Tartu Torah


Today at sundown begins Shemini Atzeret, which I alluded to in my earlier entry. In communities that mark one day of Yom Tov, this holiday is merged with Simchat Torah. In two-day communities (meaning non-Reform congregations outside Israel) the holidays remain separate. Or, more accurately, second-day Shemini Atzeret is the day on which Simchat Torah is observed. While I am more of a “one-day” person, this is the holiday(s) for which I make something of an exception. Both Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah deserve their day in the sun (or in the rain, as the case may be).

In honor of Simchat Torah, I am sharing two photos of an amazing experience from Tartu, Estonia. The experience occurred more than six years ago, but for whatever reason I do not think I have ever told it (at least not on line). Tartu to the hometown of Rein Taagepera, and we were visiting him during one of this extended stays back in his original university home. We enquired about Jewish communities and history.

Estonia never had as large a Jewish community as nearby lands, but most of it was destroyed due to the Nazi occupation. We were able to meet with two women, one young (and English speaking) and another much older with memories of the war period. So we heard the stories if what was, and what little is. One of the more remarkable things we were told was that the University of Tartu library had a Torah scroll from the pre-war era.

With help of locals, we were able to get a librarian to retrieve it from the archive. It took a while to find. It probably had not been opened for a very long time. We unrolled it. What a beautiful scroll. I hope it can be used by a community again some day, or at least put on display. The Torah never deserves to collect dust in a basement. It is part of the cycle of life, and on Simchat Torah, we end. And we begin.


Beautiful, and not so beautiful, fruit. And the coming of rain.

Today is the last day of Sukkot, the day known as Hoshannah Rabah. This day might be my favorite holiday, even granting that it is not technically a holiday (in the no-work, Yom Tov sense). Beating one’s willow twigs against a hard surface is quite fun and satisfying, actually. It has deep mystical origins.

Moreover, our forecast calls for rain tomorrow. Sometimes the rain really arrives on time.

Hoshannah Rabah, in Jewish tradition, is the day the world is judged for rain. And tomorrow, Shmini Atzeret, is the day we insert the prayer for rain every morning (till Pesach/Passover in spring).

We had some rain the day before Sukkot began, but it was just a tease. Fortunately it’s been great weather all week for dwelling in the sukkah, though it’s been quite chilly in the mornings! But a shift towards a wet pattern in the coming first post-Sukkot week week appears quite certain now.

[Aside: If you are one of my liberal and/or rationalist oriented readers, the idea of a ritual and prayers about rain probably strike you as… weird. So, let me ask: Do you recognize that our collective acts can have impact on the climate? So do I! And so have the scribes and teachers of the Jewish religion. So much so that one of the central statements of this idea appears in the Torah, at Deuteronomy 11: 13-17, and has been part of daily Jewish prayer services for generation upon generation. it is also “inscribed on the doorposts” via our homes’ mezuzot. These passages about climate consequences are in the second person plural in the Hebrew for a reason. The link at the end of the first paragraph above concludes with a personal postscript by the author about how this day’s service at one time did not sit well with his rational instincts, but has become a favorite, as it has for me.]

Of course, Sukkot is a seven-day festival. I am doing this blog post from our sukkah, enjoying the light patterns and rustling from wind in the trees.

In addition to the willow and myrtle twigs and palm-frond spine that make up the lulav, the festival is closely associated with the etrog (citron). Jewish tradition demands the finest examples of this unusual but beautiful citrus for use during Sukkot.

I never knew that there was some chance that the Christmas fruitcake tradition had some connection to the etrog before reading a fascinating post on Hard Core Mesorah.

I do want to correct one thing in the post, however, which is based on a common misconception about fruit hybridization.

[The etrog is] a fruit that must be grown intentionally, with careful planning involved. It is not incidental at all. This is because the etrog is a pure species of citrus fruit. It is one of the only three pure species of citrus fruit, the fruits that are only indigenous to Asia; they are the Mandarin, the Pomelo and the Etrog (citron). All other species of citrus fruits from our navel oranges to our tangerines are just crosses of these species. Citrus fruit so easily cross pollinate that there are a myriad of varieties of citrus fruit. Those of you who have citrus trees in your backyard know this, if you have various kinds they often mix and your tree comes out covered with mutations of orange and lemons for example.

