Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Number Thirteen in Judaism

Question: An ecumenical organization in our community is planning a Spring holiday event on April 13, and the Jewish part of the program will be a model seder. They would like to mention the significance of the number thirteen in connection with Passover, since the event is taking place on the 13th of the month. What should I tell them? Answer: The number thirteen has few connections to Passover and the seder. A notable exception is the Ehad Mi Yodea (Who Knows One) song traditionally sung at the end of the Seder. This song has thirteen stanzas and the thirteenth stanza proclaims there are thirteen attributes of God. The full text of God's thirteen attributes are recited during specific prayers over the course of the year, including during Yom Kippur, other fast days, and on the three Pilgrimage Festivals (Passover being one of these festivals). The number thirteen has a few other connections to Judaism in general, not specifically Passover: A boy becomes Bar Mitzvah at age thirteen. Maimonides summarized Jewish belief in his Thirteen Articles of Faith. In Ashkenazi tradition, the Yigdal hymn of 13 verses (based on Maimonides' Thirteen Articles of Faith) is recited during daily prayers. The ancient sage, Rabbi Ishmael, organized Biblical analysis into 13 Rules of Interpretation.

Thursday, March 17, 2011


Question: My Grandmother used to tell me how devout her mother in Europe was, frequently praying to the Almighty in Yiddish, in connection with major events in her life, in addition to the usual synagogue prayers. Although my synagogue's prayerbook includes a selection of blessings for specific occassions, I somehow feel this is not what my Grandmother was telling me about. How can I find out more information (in English) about those prayers?

Answer: Your great-grandmother may have been reciting tekhines, Yiddish supplicatory prayers, very personal and intimate prayers, often written by women, and certainly meant for women. Tekhines were an important part of Jewish women's spiritual lives in central and Eastern Europe from the 17th to the 20th century; they were published both in small booklets and as apppendices to prayerbooks (notably the Korban Minchah Siddur).

These prayers were typically composed for women's life-cycle events, holidays, sabbath and other special situations, such as: various situations during pregnancy, childbirth and nursing; on the occasion of a son's circumcision or bar mitzvah; when one's child is ill; or when one's husband is traveling. Tekhines "offered women a direct pipeline to God. The tone of tehines is conversational, addressing God respectfully but as a Yiddish-speaking friend or neighbor who will listen in time of need" (Berger, 1992)

In the last 20 years there has been renewed interest in tekhines in the scholarly community, and many tekines have been reprinted and translated into English collections along with historical background and analysis. Below is a listing of some of these editions; also listed are scholarly articles about the genre of tekhinos.

Interestingly, in 2005 ArtScroll published Ashkenazi and Sephardi siddur editions for women: Ohel Sarah Women's siddur. These are full daily, sabbath and festival prayerbooks, each with the same appendix of "Additional Prayers and Supplications." According to the publisher, these siddurim are meant to be "a Korban Minchah [siddur] for today" p. xix.

Resources in English for the Study of Tekhines:

Berger, Shulamith Z. "Tehines: A Brief Survey of Women's Prayers" Daughters of the King (1992) 73-83

Breger, Jennifer "Women's Devotional Literature: an Essay in Jewish Bibliography" Jewish Book Annual vol 52 (1994-1995) p73-98.

Cardin, Rabbi Nina Beth, ed. and tr. Out of the Depths I call to You: A Book of Prayers for the Married Jewish Woman. (1992)

Kay, Devra, translator, editor and commentator. Seyder Tkhines: The Forgotten Book of Common Prayer for Jewish Women. (2004)

Kay, Devra "An Alternative Prayer Canon for Women: the Yiddish 'Seyder Tkhines' " Zur Geschichte der jüdischen Frau in Deutschland (1993) 49-96

Klirs, Tracy Guren, compiler and commentator. The Merit of Our Mothers: A Bilingual Anthology of Jewish Women's Prayers. (1992)

Salmon-Mack, Tami. [On] Devra Kay, "Seyder Tkhines; the Forgotten Book of Common Prayer for Jewish Women" Nashim 12 (2006) p. 289-294.

