Friday, September 29, 2006


Dedicated in honor of Jeff Asher, a ready friend and righteous advocate.

Question for the table: Why fast on Yom Kippur?

A. To cleanse ourselves via suffering.
B. To tell God that we’re really, really sorry.
C. Because we’re supposed to, stop asking questions.
D. Tradition!

Answer: (E) None of the above. Read on.

What are the three things every Jew needs to know about Yom Kippur?

Before I tell you, I have a request and a story.

Here is the request:

The reason that my wife and I decided to stay in America rather than return to Israel in 2003 was because of the crazy idea that the Art of Amazement book and seminars could help more people if we stuck around to promote it.

So far, it has been a success. The first two editions sold out, and the new Penguin edition seems to have reached a lot of people.

The problem is keeping it in print and on the shelves. How useful will the book be if it goes out of print? Or even if it's in print, if it's not available in the bookstores?

In order for Borders and Barnes and Noble (or any bookseller) to stock the book, it has to generate a certain threshold of sales. No one knows what this threshold is. According to one expert I consulted, selling a few copies per month in a given store is enough to keep it on the shelves. Another expert opined that a national chain may require only 5-10 copies a month in an entire region to consider a book viable.

Where you come in: would you help me and your fellow tribesmen by buying one copy a month from a local bookseller and finding someone to give it to? I assure you, I will not benefit financially from this. But keeping this book afloat is a major facet of my non-profit mission, and I am asking you directly to help make it a success. (If you agree and would like a separate monthly reminder, please email me at bookclub (at) jsli (dot) org.) Thank you.

Now here is the story.

When I first arrived in Israel years ago to study, it was the night before Yom Kippur. I showed up at the door of some old family friends in Jerusalem. They were, by our standards, very religious, although I’m pretty sure they didn’t see themselves that way. I didn’t have a clue what they were doing, but they handed me an English-Hebrew prayer book and said, “Listen, this is what we’re going to be doing; if you want to participate, here’s your guidebook.”

The anthropologist in me went gung-ho into the experience. I did everything they did. I didn’t eat for 25 hours, nor did I bathe or even wash my face. That was the easy part. The hardest part was not drinking for 25 hours. That was really hard – I don’t think we ever fasted from water when I was a kid. But completely abstaining from all food and drink is essential to a great Yom Kippur. It’s hard to transcend your body when you keep feeding it. Only after about 23 hours of complete fasting does that transcendent feeling kick in.

Since it was my first time, I didn’t know what to expect, and at the very end of the day, just before sunset, I completely forgot about my hunger and thirst. My parched mouth became an asset rather than a hindrance as I felt myself detaching from it. The “Aveenu Malkeinu” prayer vibrated from my feet to my head. I felt like I was floating.

Then, after sunset, something totally unexpected happened. Somebody in the synagogue blew a single sustained note on the shofar that lifted my heart even higher than I thought I could go. That sound carried my deepest aspirations upwards to infinity. I was parched, but in tears. They weren’t even Jewish tears. Just simple human tears of joy from self-realization.

Three steps to a great Yom Kippur:

1. Start with the bottom line.

The bottom line for Yom Kippur is that you want to end up with a new or improved behavior. You need to identify one mitzvah that you know you could be doing better. Maybe it’s controlling your anger. Maybe it’s giving tzedakah (10% of your net income to charity). Maybe it’s being on time. Make your list of what needs to be fixed. Your list should include things that other people are doing that you may have the power to work against (exploitation, gossip, etc.) You’re going to use this full list on Yom Kippur.

(Someone told me the other day that she had a disappointing Rosh Hashana. That’s too bad, but if so, it’s important to try to get the message of Rosh Hashana in your mind before Yom Kippur. Try this short propaganda film about Jewish ID).

The bottom line is that that area or those areas where you are finding it most difficult to change are possibly the main purpose of your being put back on this planet, to fix them. This is the purpose of your life!

