Posts Tagged ‘Judaism’

Sitting Alone

I had the unfortunate occasion to be present for many family recitations of the mourner’s Kaddish when I was a child. After my grandparents died, my mom and dad always went to shul for their yahrzeits. When my mother’s father passed away, I attended synagogue with her for a full year. When Kaddish time came, I remained seated when the name of my loved one was called, and it wasn’t only because I wasn’t of age. I can feel mother’s hand on my shoulder, making sure that I was staying seated. She explained to me that we sit as long as our own parents are living. I was glad to be sitting, and hoped to remain so forever!

As I grew up, the customs began to change. People stood “in solidarity with the mourners in our community” or “in memory of all those who have no one to remember them,” or “for the six million who perished in the holocaust.” How could I not stand for those? Yet, it felt wrong. A whole room full of people standing for every Kaddish meant that we are a community perpetually in mourning. And perhaps we are. But doesn’t it still take away from the person for whom mourning is a fresh and very raw experience. Should not their moment of Kaddish stand alone? Shouldn’t it be different than how they stood in all those previous weeks?

Some people tell me that they do not want to stand alone. There are solutions to this problem. Some communities have the mourners rise first when the name is read. Afterwards, the whole community stand alongside them. The mourners then recite the words of Kaddish surrounded by their community.

I am attending the annual conference of my professional organization, the American Conference of Cantors ( I take this opportunity, when I am not standing at a pulpit, to remain seated during the Mourner’s Kaddish. As I sit in a room full of people standing, i feel so grateful. I am not ready to stand for the Kaddish. I will NEVER be ready. I sit alone and thank G-d for it!

Color, Faith and Fiber

My mother is an incredibly talented artist.  For many years now, she has used her talents for the sake of chiddur mitzvah – beautifying the mitzvah – of tallit.  She painted her first tallit for the occasion of my Bat Mitzvah.  It was purple flowers on white silk, a simple, but lovely design.  Over the years, she has made many more tallitot in addition to the chuppahs for the weddings of all three of her daughters and the ketubahs as well.  I personally own 25 unique and beautiful tallitot and many more are in the hands of friends, colleagues, and congregants.

In recent months, my mother decided to make a tallit for the new cantor in her congregation.  He asked her whether she would make a p’til t’cheilet.  In Numbers 15:38-39 we read: “The Eternal One spoke to Moses saying, “Speak to the people of Israel, and bid them that they make fringes in the borders of their garments throughout their generations, and that they put upon the fringe of the borders a thread of blue;  And it shall be to you for a fringe, that you may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Eternal One, and do them…”

Have you ever seen a tallit with a string of blue in the tzitzit?  They are rarely seen here in the United States.  The process for producing the correct dye has been lost to the generations.  In ancient times, purple and blue dyes were hard to come by and extremely valuable.  The dyes became the colors of royalty.  The Romans ruled that only royalty could wear garments colored with these pigments and that the colors themselves could only be made in imperial dye houses.  The Jewish industry for creating the proper dyes for tallitot was driven underground and eventually lost.

In recent years, archeological and chemical research has yielded an answer to the question of how to produce the dyes and there are several groups in Israel that are making them.  We cannot be entirely sure, however that these are indeed the correct colors.  In addition the pre-dyed strings are exorbitantly expensive ($70 for a set of strings).  The expense is justified considering the labor involved in properly preparing the dyes and also considering that t’cheilet is supposed to be rare and valuable.

My mother’s cantor said that he did not need “real” techelet.  He asked her to color the string with regular blue dye.  Is this blue sufficient?  It will certainly cause others to ask the question and learn about the commandment to wear t’cheilet.  It will help the cantor himself to be inspired by the blue color and its association with sky and water, with holiness and majesty.  But it is not “true” t’cheilet.

