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Frequently Asked Questions About Judaism

Part One

Q: What does the word "Torah" mean?

A: Literally, it means a teaching or doctrine. In the narrow sense, it means specifically the Five Books of Moses, but it is more often used to mean the full body of teachings that G-d gave to Moses.

In other words, the Torah means all the teachings that encompass Judaism. The Torah is how we know what we are supposed to do.

The full body of the teachings of the Torah includes both the Written Torah and the Oral Torah. The basics of the Oral Torah have been recorded in what is today called the Talmud.

The Oral Torah contains that which is necessary to properly understand the Written Torah. It contains the full explanation and parameters of the Laws, as well as detailed Scriptural exegesis. The proper procedures for such further study are also outlined. In addition, the Talmud discusses all the Rabbinical Laws, and the reasons for each. Some Rabbinical Laws were enacted to prevent transgressions of the Biblical Laws, and some are decrees that were deemed necessary for other reasons.

When referring to just the Five Books of Moses, many people will use the term "Chumash" (Pentateuch), which is derived from the word "chamesh," which means "five."

Q: What does the word "Tanach" mean?

A: "TaNaCh" (also spelled Tanakh) is an acronym for Torah, Nevi'im, Kesuvim. It refers to the original Jewish Bible (that is, the Written Torah) in its entirety. Jews prefer not to use the terms "Old" and "New" Testaments, as those terms imply that one has supplanted the other, and we find that concept offensive. The Books of the Tanach are as follows:

Torah (Pentateuch)
1. Genesis
2. Exodus
3. Leviticus
4. Numbers
5. Deuteronomy

Nevi'im (Prophets)
6. Joshua
7. Judges
8. Samuel
9. Kings
10. Isaiah
11. Jeremiah
12. Ezekiel
13. The Twelve

Kesuvim (Hagiographa)
14. Psalms
15. Proverbs
16. Job
17. Song of Songs
18. Ruth
19. Lamentations
20. Ecclesiastes
21. Esther
22. Daniel
23. Ezra (includes Nehemiah)
24. Chronicles

In the original Hebrew, the two books of Samuel were one, the two books of Kings were one, and the two books of Chronicles were one. Ezra and Nehemiah were originally one book, called Ezra. It was the Catholic Church that split these books.

The current arrangement of chapters in the Bible is also a Catholic invention, and completely ignores the original chapter and paragraph breaks of the original Hebrew, and in fact often ignores the context completely. During the Christian/Jewish Debates of the Middle Ages, the Jews were forced into using the Catholic systems for referencing the Bible, and it has since stuck. Before then, Jews referred to "portions" and "subjects" when quoting a verse. This system is still used in Yeshivot (Talmudic Academies) today.

Q: What does the term "Halachah" mean?

A: (noun - Halachot, or Halachos, plural) Literally, "gait," or "path." The Halachah is the full body of Law that mandates our conduct, beliefs, and practices. Since this is for us a way of life and not just a religion, it envelops us in everything we do. We therefore call it "Halachah," "The Way For Us To Go." One may say "This Halachah," in referring to a specific Law, or "The Halachah," when referring to the Law in general.

Q: What does the word "Mitzvah" mean?

A: A commandment. (noun - mitzvos, or mitzvot, plural) There are 613 Commandments in the Torah, and each of those Commandments has its associated Halachot to detail the parameters of that Mitzvah. There is a common misconception that there are only ten commandments. Actually, the term "Ten Commandments" is not of Jewish Origin. The Torah refers to them as the "Ten Statements" (Exodus 34:28, Deut 4:13, and Deut. 10:4).

The word mitzvah is used by the Torah to refer to all we are required to do. There are over 180 examples of this usage in the Tanach. A primary example of this is Deut. 6:2, in which it says:

"Remain in awe of G-d your L-rd, so that you keep all His rules and mitzvot that I command you. You, your children, and your children's children must keep them as long as they live..." (See Leviticus 26:3, and 26:14, for two other examples.)

In a deeper sense, the word "mitzvah" can be said to come from the word "tzavah," which means "to bind." The Mitzvot are that which establish our relationship to G-d, thus binding us to Him. We therefore fulfill these Mitzvot eagerly, and with joy.

Q: What is a mezuzah?

A: (noun - mezuzot, or mezuzos, plural) Literally, doorpost. The Torah commands us to write a certain two chapters from the Bible on a kosher piece of parchment, and place it on our doorposts. There are many intricate Halachot involved in this, including the precise shaping of the letters used in the writing. If there is any slight deviation in even one small part of any one letter, the entire mezuzah is not kosher. This same Halachah applies to tefillin and Torah scrolls.

