Wednesday, April 25, 2012

How to Blow Up a Demon

By Susan Esther Barnes

We’ve all seen it in the movies, and we’ve read about it in books, too. Demons have been released, and the hero of the story has to get rid of them. If you were to believe these tales, it’s hard to get rid of a demon. It involves pentagrams, or circles, chanting, candles, and all sorts of fancy stuff.

Imagine my relief when, in Talmud class last Sunday, we were reading about how pairs attract demons, and I learned how easy it is to get rid of one. As a Public Service Announcement, I present to you the Talmud’s solution on to how to get rid of a demon (Quoted from Daf 110 Amud A, translation by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz):
The Gemara asks: And if one forgets and it happens and he goes outside after having had an even number of cups to drink, what is his solution? The Gemara answers: He should take his right thumb in his left hand and his left thumb in his right hand and say this: “You, my thumbs, and I, are three,” which is not a pair. And if he hears a voice that says, “You and I are four,” which makes a pair, he should say to it, “You and I are five.” And if he hears it say, “You and I are six,” he should say to it, “You and I are seven.” The Gemara relates that there was an incident in which someone kept counting with the demon until a hundred and one, and the demon burst in anger.
One more reason, I guess, to be thankful for our opposable thumbs. It’s also a good explanation of why we don’t run into demons much these days. All it takes is a two-handed person and a little persistence to blow one up.

It’s easy to make fun of something like this, if it is taken literally. But as a religious Jew, I am challenged to determine if I can get anything valuable out of it. And, taken in a non-literal sense, I have found there is some wisdom in this story.

I find it interesting that if I say, “We are three,” and the demon says, “You and I are four,” I am not supposed to stick to, “We are three,” but instead I move on to five. Similarly, the demon doesn’t stick with four, but goes on to six.

I can see this sort of non-repetition in the kinds of arguments we have with our own personal demons. If the demon stuck to one thing, it would be easy for us to stick with one answer. But instead, they keep trying different arguments, to which we must continue to invent different answers.

For example, consider a person fighting against a personal demon of alcoholism. First, the demon might say, “Let’s get drunk,” to which the person might reply, “No, I don’t want to do that any more. It always ends badly.” At this point, the demon won’t repeat, “Let’s get drunk,” but might say, instead, “Ok, let’s just have a couple of beers then,” to which the person might counter, “No, if I have a beer, I’ll start to get a buzz, and then I’ll lose track of how much I’ve had, and I’ll end up drunk.” Then, the demon might try, “How about just a glass of wine. That won’t do anything.”

The bad news is that our personal demons can be persistent. If one argument doesn’t work, they are likely to try another, and then another, in order to get us to do what we know we shouldn’t do. We need to stay on guard so we can recognize when it is our demon doing the talking, trying out a new way to lead us astray. We need to continue to find new ways to resist.

The good news the Talmud is trying to teach us is that we can be as persistent as, and even more so than, the demon. If we continue fighting the demon, if we keep listening for it and answering it, eventually, it will give up. Persistence will conquer our demons. It may seem to take one hundred and one tries, or even more, but it can be done. I have blown up a demon or two that way, myself. Maybe you have as well. Suddenly, the Talmud story doesn’t sound so silly, after all.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

"Win a Free Copy of 'Six-Word Memoirs on Jewish Life'" at TC Jewfolk

Here is your big chance to win a copy of the book "Six-Word Memoirs on Jewish Life," which includes a fabulous six-word memoir by yours truly. Just go to my article at TC Jewfolk and submit your six-word memoir on Jewish life for your chance to win!

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Three Best Things About Passover This Year

By Susan Esther Barnes

The best thing about Passover this year is we had a seder! Last year, my father, alav hashalom, died two and a half days before the start of Passover, and although I had most of the ingredients already, I just wasn't up to cooking a big meal or making a seder. Don't worry, the unused food went into the bin at the synagogue for distribution to those who needed it.

