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Category Archives: torah

Oh My How You’ve Grown!

“Siyyum” (SEE-yoom) is a word which means “completion”.

When people study a section of religious text – Torah, Mishnah, Talmud, etc – and finish it, they “make a siyyum” which is to day they have a little celebration to commemorate the job.

This has never made sense to me. So you read a book. It’s nice, but it didn’t seem especially party-worthy.

Added to this is the fact that, like almost every aspect of Judaism, people “study” in decidedly different ways. Some are extremely skilled hard-core students. They can read the text in the original language, have a vast amount of knowledge already under their belt, and worth with a study parther to tease every last drop of meaning and insight from the text.

Or some, like me, need to have someone read the text to them, having it translated as they go, and count themselves lucky if they can remember anything from one week to the next.

And the amount of learning varies as well. Some people make a siyyum on a single page. Some on a whole book. And some only when they’ve completed an entire body of work.

So what’s the point of a siyyum?

I pondered that the other day, as I was adding a mark on the doorframe in my 11 year old’s room, dutifully documenting his progress toward his dream of a promising career as a 6’7″ center for the Lakers (he’s currently 4’11. The kid knows how to dream big even if his genes aren’t on board.)

It occurred to me that, once our doorframe days are over, there isn’t much left in the way of marking growth.

There are a few milestones – driver’s license, first job, diploma, first “real” job, marriage, children, and so on. But those moments are few, and the timing is random, with no guarentee that we will achieve them (or in some cases even want to achieve them).

I came to the realization that day in my son’s room that in the Jewish world, where lifelong learning is not only laudable, it’s expected, a siyyum is the best darn doorpost ever.


A Sweet Start

Introducing Torah (often beginning with the book of Vayikra/Leviticus) to small children by smearing a book or page (hopefully laminated) with honey and letting them lick it off, thus showing how Jewish learning is sweet, is a well known practice. It’s also one that induces in me an involuntary eye-roll because those kids have got a rude awakening coming when they actually find out what they’re going to be reading.

It’s no secret that Vayikra/Leviticus is not my favorite book in Torah. The least favorite, in fact.

(In my opinion) It lacks the rich storytelling depth of Bereshit/Genesis, the compelling narrative of Shemot/Exodus, the epic adolescent rebelliousness of Bamidbar/Numbers, or the… well, let’s just say that Devarim/Deuteronomy isn’t high on my list either.

But I’m a sucker for baklava. So this this story from ┬áthe Chabad website might help me to re-frame my feelings about the book that focuses on the Priestly Laws. Because they transform the old smear-the-honey tradition into a “dessert holiday” worthy of the sages.


(Crosspost): Flame-broiled Kashrut

I was asked to deliver the d’var Torah this week at my synagogue, because it has to do with the laws of kashrut. I posted the text over on The Edible Torah. Here’s an excerpt:

Aaron and his sons complete the lecture part of their “Priesthood 101” course, and move on to start their lab work. Everything is going great: they’re slaughtering, splatting, smearing, burning and having a great time. Aaron comes out of the Mishkan, blesses the people, and God makes like a 4th of July show and consumes the burnt offering in a huge burst of fire. Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu rush forward, burn a little of their own “special blend” incense and WHOOSH, we’ve got crispy-friend kohain.

Moses says “You know, God did mention that something like this could happen if you aren’t careful.”

And then we get the rules about keeping kosher.

I found this all to be deeply and personally disturbing given the fact that, for the last few weeks, my family has been in the process of taking on the mitzvah of kashrut.

You can read the full text here.

I’m not doing this for my health, you know!

As we have spoken to different people – young families who grew up with the practice, single individuals who took it on after they moved out of their family home; people in our situation, where their Jewish Journey has taken them to this spot, it has become clear that everyone has their OWN reasons for keeping kosher. Each reason is significant, meaningful and most of all, connected to what that person wants out of life.

In other words, it’s a selfish decision.

You can’t start keeping kosher it to impress your Rabbi (or your buddy, or the cute orthodox guy down the street, or… you get the idea); You probably won’t be successful with it if you do it out of some empty sense of obligation to family tradition; You certainly shouldn’t consider it if you are bored on a Sunday afternoon and looking for an entertaining hobby.

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