2. Say “I’m sorry” to everyone who needs to hear it.

Here is a better (and funnier) explanation than I could ever make, from Stephen Colbert:

3. Commit to a serious change.

If one of the things that a person is trying to change is to quit smoking, or to stop shouting, or to stop any particular behavior, it’s not a serious commitment unless you have a plan. What are you going to do differently in order to avoid that behavior. If you’re serious about improving yourself, you won’t wait until the challenge comes – you’ll make a plan for steering away from the challenge. I would limit my plan to one or two areas. This is a great exercise to do with kids, to get them to find one area of improvement and make a plan.

4. Give Tzeddaka

“Hey – I thought there were only supposed to be three!”

Well, you know, the world needs more tzeddaka. You need to give more tzeddaka. It’s good for you, and it’s good for the world. These days before Yom Kippur are the final chance to fix your karma for the coming year. A few extra rubles in the pushke are good for you. Try it, it actually feels good, especially if you’re helping someone who is hungry for food or spiritual connection. Give generously these last few days and it will come back to you manifold. Giving generates good karma. Don’t hold back. Write those checks to those charities. They need it, but you need it more.


The goal of the fast is to help us transcend our bodies. For our bodies are the source of most of our regrettable choices. If you want a meaningful meditation to get you there, try getting a good Yom Kippur book, such as the Artscroll books Machzor, Yom Kippur, or Jonah (ask at your local Jewish bookshop or go to Spend as much time as you can engrossed in these texts. Read them, chant them, contemplate them, interspersed with contemplating your list.

Here’s another YK film, upbeat and musical:

(That thing he does at the end - “tekia gedola” - that means the long shofar blast at the end of Yom Kippur that I told you about above.)

By the time you get to the late afternoon, you will be ready for some serious movement. Get up on your feet and declare your regret for the shortcomings on your list and your desire to wipe the slate clean.

Measure of success?

How you behave immediately after YK, starting with how you break the fast. Be deliberate, be mindful, be thankful, be joyful, be generous.

If I have offended you this past year in any way, please let me know so that I can apologize. Better yet, hit me with a pre-emptive forgiveness and save us both some time. My toll-free hotline (you'll get it only if you watched the Colbert film) is 650-799-5564.

Wishing you an uplifting Yom Kippur and beyond!

Shabbat Shalom.

PS: tips for an easy fast:
Stop drinking coffee for two days prior.
1. Hold off on eating Saturday and Sunday until mid-day. When Monday morning comes, your body won’t pine for food so early.
2. Have a satisfying meal Sunday around 4 pm that is not too salty and no alcohol.
3. Make sure you are fully hydrated by 6 pm Sunday. Load up on grapes that are cut in half and swallowed without chewing.
4. Get a very good night’s sleep if you can.

(Table Talk is a product of Jewish Spiritual Literacy, Inc, a 501c3 non-profit organization and is made possible thanks to generous support from readers like you. This is shareware - if you find it useful, please become an official member with a tax-deductible contribution at one of the addresses below.)

To be added or removed from this list, send an email. Our database is not online and never shared.

Rabbi Alexander Seinfeld
Jewish Spiritual Literacy, Inc.
5814 Narcissus Ave
Baltimore, MD 21215
Paypal: donate (at) jsli (dot) org
A 501(c)3 organization.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Staying Awake on Rosh Hashana

This Table Talk is dedicated in honor of Marc and Lily Sarosi of Mill Valley, California, who have done so much to bring Jewish learning into their lives and their community. To dedicate a future Table Talk, please write tabletalk at (change the "at" to an "@".

What's Rosh Hashana?

It's the Jewish New Year, right?


That's actually a lie.

First of all, according to the Talmud, it's not just for Jews, and moreover, there are four "new years"....

So what's the Rosh Hashana that is happening this weekend all about?

It's the day when our karma is fixed for the coming year. That means that how we think and act on Rosh Hashana (from tonight through Sunday) will affect us the next 12 months.