According to, true techeilet comes from Murex trunculus, a type of snail.  Although it produces a purplish dye, instead of blue, leading many to believe that this was not the correct animal, the dye, when exposed to uv rays (as found abundantly in the mediteranean sun) develops into a beautiful sky blue.  There is a decent amount of archeological and chemical evidence to suggest that this may indeed be the true source for techeilet.  According to the Talmud and the website,  “The dye’s color was “similar to the sky and sea,” it was steadfast, extracted from the snail while still alive, and was indistinguishable from a dye of vegetable origin, called kala ilan (indigo). “ Indistinguishable?  If you can’t tell the difference, wouldn’t it be better to use the dye from the vegetable source?

Blue was important.  It was the color of royalty because it was beautiful and rare, because it was the color of an infinite sky and the vast sea.  Blue obtained from rare snails was even more precious.  The Talmud tells us that the snails could only be found every 70 years, that the dye needed to be extracted from live snails, that it was rare and valuable.  So, if we dye our tzitzit with ordinary blue dye, we get the color, but nothing else, not the value, not the intention, not the miracle of the dye itself.  This was a dye that appeared clear until it soaked into the wool and was exposed to the sunlight.  It’s transformation into blue was itself almost magical, and certainly inspiring to all who witnessed it.

If we buy this techeilet, however, we are not witness to its creation.  We spend the money, but end up with string that looks to us, just blue.  It has a sense of wonder because of its source, but we cannot really know whether it was made from snails or from chemical dyes.  We wouldn’t know the difference.  What about using the vegetable dye that is molecularly identical?  Would that be close enough?

Is it the letter of the law, or merely its color?

Crafting Spiritually

Good news!  TBT will be holding a fabulous cabaret night with music and food this Saturday night.  More good news: I will be leading Havdallah to lead us into the festivities.  Even more good news: We don’t have enough spice boxes for every table to have one.  If we pass around a single spice box, it will never reach every table before we finish the ceremony.  So it occurs to me that this is yet another perfect opportunity for some creative spiritual crafting.

The tradition is that on the Sabbath we gain an extra soul.  As we say farewell to the Sabbath and our extra soul, we smell spices in order to give us a measure of comfort, to bring some of the spice of Shabbat into our week, and to wake us gently into our weekly responsibilities.

There are a lot of beautiful Havdallah sets that one can purchase to beautify the mitzvah of separating the Sabbath from the rest of the week, but I think that crafting this one piece of the Havdallah set and putting one on each table for our guests to use will help others think of ways to bring their own creativity into ritual.

May your Shabbat be filled with spice and may you carry that spice into a beautiful week to come!

Knitting as a Spiritual Practice

I have enjoyed yarn crafts for almost my entire life.  For the past several years, I have become a passionate and dedicated knitter.  Knitting keeps me calm in stressful meetings; it helps me stay focused on what is happening; it relaxes me after a difficult day.  Knitting inspires my creativity as I think about color, design, and texture in the hopes of creating new and beautiful things.  But knitting is, for me, also a deeply spiritual practice.

When we knit we take something that is almost useless and turn it into something appealing and functional.  The practice of knitting teaches patience.  The finished object that I see in my mind’s eye is months from completion, yet stitch by stitch it gets closer.  When facing a task in life that seems daunting, I remember the baby blanket that I crocheted for by niece.  It was months of the same stitch in the same yarn.  At first it looked so incredibly bland and boring.  But when it was complete, oh when it was complete it was a work of art and, more importantly, it kept her warm in her first fragile months of life in the NICU and when she finally got to go home.

Knitting also helps us learn the skill of when to give up and let go, and when it is worthwhile to go back and fix.  I always loved the idea that Native Americans believe that a work of craft (usually beading, I believe) should have one error in it, a place for the spirit to move in and out of the art.  I use this idea to allow me to let small mistakes go and become a part of the design, a piece of what makes the knitted object unique and handmade, as opposed to sterile and stamped out.  This is an important lesson in the art of life, as well.  It makes me wonder if the reason that humans are so imperfect, even though we are made in the image of G-d, is that it is our imperfection that made us G-d’s special hand-crafted art-work.