The second best thing was the greeting I got from Ralph the morning after the holiday ended: "Pizza, pasta, or hamburger bun?" He asked this question, of course, because during the week of Passover we don't eat food with leavening in it, and many people include pasta in the list of forbidden foods, for reasons I won't go into here. So for a week, we get no bread, no pizza, no burger buns, no sandwiches. For a carb lover like me, it's tough, even though I do like matzo. My answer was, I ended my week-long bread fast with mushroom pizza!

The third best thing was the matzo ball soup reaction I've been getting at work. A few years ago, as Passover was approaching, one of my colleagues, who is Jewish but not observant, and I somehow started talking about matzo ball soup. I agreed to bring some in for her during the holiday. Other (non-Jewish) people saw it and wanted some, so I started a tradition of bringing some in for everyone each year.

Last year I was in mourning so I didn't make any matzo ball soup, and I when I mentioned it this year, people got so excited. In fact, there were a couple of people who were not going to be in the office on the newly announced Matzo Ball Soup Day, so I put aside one small container of soup (and matzo balls) for each of them to eat the next day.

And for next year: We've been using the same Passover haggadah (the book that lays out the Passover rituals and takes us through the Exodus story) forever. I have ordered two new versions, and I'm looking forward to looking through them, in order to have an even better seder next year.

What were your three best things this year, and what are you planning for next year?

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Haveil Havalim #355

Founded by Soccer Dad, Haveil Havalim is a carnival of Jewish blogs -- a weekly collection of Jewish and Israeli blog highlights, tidbits and points of interest collected from blogs all around the world. It's hosted by different bloggers each week and coordinated by Jack.

I am sorry there aren't more posts included here. I only received a couple of submissions, and some of my favorite bloggers weren't posting during the Pesach (Passover) holiday last week.

Opinions expressed in the posts linked below are those of the respective bloggers and not necessarily endorsed by me.

A Soldier's Mother presents Why Israel Was Created posted at A Soldier's Mother.

Batya presents A Mountain of a Mole Hill, Herodian posted at Me-ander.

Joel Katz fills us in on the news with Religion and State in Israel - April 9, 2012 (Section 1) and Religion and State in Israel - April 9, 2012 (Section 2) posted at Religion and State in Israel.

Batya presents Passover Memories, Not Just Kneidelach posted at Shiloh Musings.

I respond to a request from a reader by explaining the Top 10 Mezuzah Facts posted at To Kiss a Mezuzah.

Popular Culture:
Dov Bear wants to know more backstory of a new character on the TV show Mad Men in Mad Men Spoiler Alert posted at Dov Bear.

How You Can Participate:
If you have a Jewish blog, or have written a post about something Jewish on a non-Jewish blog, we would love to include your work in future editions. To submit your blog post, please go to the Havael Havalim Facebook Page, found here or try the new(ish) web page here.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

I'm Sorry, I Have Kittage

By Susan Esther Barnes

“Having kittage” is something that I suspect every cat owner has experienced, although they may not have used this term. That’s because I coined it, but it hasn’t gotten much publicity yet.

Kittage happened to me again last night.

I was sitting in my chair at my computer, when Amber kitty jumped up into my lap and proceeded to take a nap. After a while, I got hungry and wanted to get a snack, but I didn’t want to disturb the cat. In a word, I had kittage.

It’s a word we’ve been using around my home for a number of years now. It is much more economical, word-count-wise, than saying, “I have a cat on my lap,” or “I don’t want to bother the cat.”

Instead, when the phone rings and my husband says, “Will you get that?” I can simply say, “I’m sorry, I have kittage.” This works for answering the door, getting him a beverage, turning on the thermostat, etc. The uses of this term may seem endless.

