A Bit of Judaism for the Uninformed

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Our first Shabbat table in Israel

I’ve had several of my readers ask me to explain and clarify the Jewish Sabbath and also to explain the rules of keeping Kosher. So – I will try to simply tell about both.

In the Bible, the Book of Genesis starts with G-d’s creating the world. Each of the six days of creation: of the earth, the sky, the stars, planets, flora and fauna, man and woman are beautifully described. But on Day Seven, G-d stopped all His work and rested, thus setting the pattern for Shabbat, or the Sabbath. Here, in Israel, the days of the week are translated into “Day One (Sunday)”, “Day Two (Monday),” etc. But Day Seven is the only one that is extra-ordinary and is given a name, Shabbat. Because the days technically start at sunset, Shabbat begins on Friday evening and lasts through Saturday night.

In our hectic days crammed full of busyness, running around doing errands, working, going to school, using technology, and doing, doing, doing until our heads are about to explode!! It’s delightful…. no, it’s MANDATORY… that we take one 25 hour period to unplug, to rest and to just be. The Shabbat creates a peaceful island in time. It’s a time to unwind, to enjoy family and friends, good food and conversation, reading, napping, and being in the present. More and more people, even those who are not Jewish, are catching on to this holy and healthy, time-proven ideal.

Shabbat is a gift given by G-d to us. The keeping of Shabbat is likened to a wedding between us and G-d. And a glorious feast it is! It is truly a special time. In Israel, most stores and businesses close around noon in the winter and around three in the afternoon during the summer months. That way people can go home early to prepare. The pace of life outside the home slows to a crawl and the streets grow more and more quiet. Inside the home is a different matter as the wild rush begins.

The house is cleaned. Fresh sheets are put on the beds. The laundry is all done. The floors swept and mopped. All the food for Friday and Saturday must be prepared beforehand as one does not cook at all on Shabbat. A beautiful tablecloth is laid and fresh flowers placed on the table, which has been set with the good china, silverware and wine glasses. It’s truly a festive meal that will be served Friday night, the grandest of the whole week usually consisting of several courses. We shower or bathe and dress in nice clothes. The men go to synagogue before sunset to say their prayers. The woman of the house lights the Shabbat candles and says a blessing. And just like that, the Sabbath is here. All is done. No more work is allowed.

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Even the most secular people here gather with family and friends, lighting candles and enjoying a relaxed meal together. We sing songs at the table – welcoming the Sabbath Bride and the Sabbath angels into our home. We sing songs of joy and pray for peace to descend over the Land and our world. John and I pray both the traditional prayers and extra (personal) prayers for each of our children, present or not. John (and Max) recite the Eshet Chayil, Woman of Valor, prayer over me. It’s found in Proverbs 31. Then I recite the “Blessed is the Man” prayer over John from the Psalms. It’s quite beautiful, and really cements the family with the mortar of love, forgiveness, and blessing. It’s actually my favorite part of the whole week. Next,  Max chants the Kiddush, the beautiful blessing over the wine. We wash our hands, reciting the prayers, and then John says the blessing over the two loaves of freshly-baked, sweet  challah bread. We have two loaves on the table to remind us of the time G-d provided a double portion of manna on the Sabbath during the 40 years that the Children of Israel wandered in the desert. That way they wouldn’t have to gather their food on the day of rest. Especially if guests are present, the festive meal can last for hours. Appetizers, salads, soup, sometimes multiple main courses, veggies, dessert, fruits, chocolates…

On Saturday morning, you see people walking to synagogue. Each neighborhood has several. There is no (or very little) driving in Israel on the Sabbath. There is no public transportation. It’s very quiet, except for the sound of birds – or rain these days. Unlike in the States, Shabbat morning services start quite early here: 7:30 am to about 8:30. They last about 2 1/2 hours. Then the people walk home, the men in their kappas/yarmulkes and prayer shawls, the women in their finest. We eat a fine lunch that’s been pre-prepared (crock pots are great inventions), then spend the rest of the day relaxing, visiting friends, taking a leisurely walk. No cell phones. No computers. No television or radio. Just being present in the moment and to other people. It’s glorious. Such a gift to be detached. For those that are not religious, Saturday here is the one free day to take a field trip, go to the beach, desert or mountains, to go to a movie.

