A-Z OF JEWISH VALUES -
The first Hebrew words you learn to say – as a child –
or whenever you begin learning is a berachah, a blessing.
One of the first berachot you learn is Hamotzi. Blessed are you, Eternal our God
Sovereign of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the earth – haMotzi
lechem min haAretz.
Simple enough – and quite beautiful to express thanks and appreciation in this
way for food – the berachah covers a whole meal, but since it is specifically
for bread, it’s customary to have bread before a meal, so that you can say the
But that’s not all… if you say the
berachah before a meal, it’s the done thing to do the bensching, the Grace after
Meals afterwards. And also if you say haMotzi, there’s something to be done
before haMotzi – and that’s wash your hands, and as you wash your hands you say
a berachah: al netilat yadayim, meaning ‘for pouring over the hands’, you pour
the water over each hand, front and back beginning with the right hand 3 times
each hand in succession.
And – this is the difficult bit – you don’t talk in between the blessings –
because they constitute one action – you keep shtum until you have said hamotzi,
and if there is a long line of people keeping these mitzvoth – you have
something very rare amongst Jews, a room of completely quiet people!
The beracha you say for washing the hands, is a different formula from Hamotzi.
It contains the words: asher kideshanu bemitzvotav… ‘who has made us holy
through his commandments’.
Commandments! What a difficult concept! And what a confusing one! Most people
have little or no trouble with the 10 Commandments. “I’m not religious – but I
do keep the 10 Commandments”. “I see- You keep the 4th do you? Remember the
Sabbath Day ?” - “OK 9 commandments then.”
But when we get down to a commandment for washing the hands… Hmm, difficult to
see how that’s a commandment. Even though we also say asher kideshanu
bemitzvotav for another little action also done with the hands – lighting
As Reform Jews we search for rational explanations. Washing hands? -Hygiene!
During the Black Plague hundreds of thousands of Europeans died. Whole Jewish
communities survived the plague only to fall victim to anti-Semitic massacres.
‘Jews poisoned the water wells’ was the accusation. Historians surmise that it
was because of the regular washing of the hands before meals. Whether or not
that is so – and it’s doubtful that this would protect against bubonic plague -
it’s clear that the original meaning of the mitzvah wasn’t hygiene but holiness.
Eating is sanctified with prayer and prayer required purification.
And it’s done because it’s commanded.
The key question is: do we as Reform Jews value commandments per se? Do we act
because we feel a sense of imperative?
How do we know which commandments are God-made and which are man-made? Are the
ethical ones – like the 10 Commandments - God-made and the rest man-made? But
not all the 10 are ethical – there’s Shabbat, plus the first 3 about the
relationship with God.
These are Reform preoccupations. And the question I am putting to you is how can
we uphold and affirm as a Reform value – The Commandments, with a Capital C ?
The short answer is by means of another word beginning with C – Commitment.
We uphold them because we are committed to them. There are many things in life
which we may not be able to subscribe to 100%. We may not like our job but we’re
committed – we’ve signed a contract; we may not agree with everything the State
of Israel does but we stand to Israel in the same relationship as to our family
and to the Jewish people as a whole. And it is a commitment. It does not have to
be an uncritical commitment. But we cannot opt out without denying who we are.
I put it to you, the same is true of the Commandments. We may not be able to
subscribe to them all, but we are committed to the concept of Commandments,
mitzvoth, simply by virtue of being Reform Jews.
But what if we are sceptical about whether they are God-made or man-made? This
whole question of Torah min Hashamayim – Torah from Heaven. Is there anything
more contentious among the religious divisions of Judaism today than this? No.
The issue, I believe is not one of truth, but of meaning. Not whether it’s true
or not that God gave the commandments – but rather what does it mean? What does
it mean God gave the commandments ? My teacher, Rabbi Louis Jacobs, who wrote
the famous book We Have Reason To Believe would say: this expression
Torah min Hashamayim, Torah from Heaven, it all depends what you mean by Torah,
and it all depends what you mean by Shamayim. And come to that it all depends
what you mean by ‘min’!
Hamotzi lechem min Ha’aretz… who brings forth bread from the earth. Who does?
God? God needs hands to do that. But God has hands. We are God’s hands. With our
hands we till the soil, plant the seed, water it, harvest the grain, thresh it,
sift the flour, add the yeast, knead the dough, let it rise, bake it, then break
it and say ‘Praised are You, Eternal God, sovereign of the Universe, who brings
forth bread from the earth’. The same human hands which make the bread, make the
And yet, as there is meaning in
acknowledging the creative force which is behind the bread, so there is meaning
in acknowledging the creative force behind Torah.
Commandments are human. They express a relationship of commitment to the divine.
There are hundreds of commandments – 613 is the notional figure which tradition
gives us. 614, if you follow the modern Jewish philosopher Emil Fackenheim. The
614th which he added is ‘Thou shalt survive’. This is the commandment which he
says we hear coming after the Shoah, the Holocaust – indeed out of the Shoah:
the divine command – you shall survive. Or to put the negative side of the coin.
You shall not give the evildoers a posthumous victory. (Fackenheim, who was a
Shoah survivor, says: thou shalt not hand Hitler posthumous victories. To
despair of the God of Israel is to continue Hitler’s work for him.
It means, says Fackenheim, we’re under a sacred obligation not to submit to
cynicism or abdicate responsibility for the world and deliver the world into the
hands of Auschwitz. It means being commanded not to despair of redemption, not
to despair of the God of Israel, lest Judaism perish. Is it the God who saves us
physically? No it’s the God who commands justice and righteousness.
There is a saving presence of God in History, and for Fackenheim the State of
Israel is evidence of the saving presence. And again through Israel, the voice
of God is not a voice which says ‘see I saved you, that means you are good
people and whatever you do I’m behind you’. It is the commanding voice which
says: you’re living in an imperfect world and I command you to perfect it.
No matter how many times you hear about the Shoah, the shock effect is not
lessened it only grows.
The world and all human values were turned upside down. Rabbi Hugo Gryn used to
make the point that the Nazis systematically broke every single one of the Ten
Commandments: They destroyed the entire human and moral framework of civilized
A survivor on one of the TV programmes this week reported about a relative had
been shot dead for stealing a piece of bread.
Man does not live by bread alone, but by all that proceeds from the mouth of the
Fackenheim’s 614th commandment is not merely to survive but to survive as Jews.
This of course is to survive with the purpose of keeping alive what our Judaism
stands for. It is to work for peace and justice in our world. It is this
commitment which makes the Commandments a prime value for Reform Jews.
© Reuven Silverman,