Except, as I discovered last night, “Honey, will you get me a snack? I can’t get it myself because I have kittage” didn’t seem to work. Instead, I discovered a new phrase: The kittage diet plan.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Top 10 Mezuzah Facts

By Susan Esther Barnes
Photo by Kim Press

Someone came to my blog recently by using the search term, “Top 10 mezuzah facts.” It struck me as a reasonable list for a person to seek, but my response would be too long to include in one of my “Your Questions Answered” posts. As a result, I have dedicated this post to answering this reader’s question.

1. What is a mezuzah?
The word mezuzah means “doorpost” in Hebrew. Commonly, this word refers to an object that Jewish people put on the doorposts of our home, or other places where we sleep or eat. Some people put one on every doorpost of their home, except for restrooms and closets. Others just put one on the front door. Currently, I have one on my front door and on the door into my home from the garage (which is the entrance I use the most frequently).

In Israel, many hotels have a mezuzah on the doorpost of every hotel room, and there is a mezuzah on each gate into the Old City in Jerusalem, as shown in the photo above. Some people also wear a mezuzah on a necklace.

2. Is a mezuzah just a decorative box?
No, inside every mezuzah is a scroll. To be kosher, the scroll must be made of parchment, although some cheaper ones are sold with a paper scroll. There are specific words from the Torah written on the scroll.

3. What is written on the mezuzah scroll?
The scroll contains certain passages from the Torah. I won’t write it all out here, but the passages form a prayer called the “Sh’ma,” which is sometimes referred to as the “watchword of our faith.” First, the Sh’ma declares that God is one. This may not sound like a big deal these days, but it was a radical statement when Judaism was in its early days and the Greeks, Egyptians, and others worshipped multiple Gods. The prayer goes on to talk about loving God, and commands us to teach the words of the prayer to children and others, and to “inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”

4. What is the purpose of the mezuzah?
First and foremost, the mezuzah is the fulfillment of one of the 613 commandments in the Torah. We are told to “inscribe these words on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” Placing a mezuzah on one’s doorpost is a literal way to fulfill this commandment.

Some people say it is good luck, but I don’t believe in good luck charms, and mainstream Judaism generally frowns on this sort of thinking.

5. Where on the door should a mezuzah be placed?
Traditionally, the mezuzah is placed on the right-hand side of the door, about two-thirds of the way up. This makes it easy and convenient for able-bodied and average-sized adults to reach with their right hand. On some large buildings with oversized doors, where two-thirds of the way up would be hard for most people to reach, it is placed at the same height as it would be when two-thirds of the way up a normal-sized door.

In some places, the mezuzah is placed lower, to make it more accessible to children, shorter people, and people in wheelchairs.

Often, the mezuzah is placed so that the top is tilted toward the inside of the home. Like with many aspects of Judaism, there are many theories about why it is tilted that way.

6. What is the proper way to kiss a mezuzah?
Some people kiss their fingers, then touch them to the mezuzah. Others touch the mezuzah with their fingers, and then kiss them. Either way is fine.

7. Why do people kiss a mezuzah?
Some people use the kissing of the mezuzah on the way into their home as a way to remind themselves that, before we can make peace in the world, we must first make peace in our own home. I kiss my mezuzah on the way out of my home to remind myself of the kind of person I want to be when I go out into the world. Others use it as a reminder of God’s commandments.

8. When should a mezuzah be placed on a home, and when should it be taken down?
A person moving into a new home should put up their mezuzah as soon as possible after moving in. When a person moves out, the mezuzah is often the last thing to be removed.

9. What prayers are associated with a mezuzah?
There is no prayer for when we see and/or kiss a mezuzah, or for when we remove one from a doorpost. When we put up a mezuzah, we say a Hebrew prayer that means, “Blessed are you Adonai our God, ruler of the universe, who sanctifies us with your commandments and commanded us to affix a mezuzah.”

10. What do you do with a broken mezuzah, or one you don’t want to use any more?
Because the scroll inside the mezuzah contains God’s name, it should not be throw away. Rather, it should be buried, like all other items with God’s name on them.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Your Questions Answered # 8

By Susan Esther Barnes

I have to say, I absolutely love some of the search terms people use to get to my blog. A lot of those search terms are questions. Because they are such great questions, I think they deserve an answer. In addition, it turns out these posts are among the most popular ones on my blog. So here is the latest installment of “Your Questions Answered.”