So ask at your table: What kind of year do you want to have? Happy? Then act happy. Patient? Then act patient. Mindful? Then act mindful. Zealous? Then don't take a nap. Thankful? Then make a bracha on your food. Prosperous? Then be generous of spirit and pocket (now you know why there is a universal Jewish custom of increasing charitable donations from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur).

Everything you do should be oriented towards this positive thinking, which is why we eat sweet foods on Rosh Hashana.

So in the spirit of the day, try teaching this song to your table that I learned from my kids:
    Dip the apple
    in the honey
    make a bracha
    loud and clear
    Shana tova
    have a happy
    sweet new year.
    (sung to the tune of "Oh My Darlin' Clementine")

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Every Jewish holiday commemorates something, right?
  • Passover – going out of Egypt
  • Shavuot – Mount Sinai
  • Hannukah – the Maccabean War
  • Rosh Hashana - ??
What seminal event marked the first Rosh Hashana?

According to a popular misconception, Hebrew tradition claims that Rosh Hashana marks the origin of the cosmos 5,767 years ago. Based on this answer, it’s easy to dismiss the entire Torah (which is the foundation of all of Judaism) as fable, because it claims that only 5,767 years have passed since the first Rosh Hashana.

In fact, Jewish tradition states categorically that our 5,767-year-old calendar begins not with the cosmos but with primordial "Adam" and “Eve”. It’s easy to get the number: the Torah mentions everyone’s lifespan and how old they were when their children were born. Second-grade math.

Now, according to Judaism, who were Adam and Eve? Nowhere does the Torah say that they were the first homo sapiens. All that we know from the Torah is that they were the last creatures created. Moreover, according to Medieval rabbinic sources (who claim to be transmitting ancient tradition), upon the advent of Adam and Eve there were other human-like creatures running around.

Thus, it is entirely consistent with Jewish tradition to understand Adam and Eve not as the first people but the first people with a certain kind of awareness or mental capacity – we might call it “Divine” or “transcendental” awareness: that is, an ability to conceptualize and relate to an Infinite Creator.

To reiterate: Rosh Hashana commemorates the advent of God-conscious humans some 5,767 years ago, according to Jewish oral tradition. It’s interesting that that number coincides with the approximate advent of civilization in the Middle East. That coincidence is enough food for thought for Rosh Hashana. But there’s more.

A year ago, the New York Times reported a remarkable discovery (”Researchers say human brain is still evolving,” September 9, 2005). It seems that there is new scientific evidence that a human genetic change occurred in the middle-East about 5,800 years ago which enhanced higher brain functions. Interesting coincidence.

What makes the dating coincidence even more interesting is recent research upholding the veracity of oral traditions in oral cultures. It's easy for a modern literate society to dismiss such legends as mythological, but it seems that ancient minds were far more adept than we at retaining information accurately via oral transmission. If so, then it should not at all surprise us that the descendents of the genetically enhanced humans would have retained an accurate tradition about the historicity of their genetic line.

How does this view of history and Judaism affect our understanding of Rosh Hashana?

First of all, Rosh Hashana is not the Jewish New Year. It’s humanity’s New Year. (When I first learned that I started wishing my Gentile friends a Happy New Year around Rosh Hashana time. I got a lot of blank stares and quickly abandoned the practice.)

But the Talmud makes an explicit point: what happens on Rosh Hashana affects not just Jews but the entire world.

What happens? The first day of the year, like other first steps, is an opportunity to set the course of the next 12 months’ journey. Like sending a rocket into space, getting the initial coordinates right is crucial to the long-term goal. You get that liftoff wrong by one degree and a few months later the rocket will be millions of miles off-course. Rosh Hashana is a unique day in the annual cycle of life to check the compass and make adjustments. How we conduct ourselves on Rosh Hashana will, according to the Talmud, fix our karma for the entire year.

That’s heavy. It’s an awesome opportunity, and worth a few minutes of preparation. Here’s what to do.

Before the holiday begins, try to define what you’re living for. What are your greatest aspirations? What gives your life the most meaning? Work it out. Get it clear. But don't think that this clarity will happen automatically. You have to set aside some time to THINK.

