Friday, March 23, 2001

Shabbat-O-Gram March 23, 2001


(As ever, I’m trying a few different things in preparation of the O-Gram this week, in the hopes of minimizing the glitches that seem to have occurred in its transmission lately.  Let me know if it works for you)


As we close in on Passover, this week we celebrate Shabbat Ha-Hodesh, literally “The Sabbath of the Month.”  We’ll announce the upcoming new month of Nisan during the service as we do for any new month, but we’ll also announce it with a special reading from a second Torah.  The reading, from Exodus 12, proclaims that this new month is to be “the first of months.”  In the Torah, the spring month (not yet called Nisan) was the New Year; it was most often called the month of “Aviv,” which literally means, “when the ears of barley ripen.”

In Exodus 12 this month is identified solely by a number, as “the first of the months.”  According to Nahum Sarna’s commentary (JPS), the absence of a name is “probably due to a desire to avoid any confusion with the polytheistic calendars that associate days and months with astral bodies or pagan deities and rituals.”  Ironically, the names and symbolism now used for months, borrowed from the Babylonian calendar during the first exile (6
th century, BCE), DO incorporate astrological imagery.  Ancient synagogue art shows many examples of the zodiac being employed to depict the Hebrew months.  Among the most famous is the one at Bet Alpha, in northern Israel.  Read about it at, as well as how the zodiac became a Jewish thing, at  And check out some photos at

Either New Year’s date, whether spring or fall, makes more sense as than the arbitrary mid-winter date of January 1 (It’s also much, much warmer in Times Square in April and September). What’s most wonderful about the Hebrew calendar is how it is based on the cycles of the earth and the needs of agricultural life.  Jewish time is always in synch with seasonal changes -- and therefore so are we.



Candlelighting time: 5:53 PM
Shabbat Shalom Service (for young families): 6:15 PM
Congregational Shabbat Dinner: 7:00 PM (140+ are signed up, another smash-hit)
Kabbalat Shabbat Service: 8:00 PM

SHABBAT MORNING (Shabbat Ha-Hodesh)

Double Portion: Va-Yakhel, Pekuday  we conclude the book of Exodus.  Learn Torah With commentary can be found at, and The JTS commentary by Dr. Schorsch, along with the text of the Torah and Haftarah readings, can be found at:  For a slight change of pace, check out the O-U’s Torah Tidbits on this portion, at

Pesukey d’zimra:      9:15 AM
Shacharit:                 9:30 AM
Children’s Services:10:30 AM

MAZAL TOV  to Dayna Sheinberg, who becomes Bat Mitzvah this Shabbat morning.


By popular demand, we are organizing an adult Bar/Bat Mitzvah class, with the goal of completing the course in about a year and preparing for a service in May of 2002. The course of study will be taught by the Hazzan, Barb Moskow and myself, and include some synagogue skills and a basic overview of Jewish history, prayer, customs and ceremonies and sacred texts. We will gladly accommodate all levels of Hebrew proficiency. If you are at all interested (and at least seven have already signed on), please contact the education office (322-6901 X306). An organizational meeting will be held on Tues., April 24, at 8:00 PM. Subsequent classes will likely be held on Thursday evenings.

You might recall that after our congregational Shabbaton in January, several people requested the chance to sit down with a small group to further discuss some of the issues raised.  It was my pleasure to pursue the matter, and we will be having that little gathering of about a dozen families at the home of a congregant this Shabbat afternoon, from 5-7, concluding with Havdalah.  The kids will have a great time with Nurit while the adults talk about, well, whatever they wish to talk about.  Which reminds me to remind those who will be coming to bring in articles, texts, quotes or questions that they wish to raise.  While this program is now fully-subscribed, let me know if you would like to be involved in a future one, or, better yet, if you would like to plan one.

