calendar is one of the most complex, precise calendars that exist today. The Jewish year is based on a "lunisolar" cycle. The months are lunar, but the year itself is adjusted to comply with the solar year, by the addition of leap months.  There is a complex nineteen year cycle that determines when we have leap years. There is also a seven year cycle to determine the Sabbatical years during which all land in Israel must remain unworked, and a fifty-year cycle to determine the Jubilees. There is a twenty-eight year cycle involving the solar term. And the complexities go deeper yet.  For example, each lunar month has a maximum of thirty days, and most have only twenty-nine. This means that a lunar year would have no more than 360 days, and usually only around 354 days. Since the solar year was known to be 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes, 46 seconds long, each Jewish year would start earlier every solar year. If left as such, the months would skip around the seasons from year to year. However, the Torah has commanded us that the Holiday of Passover must take place when it is spring in Israel. So, every few years, in the order prescribed by the nineteen year system, we add another month to the year.  The Jewish year starts on Rosh Hashonoh, the first two days of the month of Tishre, which usually occurs somewhere during the Julian month of September.