Mostly fine, except that last point. If you have backyard citrus, you may indeed have seen a tree that produces both whatever you expected (an orange, a mandarin, a grapefruit, etc.) and some ugly hard-skinned lemon-like fruit. But that is not because of cross-pollination from another nearby type of citrus. If this happens, it is probably because the variety was grafted on a rootstock of ‘rough lemon’ (which is very commonly used, especially in older plantings). If the rootstock sends up a sucker from below the graft union, any resulting limb will produce a fruit that lives up to the name, rough lemon. (Cut these suckers off before they get that mature!)

Cross-pollination does not change the nature of the current generation of fruit that a tree produces (unless we are talking about something like pollination-variant persimmons, but we are not). The hybrid that might result from cross-pollination can be seen only when the fruit of the tree that grows from the seed of the current tree appears.

So it is not correct that “Pollination from afar can take hold and mutate the fruit until it not at all distinguishable, and surely not fit for proper use as food or in ritual.” There are many reasons an etrog might be unfit for ritual use. It might grow too close to another fruit or branch and be deformed. It might get attacked by insects as it is developing. Most authorities would not permit an etrog from a grafted tree (which implies one indeed must take care to avoid cross-pollination with a different citrus if one is propagating trees for future generations of etrogim.)

OK, that is this year’s fruit and Jewish ritual post. (I used to do a lot of these; may I be inspired to do more in the new year.)

Chag sameach.






Last day

It is the last day of baseball season, and also the last day of the Jewish year, 5776.

Actually, it might not be the last day of baseball season–depending on what happens today. I am writing this just before all the “final” day’s games are about to begin. We could still have a tiebreaker game tomorrow in either league, and those count as regular season games. We could even have a game from the original 162-game regular season tomorrow–the Indians and Tigers will make up a rainout if either the Tigers remain in contention for a Wild Card slot or the Indians need the game to decide seeding in the Division Series. And, while the Mariners’ loss yesterday ended the dream of a four-way tie for the AL’s two Wild Card berths, a three-way tie is still possible. That scenario would mean the regular season make-up game tomorrow, followed by tiebreaker games Tuesday and Wednesday to eliminate one of the three. We’ve never had a three-way tie for a postseason berth. The Tigers (and their rivals) have to cooperate both today and tomorrow to get us there. Why not cling to the 2016 regular season just a little longer?

As for 5776, there is no question it is the last day, ready or not. We will get to mark the new year, Rosh HaShannah 5777, with first fruits from our land. The bowl shown here contains the first two pomegranates and jujubes of the season, picked today. The ‘Bartlett’ pear is also the first, though these need to ripen of the tree; I picked it several days ago, and it is just now about ready to enjoy.

29 Elul 5776 fruits//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js

The bowl also contains small bunches of each of the red grapes of our property. I believe they are, from left to right, Syrah, Barbera, and Zinfandel. They were planted by the previous owner, so I am going by the map of the vineyard, which is not the easiest to read. The grapes are not “first” fruits, as we have been harvesting them for several weeks and are near the end now.

The pomegranates are, at top, an Ambrosia. It has split, as pomegranates often do, and may not actually be ripe yet. The other is an unknown variety–we have three, planted by the previous owner, and for only Ambrosia did a tag survive–and should be ripe. Here are some more Ambrosia on the tree, which set heavily this year, while the second photo below shows the other one, with a few of its lighter set.

Ambrosia 2//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js

Pom 2Oct2016//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js

The jujubes (‘Jew Jew Be’) are the first ever to ripen here, on a tree planted two years ago. They are of the ‘GA866’ variety. Not the snappiest name, but a great-tasting variety that I also grew when we lived in the San Diego area. The tree has grown well; look closely at this photo and you might see the one remaining fruit. Yes, its first crop was just three fruits. One must start somewhere.

Jujube 2Oct2016//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js 

Shanah Tovah. May we have a sweet and fruitful 5777! And an exciting end of the (extended) regular season and postseason!

Shemini Atzeret, 5776

Shemini Atzeret is a holiday dedicated traditionally to a core Jewish principle–so core it is at the center* of daily morning prayers (although not in a Reform prayerbook, unfortunately): that our actions affect the climate, including whether we get the rainfall we need. It’s not a crazy liberal-lefty idea; it’s an ancient religious one, more relevant toady than ever.