Scherr, Robert S. "Voices from the Balcony" Conservative Judaism 54:3 (2002) p. 89-94

Tarnor, Norman, translator and commentator. A Book of Jewish Women's Prayers (1995)

Weinberger, Rabbi Dovid, compiler and annotator. Ohel Sarah Women's Siddur. With Special Prayers, Laws and Customs for Women. (2005)

Weissler, Chava. Traditional Yiddish Literature: A Source for the Study of Women's Religious Lives. (Jacob Pat Memorial Lecture, 1987)

Weissler, Chava. " 'Tkhines' for the Sabbath Before the New Moon." Jewish Studies at the Turn of the Twentieth Century II (1999) 406-412

Weissler, Chava. "Women's Studies and Women's Prayers: Reconstructing the Religious History of Ashkenazic Women" Jewish Social Studies, New Series 1:2 (1995) p. 28-47

Weissler, Chava "The 'Tkhines' and Women’s Prayer" CCAR Journal 40,4 (1993) 75-88

Weissler, Chava. " 'Mizvot' Built into the Body: 'Tkhines' for 'Niddah', Pregnancy, and Childbirth" People of the Body (1992) 101-115

Weissler, Chava. Prayers in Yiddish and the Religious World of Ashkenazic Women" Jewish Women in Historical Perspective (1991) 159-181

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Universal Jewish Encyclopedia

Question: Our family has an illustrated encyclopedia, the Universal Jewish Encyclopedia. I seldom see references to this set and I wonder if it is of any use today.

Answer: The articles in the Universal Jewish Encyclopedia are not as scholarly as those in the Jewish Encyclopedia (originally published 1901-1906) or as those in the Encyclopedia Judaica (originally published in 1972, and now available in an updated second edition--2007--in printed format and electronically to JTS faculty, students and other subscribers). The intended readers of the Universal Jewish Encyclopedia were laymen.

Important goals of its editors were to combat antisemitism and to improve Jewish-Gentile relations, and therefore its articles emphasized interfaith relations. In fact, the main editor, Isaac Landman, had organized an interfaith group, the Permanent Commission on Better Understanding between Christians and Jews, as a result of his awareness of the vulnerability of Eastern European Jewry at the close of World War I.

As a result of this perspective, the Universal Jewish Encyclopedia provides an important window into American Jewish life in the 1930's and the beginning of World World II. In addition, it provides information on events and people who were of importance at the time, but whose significance was eclipsed in later decades. It would of particular use to a student of American Jewish history, or of political and social aspects of the American Jewish community.

Although publication of this encyclopedia was completed in 1944, its text was completed approximately two years earlier. Therefore the articles describe only the beginnings of the destruction of European Jewry. The juxtapostion of its emphasis on American Jewry with the facts of World War II which were ocurring as the printing presses were rolling, is disturbing.

More information about this enyclopedia, and other Jewish encyclopedias, is available in Shimeon Brisman's A History and Guide to Judaic Encyclopedias and Lexicons (1987). The Universal Jewish Encyclopedia (10 volumes, New York, 1939-1944) is available in the Encyclopedia Room of the Reference Collection, DS102.8 .U5 in The Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Educational Materials Related to the Haftarot


Would you suggest educational materials related to the Haftarot?


Here is a list of some educational materials related to the Haftarot:

- Chiel, Arthur A. Guide to Sidrot and Haftarot [New York : Ktav Pub. House, 1971]

- Cogan, Lainie Blum. Teaching Haftarah : background, insights and strategies [Denver : A.R.E. Publishing, 2002]

- Fishbane, Michael. Haftarot : the traditional Hebrew text with the new JPS translation[Philadelphia : The Jewish Publication Society, 2002] – with commentary by Michael Fishbane

- Goldstein, Elyse. The women's haftarah commentary : new insights from women rabbis on the 54 weekly haftarah portions, the 5 megillot & special Shabbatot [Woodstock, Vt. : Jewish Lights Publishing, c2004]

- Hirsch, Samson Raphael. Hirsch commentary on the Torah [Brooklyn, N.Y. : Judaica Press, [2005], c1966] - 6 vol., including one on Haftarot

- Lieber, Laura Suzanne. Study guide to the JPS Bible commentary : Haftarot [Philadelphia : Jewish Publication Society, 2002]

- Rosenberg, Stephen (Stephen G.). The Haphtara cycle : a handbook to the Jewish year [Northvale, NJ : Jason Aronson, 2000]

- Scharfstein, Sol. [Sefer hafṭarot] = The book of Haftarot for Shabbat, festivals and fast days : an easy-to-read translation with commentary [Jersey City, NJ : Ktav Pub. House, 2007]

- Weissman, Moshe. Sefer hafṭarot = The Midrash says on the weekly haftaros [Brooklyn, N.Y. : Benei Yakov Publications, c1993-]