YOM HA-SHOAH: The Legacy of the Generations
This year's community-wide Holocaust Remembrance Day program, to be held here on the evening of April 19, will focus on the second and third generations of survivors. If you are a child or grandchild of a survivor and would be interested in sharing your story, please let me know. How have the stories you grew up with changed your life? What do you feel is your special legacy or obligation as the descendant of a survivor? The program will feature brief testimonies given by people of all ages, including children, and we will be collecting additional written testimonies to be distributed that night.

SALE OF HAMETZ FORMS: They were sent out this week with our mid month mailing.  If you would like me to be your agent in this little Pre-Passover legality, please sign the form send it back at your earliest convenience.

JEWISH HERITAGE TOUR OF EASTERN EUROPE: JULY 1-15, with Hazzan Rabinowitz.  Includes Warsaw, Krakow, Budapest, Prague, and Vienna.  For information, contact Hazzan Rabinowitz at 322-6901 X309.

SPIRITUAL JOURNEYS ON THE WEB: Constructing Sanctuaries

1)      Avodah

“Work” has always meant something other than “daily drudgery” in Jewish tradition.  From the earliest days of the Bible to the advent of modern secular Zionism, there has always been something sacred about the work we do.  In fact, the Hebrew words for work are directly connected to the sacred.  The most common term, “avoda,” not only means “work,” it also is the term used for the sacrificial rites followed in the days of the ancient Temple.  Later, when the Temple was destroyed, “avoda” came to be associated with that which replaced sacrifices: prayer.  “On three things the world stands,” says Pirke Avot, “on Torah, Avoda and G’milut Hasadim (acts of kindness).  Work and worship stand united, for one leads to the other  prayer leads to world-mending activity, and such work engenders an attitude of awe and gratitude, i.e. prayer.

So it is appropriate to make our first stop on this journey the prayer book itself.  Click on to find a very helpful transliteration of many prayers.

2) Melacha

So, you may be asking, if work is worship, why are we expected to worship on Shabbat, a day in which we are not supposed to work?  The kinds of work specifically not allowed on Shabbat are not categorized in the Torah as “avoda,” but rather as “melacha.”  To my knowledge, the term is used only in regard to Shabbat and, in a modified form, festivals, and it is found in this week’s portion, Va-yakhel.  We read in Exodus 35:2, “On six days work (melacha) may be done, but on the seventh you shall have a complete rest, holy to the Lord.”  Melacha isn’t seen as bad, simply inappropriate for one day (but very important on the other six).  As if to underscore the holiness of melacha, it is closely aligned with the term for “angel,” “malach,” indicating that such work is hardly daily drudgery, but rather the vocation of heavenly beings.  And, specifically, what kind of work is melacha? 

I found a good definition in a chat recorded at

“Melacha means "creative act." By refraining from creative acts, we recognize G-d as the Ultimate Creator.   Melacha is any act that represents the uniquely human ability to put our intellect to work and shape the environment. Thus, switching on a light is a melacha. Among other things, it can be considered "building" a circuit. Specifically, a melacha is anything that fits into one of 39 categories of activities listed in Tractate Shabbat page 73a. This list includes activities such as seeding, uprooting, building, writing and burning.”

The rabbis derived those 39 categories based on the verses that follow Ex. 35:2, which describe in detail the building of that tabernacle.  All you will ever need to know about these 39 categories can be found on the Web.  Check out, for a quick delineation, and  for more detailed information.

So what we are talking about here is not “work” per se, but a sacred, creative act, the construction of sacred space during the week, leading to what we do on this seventh day, in the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, the building of a “cathedral in time.”  Rabbi David Wolpe elaborates on this beautifully at

3)      Building the Sanctuary

Heschel’s concept transcends all boundaries, as is evidenced by a sermon found at pastor writes: “The great Jewish Rabbi Heschel speaks of the Sabbath as the cathedral of time. The great European cathedrals are sacred space, but the Sabbath is sacred time. It was an oasis; it was a resting-place; it was a very, very great gift. It was a gift that was marked by the cessation of work, of labor.”
Also check out another sermon at In fact, there are about 175 references that I could find on the Web citing this expression of Heschel’s.  One site that doesn’t, but which is all about work, worship, and sacred space, is at  This article is about the construction of a Hindu holy place, and the site is also a wonderful portal to Indian culture and music.  And then there is, which gives us a fascinating Baha’i perspective.