An article in JTA, “Why Shemini Atzeret is the pinnacle of the High Holidays season“, summarizes why I find the “closing” holiday of this season so meaningful. It is sad, in a way to me, that it starts with the phrase, “You might not know it…” Indeed, the holiday seems almost unknown to many Jews who do not engage in synagogue life or who do so through a Reform framework.** Knowledge of the meaning of the holiday is not helped by the fact that Simchat Torah–which really just originated as a way to celebrate second-day Shemini Atzeret in the Diaspora–has taken over the original holiday’s purpose, especially but not only in Reform Jewish communities in the US. Yet it is actually a holiday with a very important, central message, to be celebrated and taken seriously in its own right.

Chag sameach.


* See the section at that link that is from Deuteronomy 11.

** Nothing against Reform, per se. They get many things right, including not having two days of holidays (other than Rosh HaShannah).

Oats and Passover

Each Pesach (Passover), I find myself wondering how it could be that oats are one of the grains which Jews are not to eat during the Feast of the Unleavened Bread, unless in the form of matzah. In the field–and those who originally developed the laws certainly knew their fields–oats do not look anything like wheat or barley, which are two key grains that everyone agrees come under the restriction.

Balashon (a great blog on Hebrew word origins) notes:

[In] Jewish law, there are five species of grain in the Land of Israel that have special laws relating to them – what blessing is made, can they be used to make matza (or do they constitute chametz), must one “separate challah” with bread made from them, and more. As described in the Mishna (Hallah 1:1), the five grains are:

החיטים, והשעורים, והכוסמין, ושיבולת שועל והשיפון

chitim, seorim, kusmin, shibolet shual, shifon

The first two, chitim and seorim, are wheat and barley. Shibolet shual is generally understood to be oats, even if the more common term in modern Hebrew is apparently kvaker (a transliteration of Quaker!).

It is likely that shibolet shual is actually another type of barley–some authorities say it is two-row barley, as opposed to the 4 or 6-row type meant by seorim (as explained at the same Balashon post). There is also a controversy over what shifon is. Usually it is said to be rye, others say spelt. Neither is likely, as these grains were apparently not grown in the ancient Land of Israel, Egypt, or the other lands in which these traditions originate. Emer wheat is one good possibility, notes Balashon. The word in modern Hebrew means buckwheat, but “Unlike shibolet shual and shifon, there’s no halachic opinion that buckwheat is one of the five grains.” So if we can agree that buckwheat is too distinctive from wheat and barley to be subject to the matzah laws of Pesach, despite the etymological confusion, why not oats? They are also a very different plant.

Oats, when they are about to be harvested, look like this:

Oat farm

Wheat and barley (and rye and spelt, among others) look more like this (especially the stalk in the lower left):

I don’t actually know what grains we are looking at in that picture. There are several grains here, including some oats. But the main stalks you see there are not oats, and it should be pretty obvious how different most of what you see in this picture is from the the field shown in the first.

Oats rise above the other grains that sprout in our fields.*


Here is hoping we can at last rise above the prohibition on oats,** which is quite likely based on a historical error. Given how difficult it is to get across the point that beans, rice, and other “kitniyot” should not be banned during Pesach, I am not optimistic about the great oat shake-up that I am advocating.

Anyway, Chag Sameach!


* All photos in this post are from our property, except for the first one, which is of the oat farm across the road from us. In each case, you may click the image to see a larger version. And there are several more grainy photos at the Flickr site.

** One big advantage: it would make life easier for those who are gluten-intolerant, and eat oats as a result of the fact that oats do not have gluten. (Some gluten-sensitive people need to get oats that are gluten-free, which I assume means not cross-contaminated, given that the grains that actually have the offending gluten–wheat, barely, etc.–can’t be made free of it. Disclaimer: I am not giving medical or dietary advice here, nor am I a plant geneticist!)

My preference for reclassifying oats would also have the consequence of rendering some products no longer halachically acceptable at the Pesach seder. So, in that sense, it would make life for the gluten-intolerant more difficult! I guess we can’t have it both ways: if oats are not shibolet shual and are not related to the other grains, such that all of the species relevant to Pesach rituals are (inadvertently) those with gluten, then you can’t satisfy the mitzvah of matzah with oat products. However, under the reclassification of oats, you would get to eat your oat granola all through the festival week! (Further disclaimer: I am not giving halachic advice, either! But not counting oats as one of the five species is my practice.)