Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Your Questions Answered # 8

By Susan Esther Barnes

I have to say, I absolutely love some of the search terms people use to get to my blog. A lot of those search terms are questions. Because they are such great questions, I think they deserve an answer. In addition, it turns out these posts are among the most popular ones on my blog. So here is the latest installment of “Your Questions Answered.”

In Judaism, ritual where bread becomes flesh?
Great question. If you’re having trouble finding that ritual, it’s because there isn’t one. We say a blessing every time we eat bread. Translated from Hebrew, it says, “Blessed are you Adonai, ruler of the universe, who makes bread grow from the earth.” Of course, we know bread doesn’t grow directly from the earth – like many Hebrew prayers, it’s symbolic. At any rate, the bread remains bread. Anybody can eat it, whether or not they are Jewish.

We don’t turn loaves into fishes, either. We do, occasionally, turn bread into toast, but that’s not a Jewish ritual.

Similarly, we say a prayer over wine, “…creator of the fruit of the vine,” and the wine remains wine that anyone can drink. It doesn’t turn into blood or anything else.

Is it okay for Jewish people to bow to other people?
Yes. Jewish people may bow to people, but we may not bow to idols. If a person is holding an idol, or wearing a symbol of an idol on his/her clothing, a Jewish person isn’t supposed to bow to that person.

If Jews don’t believe in heaven, why lead a good life?
Some Jews believe in heaven, and some don’t. But what exists in this world, right now, is real. It matters. We lead a good life because we believe it’s important to try to make this world a better place for ourselves and for others. Many of us believe it’s what God wants from us. Many of us believe God commands us to lead a good life. Many of us just think it’s the right thing to do, and is worthwhile in its own right, whether or not we will get some other reward for it later on.

Can Jews eat pork before their bar mitzvah?
The term bar mitzvah means, “son of the commandments.” When a boy or girl reaches a certain age, he or she (whether there is a ceremony or not), becomes responsible for following the commandments. So, technically, a Jewish person could eat pork before then, and not be held responsible for it.

However, observant Jewish parents want to raise their children to follow the commandments, and not eating pork is one of the easy ones. So, they tend to start with the easy ones like not eating pork or shellfish, not murdering anyone, etc., and then help the kids to work their way up to doing the harder ones, like comforting mourners, and not gossiping.

Why is it important to study the Torah in Hebrew?
It’s absolutely true that something always gets lost in the translation. When you’re talking about Torah, a lot gets lost in the translation. As the saying goes, “Reading the Torah through a translation is like kissing someone through a towel.”

Even the names in the Torah give the text a deeper meaning. For instance, the name “Ya’acov” is usually translated in English as “Jacob.” Jacob is a twin, and when he is born, he is holding onto his twin brother’s heel. If you have only read the Torah in English, you may have forgotten that (seemingly unimportant) fact. But if you read it in Hebrew, you would be reminded about it over and over, because the name “Ya’acov” means “heel” in Hebrew. It makes you wonder, “What about holding onto his brother’s heel is so important that it became his name?” Something that may seem trivial in translation suddenly reveals itself as a central idea.

Sometimes, people make a big deal about something from the Torah, using a translation, without realizing that the translation may not be accurate. Many people are familiar with the translation, “Thou shalt not kill,” when it really says something closer to “Don’t kill someone illegally,” or “Don’t murder.” Similarly, many scholars believe the commandment not to “covet” your neighbor’s wife is probably actually saying not to “take” her. That makes much more sense in the context of the other commandments, which are all about actions – not feelings (which we can’t control, anyway).

There are many other meaningful names, word plays, and hard-to-translate words and phrases in the Torah that we might miss or that can lead us astray if we’re only reading a translation. So learning and studying in Hebrew is the best way to go.

However, if you don’t know Hebrew, don’t give up! A good Torah commentary and a good Torah study partner or group can help you to notice some of the things you may otherwise miss.

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 coming here via those interesting search terms.

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