The essence of the mitzvah of mezuzah is the concept of the Oneness of G-d. The very first verse written on the mezuzah is the Shema: "Hear oh Israel, the L-rd is our G-d, the L-rd is One." When we pass a doorpost, we touch the mezuzah and remember that G-d is One: a Oneness that is perfect and unique, a Oneness that is not one of many, nor one of a species. G-d is One without parts, partners, copies, or any divisions whatsoever.

Q: What are tefillin?

A: The Torah commands us to write a certain four chapters on parchment and insert them into two specially constructed leather boxes. While the mitzvah of mezuzah has only a few minor Laws about the casings in which they are placed, this is not so with tefillin. Both the insides and the outside of tefillin are heavily regulated by Halachah.

The entire tefillin must consist of kosher animal products, including the attached straps we wrap around our arms and heads. The boxes must be perfectly square, and constructed according to certain specifications.

Each morning, all male Jews aged thirteen or older don these tefillin and pray the morning prayers while wearing them. First the tefillin of the hand is placed on the biceps, so that when the arm is held close to the body, the tefillin more or less faces the heart. Then the strap is wrapped around the arm from the biceps to the wrist, according to specific customs. Next, the tefillin for the head is placed on the head just above the hairline, in a direct line above the nose (but not behind the anterior fontanelle). The strap is then adjusted around the head, which also helps prevent the tefillin from falling off the head. Finally, the hand strap is wound around the fingers. Ultimately, the placement of the strap around the arm and fingers will spell out one of the Names of G-d.

It is forbidden to engage in any mundane activity while wearing tefillin.

The essence of the mitzvah of tefillin is embodied in the concepts written in the four Biblical chapters contained within the tefillin. The concepts are three of the most prominent fundamentals of the Jewish Faith: acceptance of the yoke of Heavenly sovereignty; the Oneness of G-d; and the Exodus from Egypt.

The term "tefillin" is not found in the Torah, but is rather an Aramaic word used by the Talmud. The word used in the Torah is "totafot." The King James version of the Bible incorrectly translates it as "phylacteries," which means "amulets."

Q: Why do some Jews write "G-d," instead of spelling it out?

A: The Halachah says that it is forbidden to deface or desecrate the Name of G-d in any way, or to cause any possibility thereof. Some Rabbis are of the opinion that this applies to the word "G-d" in any language. Many therefore do not write the Name of G-d where someone might throw it out.

This Law has nothing to do with taking G-d's Name in vain; that refers only to speech.

Q: What is Kosher?

A: (Kosher, adj. - Kashrut, or Kashrus, noun.) Literally, the word "kosher" means properly prepared, and thus you may see the term "kosher mezuzah," or "kosher tefillin." In the specific sense, Kashrus is most often used to refer to the Jewish Dietary Laws. This is a rather complex set of rules and regulations, involving both Biblical Laws and Rabbinical extensions.

The Laws of Kashrus involve three major aspects, which I have labeled Determination, Preparation, and Exclusion. (These are not standard terms; I am using them until I discover better or more standard terms.)

Determination: The process of Determination is concerned with the source of the food. All meat must be from those species designated by the Torah as kosher. Each form of living creature has its own rules of determination. An animal must chew its cud and have cloven hooves. A fish must have fins and scales. In the case of fowl, the determination criteria are too complicated to enumerate here.

All food derivatives must be of kosher origin. For example, milk must come from a kosher animal, and eggs must come from either a kosher bird or a kosher fish.

Preparation: Before an animal or fowl may be eaten, it must be properly prepared. This involves the proper method of slaughter, checking for various diseases and blemishes, the elimination of certain forbidden portions (such as the sciatic nerve, the peritoneum, and others), and the extraction of the excess blood. There is no preparation necessary for fish.

Exclusion: Most regulated items may not be mixed with items of another class. The most well-known example is milk and meat. It is forbidden to cook, eat, or derive benefit from in any way, any mixture of dairy and meat. The Rabbis added the prohibition of mixing fowl and dairy, for fear that people might think it is also permitted to mix meat and dairy.

It is even forbidden to mix the taste of actual meat and milk. It is forbidden therefore, by Biblical Law, to use the same utensils for both meat and dairy, as the taste might be retained and added to the item being cooked.

It is also necessary to wait a certain period of time between the eating of the various types of foods. The duration of the waiting period depends on custom, which varies among communities, and also differs depending on the foods involved. (For more about the subject of kosher food, see my article "What's With Those Kosher Symbols Anyway?")

It is forbidden to mix fish and meat as well, but this was instituted as a health injunction. However, they may be eaten in the same meal, as long as one washes out one's mouth and eats something between the two. Some people have the same custom concerning fish and dairy.

And of course, all food must be cooked by a Jewish mother and applied in overabundance until you can no longer move. After which you must take home whatever hasn't been finished at the table.

[Continue to FAQ Part 2]

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