4)      The Mishkan

All of this discussion of sacred places gives us pause to wonder what that original tabernacle, the Mishkan, described in such detail in our portion, must have looked like.  A word of caution here: If you plug the word “Mishkan” into search engines, you are bound to land on one of many sites run by  “Messianic Hebrew” organizations.  The mishkan is a key symbol for them, since the sacrificial cult is a natural link from ancient Judaism to Christianity (just trade the sacrificial lamb for you-know-who and you see what I mean).  If you venture onto these sites, you’ll get a clear signal as to the wool they are trying to pull over our eyes (to stick with the lamb image), by dressing up Christianity as a natural extension of Jewishness (the, ahem, “wolf in sheep’s clothing”).  The only thing is, I’m not going to help get you there.

Safer sites to visit include  I don’t know who Carol Miller is (I ran a quick search but still couldn’t locate her credentials), but her analysis of the Mishkan’s symbolism is excellent, including references to a great scholar of religions, Mircea Eliade:

“This then was a point of connection between Heaven and Earth, between Man and God; "the paradoxical point of passage from one mode of being and another."  Eliade speaks in depth about "…the reason for the elaboration of techniques of orientation which, properly speaking, are techniques for the construction of sacred space. But we must not suppose that human work is in question here,  that it is through his own efforts that man can consecrate a space. In reality the ritual by which he constructs a sacred space is efficacious in the measure in which it reproduces the work of the gods."

Miller’s also got pics.  Not only do we find a solid depiction of the Mishkan here, at, but she then traces the evolution of Jewish sacred space from that point to the rise of the modern synagogue, at  Included in this is the floor plan of none other than the synagogue at Bet Alpha, mentioned in my Byte of Torah above.  Finally, a nostalgic trip back to the Maimonides Day School in Brookline, Mass., which so many of my closest friends attended in my youth, leads us to a fascinating student project, a 3-D view of the Mishkan.  Find the Virtual Mishkan at

5)      A Sanctuary in Cyberspace

Where does this journey lead us? We’ve explored the construction of sacred spaces, as well as sanctuaries in time.  Taken to its logical conclusion, the next step is to explore sanctuaries in cyberspace.  I do lots of that in my book, but for here, it’s enough to look at one more link:, billed as a “Synagogue Without Walls.”  You would be surprised at how many synagogues classify themselves in this way (I turned up 14,000 hits on a recent search), including many, many synagogues that actually do have walls.  It tells us about the impact of the Havurah (Jewish fellowship) movement, for sure, and even more about the impact of new technologies and other innovation on synagogue life.  To that end I highly recommend two studies that have just been released.  From the Pew Research Center the report, “Wired Churches, Wired Temples: Taking congregations and missions into cyberspace.”  And from the Hartford Seminary, a landmark study released just last week, “Faith Communities Today,” the largest survey of congregations ever conducted in the United States, found at

Heschel concludes his masterpiece, “The Sabbath,” with the assertion, “We must conquer space in order to sanctify time.”  He could hardly have imagined the conquest of cyberspace when he wrote that, but it is clear to me that he might have sensed some of the same boundlessness in cyberspace that he saw regarding Shabbat.  For cyberspace resides in that murky area between sacred space and sacred time, in that moment of twilight between the holy Shabbat and the six days of angel work (melacha) preceding it.

Shabbat Shalom

This Shabbat-O-Gram goes out weekly to hundreds of Beth El congregants and others.  Feel free to forward it to your friends, and if you know of anyone who might wish to be included, please have them e-mail me at  To be taken off this e-mail list, simply click on "reply" and write "please unsubscribe" in the message box.

For more information on the synagogue, check out Beth El's Web site at  To check out some previous spiritual cyber-journeys I have taken, see my book's site at

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