Third installment in an ongoing series.
It was a chilly, get-under-the-covers-and-stay-there night when I arrived for my latest class of Rabbi Eli Yoggev’s Judaism for Beginners course at Beth Tfiloh. The topic would be “Daily Jewish Living,” or as Rabbi Yoggev put it, “What a normal day looks like.”
Somehow, I think we have different definitions of a normal day.
Before we got into the mechanics of daily living, Rabbi Yoggev wanted to circle back to a few more thoughts on the afterlife, which we discussed in a previous class. While serving as a hospice care chaplain, he often comforted the dying and prayed with their non-Jewish family members. Once, when sitting with a Jehovah’s Witness, the rabbi started to wonder, “Who are we praying for?” Rabbi Yoggev says he believes he’s helping the souls “in the possibility of an afterlife.”
I can’t do this heavy topic justice, so I’ll let Rabbi Yoggev explain his experience grappling with the afterlife in this piece he wrote in 2017.
But back to class. This week, we had a little dress-up (Rabbi Yoggev, not the rest of us), a bunch of show-and-tell, a handout of 50 Jewish phrases to know and even more snacks – including the remnants of some Chanukah sufganiyot!
One goal was to learn the difference between Halacha and minhag, a.k.a. Jewish law versus custom, or as the saying supposedly goes: “Don’t go overboard, that’s a minhag.” I think I’m more of a minhag girl, myself.
For this look into the day in the life of an observant Jew, we started where most days start — with the morning. Rabbi Yoggev says the first thing someone is supposed to say in the morning is the Modeh Ani (the Jewish prayer upon waking up) and that it’s essentially an expression of gratitude and giving thanks that we’re alive.
I like the message of starting the day on a positive note (we all know how off-kilter you can feel when you wake up on the wrong side of the bed), but I think I’ve been doing it all wrong. Usually, I open one eye halfway, survey my surroundings and grumble, “Oh, I’m still here in this place.” Then, I groan and force myself upright.
I’m clearly not on-message.
Moving on to blessings. I learned that there are three types of blessings: One for mitzvot (recognizing the righteous act that you’re doing before you actually do it), one of enjoyment (I should probably learn the one for a hot cup of Joe) and one of praise (appreciating the amazing things in nature like rainbows, thunder, unicorns – OK, probably not unicorns). And there’s pretty much a blessing for everything.
Including, I bleep you not, one you’re supposed to say after going to the bathroom. Rabbi Yoggev relayed a cute little story about being out at a restaurant with his mother and saying the blessing when he came back to the table. His mom, who is not Orthodox, asked what he was doing. He explained. Her response: “Are you serious, Eli?!” I love a good yarn that humanizes my rabbis (and FWIW, I have to say Rabbi Yoggev is very human).
We quickly went through the blessing over bread and the fact that we do it to “recognize the source for what we’re eating” before we eat it. “Jewish people like to eat food,” Rabbi Yoggev declared in the understatement of the semester.
Then we moved on to the “stars” of the night – tallit and tzitzit, the ritual garb. I got more answers on the tallit, or prayer shawl, and its fringes in 15 minutes than I have in my entire life. I’ve always just sort of accepted it as a thing people put on in synagogue and never even considered the deeper meaning. Now I get that the fringes are there to remind you of the commandments.
“Like tying a string around your finger. Reminds you of constantly doing the right thing, “ explains Rabbi Yoggev. He further illustrated the importance of these items by relaying some story about a rabbi and a prostitute, and the rabbi getting hit in the face by tzitzit, or fringes. The rest of the story really doesn’t bear repeating here.
Rabbi Yoggev also says he finds it comforting to wear the tallit. “It forms a spiritual cocoon,” he says.
After modeling the tallit and tzitzit for us, he also put on tefillin, which if you’re unfamiliar is that funny-looking black leather box that goes on the forehead between your eyes, and the black strand and box that wraps around the arm seven times. This is a pretty exacting accoutrement – a lot goes into making it.
Inside the boxes are scrolls of parchment containing sections of the Torah. A kosher animal has to be used for the parchment, no two letters may touch each other and each box must be perfectly square. It was eye-opening and strangely intimate to watch Rabbi Yoggev go through the ritual of putting on tefillin and to understand it’s considered getting as close to the Divine as possible, but I can see how it can be a very foreign notion for some people to try to come to terms with. It’s admittedly a bit of a strange look.
Finally, we made it to the topic of mezuzot, which believe it or not is the moment I’ve been waiting for. I moved recently and took my old mezuzah down – an act I learned was OK because non-Jews were moving into my old house. But I still haven’t put my mezuzah up in my new home – mainly because I was afraid of doing it wrong. Should it slant to the left or the right? Do I have to say the proper prayer for it to work? Does it go inside the room or out? So many questions for one little piece of parchment surrounded by a decorative case meant to Protect This House (like the Ravens). Do you think Rabbi Y. makes mezuzah-installing house calls?
The point of seeing a mezuzah when you walk into your home is that you want to send the message that this is a house where good things happen. Luckily for me, it turns out it’s only hung on a slant as a compromise. One guy wanted it straight up. One guy wanted it horizontal. They settled on slanted.
The case can be made out of any material – including broken glass from your wedding ceremony (aw!). It needs to be fastened tightly. It should be in the top two-thirds of the doorway. And it’s supposed to be in rooms in which you live – i.e., all the doors of a house except the bathrooms. And — get this — it’s really not a requirement to hang them in synagogues because we don’t live there.
Have I hammered the mezuzah rules home yet? (Get it?)
My biggest takeaway of the night is that you should check your mezuzot every seven years. In other words, if you’ve had a string of bad luck lately, things just aren’t going your way, something’s not quite right, go get a sofer (certified scribe) to check your mezuzot and make sure their kosher!
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go figure out how to hang mine.
Next up: Jan. 7: Jewish spirituality and prayer
Basics — Nov. 19: What You Need to Know About Judaism, Nov. 26: Foundations of Jewish Belief, Dec. 3: Jewish History 101
Jewish Life and Spirituality — Dec. 10: Daily Jewish Living, Dec. 17: Life Cycle Events, Dec. 24: Prayer, Jan. 7: Jewish Spirituality
Practical Judaism — Jan. 14: Introduction to Jewish Law and Custom, Jan. 21: Shabbat, Jan. 28: Festivals
Judaism for Today — Feb. 4: Hot Button Issues, Feb. 11: “Ask the Rabbi” Session
For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rabbi Eli Yoggev joins us at facebook.com/jmoreliving on Dec. 21 at 12:30 p.m. to discuss his Judaism for Beginners class. Tune in to ask him whatever’s on your mind.