Then, on Rosh Hashana itself, whether or not you go to synagogue, spend some serious time contemplating and internalizing your life mission. The more you can get it ingrained in your brain, the more you will be able to live and work toward that mission in the coming year.

Wishing you and yours a happy, healthy, peaceful, sweetly challenging year to come.

(For a copy of my flyer, “20 Questions to Ask Yourself on Rosh Hashana”, send an email to RHQ at - change the "at" to an "@")

Here is a link to my Rosh Hashana / Yom Kippur classes this week:

Mill Valley, Calif., 60 min.

(Table Talk is a product of Jewish Spiritual Literacy, Inc, a 501c3 non-profit organization which is made possible thanks to readers like you. This is shareware - if you find it useful, please consider becoming an official member with a tax-deductible contribution at one of the addresses below.)

Jewish Spiritual Literacy, Inc.
5814 Narcissus Ave
Baltimore, MD 21215

Friday, September 15, 2006

Fear (a Pre-Rosh Hashana Primer)

This week's Table Talk is dedicated by Gregg Jackson and family in memory of their beloved grandfather, Teddy Niad for his survival and perseverance through the holocaust, and being a loving father, husband, grandfather , brother and Jew. May his dedication and passion to these be examples and motivation for our family and all who knew him.

To dedicate a future Table Talk, or to make a small contribution to say "thank you" for the weekly message and to support the work of Jewish Spiritual Literacy, please see below.

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There once was a king who had a castle that he wanted to give to his son. But this castle was very special: it was at the center of the kingdom, and everyone saw it as the symbol of the kingship. So the king told the son that he could only live there if he followed certain rules, a certain decorum. The castle could not be used for wild parties or immoral behavior. It had to be a place of dignity and righteousness.

The king even warned his son that if he did not live according to these rules, he would have to leave the castle. And to help him remember the rules, the king added a rule that the prince should study the rules - even a little bit - every day.

Well, the son agreed, but after a few years something changed. One day he was very busy with his princely duties and said to himself, "I know all the rules already, I think I can skip one day of studying so that I can get my work done. After all, I'll pick it up tomorrow."

Can you guess what happened? It felt so good to have that extra time in the day that the next day he made the same excuse and skipped the studying. Soon, after not too many days, he had given up the studying altogether. But he kept telling himself, "that's OK, I know all the rules already".

Over time, someone asked the prince if he would like to hang a certain picture in the castle. He liked the picture and thought it would be nice in the castle, and he forgot that there was a rule against having exactly this kind of picture.

As time went on, little by little, he started to do things in the castle that the king had expressly forbidden. And little by little the castle became a less-dignified place where immoral and unrighteous things were happening.

The king knew what was going on, but he loved his son and wanted to help him stay in the castle. So he sent him a stern message that said: "Your stay in this castle is not a right, it's a privilege. If you don't shape up, you're going to ship out!"

The prince was scared, and for a short time, he thought seriously about his behavior, and for a short time, got seriously back into studying the rules again. But soon the memory of the comfortable times when studying wasn't so important came back to him.

What would you advise this prince? How can he get out of the cycle of laziness, warnings and fear?

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What are you afraid of every day?

Please rank your fears in order of greatest to least:

  • A speeding ticket
  • Global warming
  • Losing money
  • Gaining weight
  • Dying
  • A loved one dying
  • Other ______

Just a month ago or so, many of us were afraid for the future of Israel. It was a terrible time, and the effects are still being felt. The Jews I know in Israel were completely prepared to suffer for a few weeks for the sake of a decisive destruction of the missiles and the ammo supply-route from Syria. That did not happen, they rained rockets with the intent to murder civilians, and Israel was not able to stop them.

And so the people who hate us and want to destroy Israel and the Jewish People are still there with the capacity and desire to hurt us bad. And their blood-brothers across the Euphrates are probably building the capacity to carry out their leader's public wish to destroy the Jews.

What is the spiritual message in all this?