In Judaism, ritual where bread becomes flesh?
Great question. If you’re having trouble finding that ritual, it’s because there isn’t one. We say a blessing every time we eat bread. Translated from Hebrew, it says, “Blessed are you Adonai, ruler of the universe, who makes bread grow from the earth.” Of course, we know bread doesn’t grow directly from the earth – like many Hebrew prayers, it’s symbolic. At any rate, the bread remains bread. Anybody can eat it, whether or not they are Jewish.

We don’t turn loaves into fishes, either. We do, occasionally, turn bread into toast, but that’s not a Jewish ritual.

Similarly, we say a prayer over wine, “…creator of the fruit of the vine,” and the wine remains wine that anyone can drink. It doesn’t turn into blood or anything else.

Is it okay for Jewish people to bow to other people?
Yes. Jewish people may bow to people, but we may not bow to idols. If a person is holding an idol, or wearing a symbol of an idol on his/her clothing, a Jewish person isn’t supposed to bow to that person.

If Jews don’t believe in heaven, why lead a good life?
Some Jews believe in heaven, and some don’t. But what exists in this world, right now, is real. It matters. We lead a good life because we believe it’s important to try to make this world a better place for ourselves and for others. Many of us believe it’s what God wants from us. Many of us believe God commands us to lead a good life. Many of us just think it’s the right thing to do, and is worthwhile in its own right, whether or not we will get some other reward for it later on.

Can Jews eat pork before their bar mitzvah?
The term bar mitzvah means, “son of the commandments.” When a boy or girl reaches a certain age, he or she (whether there is a ceremony or not), becomes responsible for following the commandments. So, technically, a Jewish person could eat pork before then, and not be held responsible for it.

However, observant Jewish parents want to raise their children to follow the commandments, and not eating pork is one of the easy ones. So, they tend to start with the easy ones like not eating pork or shellfish, not murdering anyone, etc., and then help the kids to work their way up to doing the harder ones, like comforting mourners, and not gossiping.

Why is it important to study the Torah in Hebrew?
It’s absolutely true that something always gets lost in the translation. When you’re talking about Torah, a lot gets lost in the translation. As the saying goes, “Reading the Torah through a translation is like kissing someone through a towel.”

Even the names in the Torah give the text a deeper meaning. For instance, the name “Ya’acov” is usually translated in English as “Jacob.” Jacob is a twin, and when he is born, he is holding onto his twin brother’s heel. If you have only read the Torah in English, you may have forgotten that (seemingly unimportant) fact. But if you read it in Hebrew, you would be reminded about it over and over, because the name “Ya’acov” means “heel” in Hebrew. It makes you wonder, “What about holding onto his brother’s heel is so important that it became his name?” Something that may seem trivial in translation suddenly reveals itself as a central idea.

Sometimes, people make a big deal about something from the Torah, using a translation, without realizing that the translation may not be accurate. Many people are familiar with the translation, “Thou shalt not kill,” when it really says something closer to “Don’t kill someone illegally,” or “Don’t murder.” Similarly, many scholars believe the commandment not to “covet” your neighbor’s wife is probably actually saying not to “take” her. That makes much more sense in the context of the other commandments, which are all about actions – not feelings (which we can’t control, anyway).

There are many other meaningful names, word plays, and hard-to-translate words and phrases in the Torah that we might miss or that can lead us astray if we’re only reading a translation. So learning and studying in Hebrew is the best way to go.

However, if you don’t know Hebrew, don’t give up! A good Torah commentary and a good Torah study partner or group can help you to notice some of the things you may otherwise miss.

Keep those questions coming!
I would love to answer more of your questions, so feel free to ask some in the comments section below, or just keep coming here via those interesting search terms.