A big error in our art should not be let go, however.  Sometimes it is worth the effort to rip back a lot of rows of knitting to fix a large and glaring mistake.  (Knitters call this “frogging” because you “riiiiiip it, riiiiiip it!”)  Frogging can be a heart-wrenching activity.  You watch the hours of loving work unravel in a kinked mess of yarn.  What may have taken weeks to create comes out in minutes.  Yet, without being willing to let it go, the finished object may not have fit, may not have been functional, may not have been beautiful.  A glaring mistake in life can be even more difficult to undo.  Addictions, for example, can take years to recover from, but the recovery is still a painful necessity in order to be able to move on and make something beautiful out of life.

Knitting helps us envision a future more idyllic and more complete than the present.  It is like the prayers at the end of the worship service.  “May the time not be distant, O G-d when…”  As long as we can see that perfect future when nations live at peace, we can work towards making it a reality.  I’m casting on for that future right now.

Vayakheil / P’kudei – Death for not resting?!?

This week’s Torah portion contains a rather disturbing verse. In Exodus chapter 35:2 we read: “On six days work shall be done, but on the seventh day, you shall have a Sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Eternal One; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death.”

Death? For not resting? Seems a bit harsh, doesn’t it? As a Reform Jew, I look to the Torah for spiritual lessons. What can we take from this terrible punishment for non-Sabbath observance?

Science teaches us all about the importance of rest. Chronic stress lowers immune response. In the short term, this can mean increased headaches and instances of the common cold. In the long term, it can result in: diabetes, heart disease, obesity, high blood pressure, some studies even say cancer. So yes, chronic, unrelieved stress can indeed cause death.

But take it back another step. Lets say that your work doesn’t really cause chronic stress. Maybe you enjoy your work. What then? Why is this rest necessary?

Taking a break from work gives you a chance to renew and revive, to reconnect with family and friends. This break can not only ultimately enhance your work, but have a positive influence on the way that you enjoy your life and relate to others. Neglecting to take this renewal time can also cause a sort of death – a death of the spirit.

So let’s say that you decide to take that Sabbath rest. Does this mean that you need to stop turning on and off lights? What is the Sabbath rest? As Reform Jews, we believe in educated choices. I strongly believe that people should try a lot of different ways to observe the Sabbath in order to find the one that is most fulfilling to them. Turning off the electrical appliances for 24 hours can be a fascinating, and very restful experience.

There was an interesting discussion on a few weeks back about the question of knitting on the Sabbath (forbidden by Orthodox halachah). I will come back to that discussion in another post…

Shabbat Shalom!!   Have a restful and renewing Sabbath!


Welcome to the Cantor’s Canvas! I love and am endlessly fascinated by Judaism, music, and knitting. All three provide real soulful sustenance for me. The Cantor’s Canvas will be a space for me to share my musings on any of the above topics and more. I invite you to engage with me on these topics, to share your ideas, and to participate in the discussion.

I will begin with a rant… that will become a rave. I hate model seders. I never could understand why we need them and why so many communities have created them. The seder is a lesson in itself. Properly observed, a seder will be fun, informative, and engaging. It should be unique. It should stand alone. It was for this reason that I was so unhappy when, several years ago, the Women’s Club of Temple Beth Torah asked me to help them with their women’s seder to be held in the weeks leading up to Passover.

I explained my objections to the women, but didn’t want to outright refuse. Instead, I told them what I would require if they really wanted my help. The women’s seder, I suggested, should be a ritual of preparation for Passover. There should be no blessings containing the words, “…asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav…” because nothing that we would be observing would be a mitzvah. Matzah, if served, should be served alongside crackers, so that people would be able to reserve their first taste of matzah for the actual seder, and the reasoning behind this should be clearly explained. All lines in the seder that explained ritual action should talk in the future tense (“the maror that we will eat…”)

To my great surprise, the women agreed to my terms and we worked together to create a seder of preparation for Passover. Thanks to the beautifully spiritual writings of Shelle Goldstein, and her willingness to humor me, I am pleased to say that this is a seder that I can participate in with pleasure! Unlike other model seders, I don’t leave this one feeling like I have already “done” Passover, but rather that I am now spiritually ready to embark on my Passover preparations.

This is what a model seder should be.

Shavua Tov!