First of all, the world is divided into two kinds of people: those who do good out of fear and those who do good out of love of goodness.

For example, it is a fact that more Israelis have been killed in automobile accidents than all the wars and terror attacks combined. What causes all these accidents? The Citizens for Safe Roads are of the opinion that the primary cause is excessive speed.

However (typically), it was not enough to point to the wisdom gained in America about the benefits of enforcing speed limits. The Israeli government wanted to see an Israeli test. So the Citizens for Safe Roads worked with the police to set up a speed trap on a certain stretch of highway near Tel Aviv.

The fist week, they issued some 2,000 tickets. The second week, it was more like 200.

The lesson? People are most motivated by fear.

Now, please work with me for a minute. Let's pretend you're a parent of children whom you naturally care about very much. And the thing you care about most is that they grow into healthy well-rounded adults of sound judgment. But the world is full of truly harmful things, so you give your children strong guidelines to help them avoid truly destructive behavior, such as walking across the street without looking, drugs and alcohol, and so on.

What do you do when your child starts running into the street without looking?

If he's old enough to know better but too young to reason with, I hope you would give him you give him a very harsh response. If you care about him you certainly will. Something harsh enough to significantly diminish the chance of him doing it again.

I did this with at least one of our children. He was six years old, old enough we felt to cross our residential street on his own, and yet I saw him run across without looking. He got chewed out so strongly that it brought him to tears. And he got the message.

The source of our modern connection to the Land of Israel is the Torah. Besides idolatry, the Promised Land is probably the most prevalent theme. But that same Torah states at least twenty times that our privilege of living in the Land depends upon our behavior. If we behave morally and righteously, we get to stay. If not, we ship out. The Torah in fact mentions specific behaviors that we should cultivate and others that we should avoid. Many of these you can probably guess.

Let's go back to our prince in the castle. His problem is that he is only motivated by fear. The king's problem is that the prince is only motivated by fear. Fear means that as long as there is a perception of danger, then I change my behavior, but if the living is too easy, I easily get lazy.

The only solution to this problem is for the prince to return to the dignified model of princeliness that he was raised with. If he can envision the castle's potential and his own potential for dignity, and if he can cultivate the desire to get closer to the king in heart and mind, then that vision can motivate him to live according to the high standards and avoid the unbefitting behavior.

If he can reach that level in his mind and heart, then the king will have no reason to send his son harsh, threatening, painful messages. The son will have become worthy of his place in the kingdom.

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Rosh Hashana is not about dwelling on my mistakes. It is about envisioning my potential - the kind of person I want to become in five or ten years. I will say more about this next week.

In the meantime, please do this homework:

Write a short paragraph answering one or more of the following questions:

1. What kind of person you would like to be in five or ten years.
2. What are you living for?
3. What would give you more pleasure than anything else in the world?

4. What is missing from your life that you wish you had, or did?

When you finish this exercise, watch this short video on and then review what you wrote.

We've all had the wake-up call. The missiles fell, the planet is warming up, etc. etc. Does global warming motivate you to change your behavior? It probably does because you can perceive a direct connection between human behavior and the environment. What about falling missiles? What about anti-Semitism? If you're less sure of the connection, I wouldn't expect you to change your behavior so quickly. But I would expect you to investigate what it means to live as a dignified prince, and to do everything you can to help the entire Jewish People learn what that means.

If you do nothing else for Rosh Hashana, please do this: make a commitment to give ten percent of your income to Jewish education at any level, both locally and in the Land of Israel.

Shabbat Shalom.

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Friday, September 08, 2006

Will the Real Bat Mitzvah Please Stand Up?

I have two trivia questions for the table.

Question #1:

When does a girl have her bat mitzvah?

It's actually a trick question. Asking when a girl or boy has a bat or bar mitzvah is like asking when does a girl or boy have an adult. You don't have a bar/bat mitzvah, you become bar/bat mitzvah.

OK, so let's rephrase the question:

When does a girl become bat mitzvah?

The answer, like most things Jewish, depends on whom you ask.

