Fifth installment in an ongoing series.

Rules were made to be broken – except those of the Biblical and Rabbinic variety. But more on that later.

The Jan. 14 class of “Judaism for Beginners” at Beth Tfiloh was meant to serve as an introduction to Jewish law and custom – and a sort of beginner’s Torah, if you will.

Rabbi Eli Yoggev started by passing out to the class a Gemara (also known as the Talmud)a rabbinical analysis and commentary on the Mishna, the written collection of the Jewish oral traditions. Yikes, this is getting complicated already. And here I was hoping for something a bit less esoteric and somewhat more concrete than prayer and spirituality.

As Rabbi Yoggev explained it, the Gemara is a recording of the oral traditions, but it was forbidden to write down oral traditions for reasons akin to sending someone an email and meaning one thing but having that email be taken quite another way by its recipient. (That happens to me almost daily.)

“The issue of writing something down and concretizing it is you end up using outdated examples. Then, it doesn’t necessarily translate to someone reading it in modern day,” Rabbi Yoggev said.

He also spoke about Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, which is like an encyclopedic work of Jewish law and there are 14 books. Rabbi Yoggev assured us right out of the gate, “We’re not going to learn [the Gemaras], we’re just going to see what it looks like.” I thought that was funny, but Rabbi Yoggev was being really sincere. He assured us, though, that “if we keep a steady pace, there’s a game at the end.”

Ooooh, I love games.

Ketubah tractate

The author with the Ketubot tractate (Photo by Rabbi Eli Yoggev, courtesy Amanda Krotki)

Rabbi Yoggev went on to explain that the Gemara was “… like being involved in a live discussion with rabbis for over 500 years.” Sounds like fun, right?

So we got to take a look inside each of our Gemaras and learned that each one is on a different topic and these are referred to as tractates, of which there are 63. My classmate to my left had one on lashes. Yes, lashes. Rabbi Yoggev said, “It’s actually a fun tractate.” Sure, if you’re into that sort of thing.

I ended up with one on how the courts run. But then Rabbi Yoggev handed me the one on ketubot (Jewish prenuptial agreements). Is it a sign when a rabbi hands you a tractate on ketubot? I’m not presently in the market for one – or even close to being in any position where I would require one.

Does he know something I don’t?

Anyway — get this – the entire text is in Aramaic, not Hebrew! Because it’s that old. Like 500 CE old. I squinted at the tiny, elaborate text and tried to make heads or tails out of it. Nothing doing. Someone in class asked if Rabbi Yoggev actually knows Aramaic. He shrugged and said, “Yeah, you pick it up.” So that’s impressive.

Aramaic

It’s all Aramaic to me. (Photo by Amanda Krotki, Jmore)

Things were getting a little heavy, according to Rabbi Yoggev. So it was time to get to the nitty-gritty of the three different types of Jewish law: Biblical, Rabbinic and Custom. Biblical law appears in the Torah. Rabbinic law is binding and was introduced by the Rabbis. Custom stems from traditions that organically developed over time in different Jewish communities. Eating unleavened bread on Passover is serious Biblical law. Purim is a Rabbinic law, not Biblical. The practice of wearing a yarmulke is a custom. (Did you know that there are about 50 different types of yarmulkes, and they all signify something different?)

It turns out numbers are also pretty important in a discussion of Jewish law. It started to sound like advanced algebra or at least some weird numerology lesson in that classroom. I learned there are 613 mitzvot (commandments) like the seeds in a pomegranate (I’m told that number is a “thing to know”); there are actually 14 commandments in the Ten Commandments (now there’s a head-scratcher); and the word Torah has the Hebrew numerical value of 611 plus two (the two commandments all of the Jews heard at Sinai). OK.

My biggest takeaway this week: There’s sooooo much to know. All that reading! And thinking! And discussing! Oy!

Here’s how Rabbi Yoggev stressed the importance of adhering to Biblical law: “There’s a gun to your head. You can either eat leavened bread on Passover or take off your kippah.” In other words, you remove the kippah because it’s better to break a custom than a Biblical law.

Someone in class asked if it was better to drive on Shabbos or take an Uber. The correct answer for Jewish law-abiding citizens is to take an Uber, according to the rabbi, but I would argue they should get points for even going to synagogue in the first place. I think I’ll stick to the Customs. I’m less likely to end up in Jewish jail that way.

Biblical, Rabbinic or Custom

Biblical, Rabbinic or Custom (Photo by Amanda Krotki, Jmore)

Here’s the game:

Choose which category each of the following topics fall under (answers below):

Things that get lit:

  • Shabbat candles
  • Chanukiah
  • Memorial candle
  • Yom Tov candles
  • Temple menorah

Passover:

  • Matzoh
  • Maror
  • Passover sacrifice
  • Prohibition on eating legumes
  • 4 cups of wine

Next up: Jan. 21 — Shabbat

Here’s the original class schedule:

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 eyoggev@btfiloh.org.

Answers: 

Things that get lit — Shabbat candles: Rabbinic, Chanukiah: Rabbinic, Memorial candle: Custom, Yom Tov candles: Rabbinic, Temple menorah: Biblical

Passover — Matzoh: Biblical, Maror: Rabbinic, Passover sacrifice: Biblical, Prohibition on eating legumes: Custom, 4 cups of wine: Rabbinic (that’s my kind of law)