Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Your Questions Answered #4

By Susan Esther Barnes

One of the fun things about getting website statistics for my blog is I get to see the search terms people use to get here. A lot of those search terms are questions. You have some great questions, and I think they deserve an answer. So here is the fourth installment of “Your Questions Answered.”

What is the relevance of kissing as a religious ritual?
I love this question. For one answer, look at the very first post
on my blog, in which I explain the meaning of the name of my blog and what it means to me when I kiss a mezuzah.

If you attend a synagogue service, most likely you will see Jews kiss ritual objects, such as the Torah scroll or the neckband of their tallit (prayer shawl) before they put it on. If a siddur (prayer book) falls on the ground, you might see a person kiss it right after they pick it up.

The relevance of the kiss is to show love and respect for the ritual object. It is a way to show that we recognize these things as holy, beyond the holiness we seek to acknowledge in everything and everyone.

What other people use the Torah?
In general, you will only see Jews using a Sefer Torah, or a Torah scroll, which is written on parchment in Hebrew, and contains the five books of Moses. The Hebrew Bible, or Tanach, contains everything in the Sefer Torah as well as the Prophets and the Writings.

Secular people and people of various religions study the Tanach for various reasons. The contents of the Hebrew Bible are included in the Christian Bible, so Christians “use” it, too, although the chapters are in a different order, and Christians usually read the Torah (they call it the “old testament”) in a translation instead of the original Hebrew and Aramaic.

What does “chevra” mean?
Chevra is Hebrew for “society” or a group of people. It comes from the Hebrew word for “friend.” A “chevra kadisha” is a “holy society.” This is the group of people who visit the sick, and who prepare the dead for burial, including ritually washing the body, dressing him/her, and placing the body in the casket.

Refua shlema translation
“Refua shlema” is Hebrew for a “complete healing.” You might also hear it said as a “healing of body and a healing of spirit.” A wish for a refua shlema can be applied to someone suffering from a physical or mental illness, or to someone who is in any kind of distress. It can be used to wish them comfort and spiritual strength even in cases where a physical healing appears unlikely.

How long does a mourning minyan last?
The first seven days after a loved one is buried is called the shiva period. The word “shiva” means “seven” in Hebrew. It is customary for the loved one’s family to hold shiva minyans during the mourning period. (A “minyan” is a group of 10 Jews, which is the minimum number required to say certain prayers).

The length of a shiva minyan service can vary, based on the number of prayers that are said, and how fast they are recited. Also, there is often time set aside during the service for friends and family to talk about the person who has died, and the amount of time used for that can vary.

If you are going to attend a shiva minyan, you can expect the service to last at least a half an hour, and probably not more than an hour. It may not start exactly on time, and you will probably want to allow yourself extra time to express your condolences to the family. In addition, depending on the customs of the community, many of those coming to the service may bring food for the family to eat, and there may be food set out for those coming to the service.

How to thank clergy for a shiva service
It’s great that someone in mourning is thinking about thanking the clergy. On the one hand, it’s their job to do this, and you don’t really need to thank them. On the other hand, they are human, and it’s nice for them to know they are not being taken for granted.

You would thank them just like you would for anything else. You can thank them verbally at the time of the service, or you can call them or send them a note afterward. You might also consider making a donation in memory of the deceased to the synagogue where the clergy person works.

Keep those questions coming!
I would love to answer more of your questions, so feel free to ask some in the comments section below, or just keep going with those interesting search terms.

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