After it gets dark on Saturday night, we have a beautiful home service called Havdala, or separation. It’s a special time/ceremony where we note the separation between light and dark, Sabbath and the rest of the week. We light a braided Havdala candle, smell fragrant spices, drink a sip of wine and sing lovely songs. Then, quick as all that, Shabbat is over. Sunday here is a regular workday and school day, and the hectic pace of life begins anew. But with Sunday comes the remembrance of Shabbat past and a looking forward to Shabbat to come.

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Now for the explanation of the laws of kashrut, or keeping a kosher home. In America, when most people hear the word kosher, they think of matzah ball soup, deli food, and bagels, cream cheese and lox. NOT!!!! Some others think ‘O.K. Jewish. Kosher. No pork, no shellfish. Got it.’ NOT QUITE!!! There’s much. much. much more to it than that. Actually I remembered the first day I arrived in Israel. We went grocery shopping and I asked a man where the Kosher food section was. He looked at me like I was absolutely nuts. “It’s all Kosher!”

So what exactly is Kosher? Based on the laws in Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, the Bible lists out the “clean” animals and the “unclean” animals. Any mammal that has a split food and chews it cud is Kosher – thus cows, sheep, goats, even llamas and giraffes are all Kosher. Horses (no split hoof), hogs, hippos, and hamsters are not Kosher. Any fish that has both fins and scales are clean. The rest are verboten. So – salmon, tuna, trout and tilapia are good. Eels, catfish (no scales), dolphins and squid – not Kosher. Neither are crustaceans. Most birds that have feathers and fly are good to eat. Except birds of prey. Nope to eagles, buzzards are hawks. No bugs. No cats or dogs or monkeys or bats – (no coronavirus).

The animal today that is to be the hamburger tomorrow must be slaughtered as humanely and gently as possible. Not to be frightened. A very quick slit of the jugular with a sharp knife – with compassion. All the blood must be completely drained from the meat before it is fit to be sold.

Add to this the injunction to separate meat from dairy products (from the law that a kid can not be cooked in its mother’s milk, an ancient pagan practice). So now, in a Kosher setting not only are the two not cooked together (No cheeseburgers. No beef stroganoff. No creamy chicken casserole.), but the items are never served at the same meal. On the same plates. We’ll get to that soon. Breakfast is usually dairy in Israel. Lunch and dinner can go either way. The best explanation I’ve heard for this is that it makes a clear distinction between life and death. Milk signifies life, and is not to be mixed with death. It’s profound…

I keep a Kosher home. I have separate sets of dishes and silverware for dairy and for meat. I have separate cookware. Separate sinks, Separate shelves in my cabinets and my fridge – all marked. Separate counters for preparing dairy and meat. It’s how I grew up, so it’s pretty natural for me. Vegetables, eggs, fruits, and fish can go either way. It’s called pareveh.  Dairy products are halavi and meat is basari. Kosher restaurants serve only dairy or only meat. Never are the two prepared, cooked or served together. Same with schools – and the army – and hospitals.

What else? All packaged foods that are Kosher are marked as such. In the States, there would be a little letter “U” enclosed in a circle. Look for it on the box or can the next time you go shopping. Cheeze-Its Kosher. Spam. Not Kosher. Bac-Uns. Kosher. Pop Tarts Kosher. Jif Peanut Butter Kosher. Cap’n Crunch. Not Kosher. Go figure. In Israel, most of the larger grocery stores sell only Kosher foods. The Russian and Arab grocery chains are not. All products are labeled as such – with differing levels of strict Kosherness as deemed by specific rabbis’ rulings. Very complicated here.

So, what else makes foods Kosher? If the product was produced in a factory or plant that is open on Shabbat, or the preparer works on Shabbat, the whole product line is rendered nonKosher. There are myriad other rules with varying levels of stringency that I won’t get into here. It can get very complicated.

Also, before one eats a meal, the hands must be washed ritually. There are special hand washing cups and special blessings for the washing of hands. In most Israeli restaurants, you will see specifically designated hand-washing stations from the little pizza joint down the street to the fanciest restaurant in Jerusalem.

Special blessings of thanksgiving to G-d are said both before and after eating a meal. That does nothing to change the food itself, but elevates your spirit to an attitude of gratitude and confers a special sanctity to the food.

In a nutshell, (nuts are kosher) those are the basic rules of Shabbat and Kashrut, although I’m sure I’ve left a ton out – and it will be pointed out by the most observant, this is just an Intro into Judaism 101 for the Unknowing. It’s a lot to digest (pun intended), but I’ve lived a Torah-observant life for much of my life, so for me, it’s just a lifestyle – one much more easy to keep here in the Land of Milk and Honey (both Kosher and can be eaten together!).

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