In the olden days, and in traditional communities today, it was and is understood that girls mature faster than boys, so they reach the age of responsibility at 12, while boys get there at 13.

Then, in the modern world when some groups of Jews wanted to equalize everyone, they decided that girls should wait until they become 13 to celebrate, just like boys. I still haven't figured out why they chose to make girls like boys rather than vice-versa. Maybe they felt that modern girls aren't ready for the responsibilities of mitzvahs as early as they used to be. But if that's the case, perhaps boys should wait until they're 14...?

Question #2:

What is the appropriate way to celebrate a girl's becoming bat mitzvah?

Here is a newspaper story about one interpretation of this rite of passage. I daresay that most of my readers would shudder at this one.

In contrast to that story, my niece Kate is celebrating her bat mitzvah this weekend in real style. In lieu of gifts, she has asked her family and friends to make a donation to a local charity that cares for hungry people.

(I have to admit that we cheated. In addition to our charitable donation, we sent her a gift (I hope she's not reading this). We sent her a book set that I would recommend to anyone who wants to taste the monthly ebb and flow of the Jewish annual cycle. It's called Book of our Heritage by Eliyahu Kitov. It's written for adults, but I think that a bright 12- (or 13) year-old girl would be ready to sink her teeth into it.)

For the rest of us, even those who don't know Kate, her becoming bat mitzvah is a big deal. Because now - or ever since her 12th birthday - her mitzvahs count. Until children reach bar/bat mitzvah, they are "in training". As soon as they hit that magic birthday, their spiritual actions - such as lighting Shabbat candles, giving tzeddakah, making a bracha, loving their neighbor, honoring their parents - have spiritual or karmic consequences. This is serious stuff for those who believe in this stuff. A bat mitzvah - that is, any woman who is 12 years or older - can create spiritual tikkunim or reparations with her mitzvahs that a younger girl cannot.

So Kate's and her family's mazal tov is everyone's mazal tov...The world needs all the mitzvahs we can get. Mazal tov Kate!

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, September 01, 2006

The Kindness Experiment

This Table Talk is not sponsored. To dedicate a future Table Talk, write

Last Mother's Day, inspired my compassionate mother, I started a kindness experiment.

I gave 100 people 1/2 of a blue index card. I gave them the following challenge:

“Can you think of five people with whom you know you should be more in contact? Could be a neighbor, a cousin, a former co-worker, anyone! Please write their names on this card and stick it in your wallet. Then, next time you find yourself in line at the grocery store trying not to look at the magazines, pull out this card and your cellphone and make a call. Let them know that you’ve been thinking of them, find out what’s going on in their life.”

Lately I’ve been phoning my “research subjects” to find out if they’ve been using the card.

+ 60% are using the card weekly.
+ 30% agree that they should be using the card.

I’ve heard some inspiring stories. Some are picking up the phone and getting in touch with distant cousins; some are inviting people for Friday night dinner, others are talking to their neighbors more. Several have started or joined weekly Jewish study-groups in order to bring people together.

What about the other 10 percent? They consist of two sorts: the introverts who just don’t like doing this sort of thing, and the extroverts who were already maxed-out on their relationships. So to both of these, I have started to challenge them to teach five other people about the blue card. So far, everyone has accepted the challenge.

For your table: Can you name 5 people whom you know you should be more in touch with? Can you inspire someone else to name 5?

If you agree that this is a good idea, and would like to commit to making your own “Blue Card”, please let me know and I’ll volunteer to nudnik you in a few weeks about it.

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I would like to offer you the opportunity to hear my newest audio recording,

The Art of Amazement Part 3: Being Good (Or: the Art of Not Caring What They Think).

Based on Chapter 7 of the book, it was recorded in a studio last winter, and I am now seeking criticism before producing the CDs for The mp3 beta-version can be streamed or downloaded here.

Your feedback would be most appreciated!

(PS – there is an opportunity to dedicate this CD in honor or memory of a loved one).

Shabbat Shalom.