Categories
Books CCAR Press Passover

Reclaiming a Place for Women at the Seder Table

Rabbi Dalia Marx, PhD, is the author of From Time to Time: Journeys in the Jewish Calendar, now available from CCAR Press. In this excerpt, she discusses the importance of acknowledging the crucial role that women play in the Passover story and elsewhere in Jewish tradition.

Many women sense that elements of Jewish tradition leave them mute and unrepresented. We cannot deny the exclusion of women from the public realm over the course of far too many generations, but if we take a close look at the events that form the basis of the Passover holiday, we will find that strong, active, and optimistic women occupy a central place in the narrative. This is an important precedent for women in our time who are looking for their place in Jewish tradition. The story of the redemption from Egypt began and was made possible by dint of the actions of dedicated women who refused to give in to despair.

The Hebrew women refused to knuckle under to Pharaoh’s murderous order and continued to bring life into this world. Jochebed, Moses’s mother, is one of them; she gave birth and protected her son from Pharaoh’s decree. Her daughter, Miriam, hid the newborn in a basket of reeds and set him floating on the Nile. The midwives who attended Jochebed also chose the path of rebellion and showed mercy to the Hebrew babies. Who were those midwives? Pharaoh called them “the Hebrew midwives” (Exodus 1:15). It is possible to read this and understand they are “Hebrew midwives,” but it is also possible to read the phrase as “the midwives of the Hebrews,” meaning that they themselves were not Hebrews but bravely cooperated with the women of the enslaved nation to keep the newborn boys alive.

Pharaoh’s daughter herself refused to take part in her father’s murderous plans. When she saw the helpless baby brought to her by the Nile, her human compassion overruled her social and class attachments. A midrash calls Pharaoh’s daughter “Bityah” (see Babylonian Talmud, M’gillah 13a), and she has been regarded by the Jewish tradition as a righteous woman and even a Jew-by-choice. Miriam then ensured that Jochebed, her mother, would be the one to nurse Moses in Pharaoh’s house, so that he would imbibe—both literally and figuratively—his first human experiences in the arms of the people Israel.

Reading Jewish sources with a fresh eye makes it possible for women to demand their rightful place. This is not a mere act of intellectual sophistication, nor is it bending the texts to one’s own will. Just the act of reading the sources anew is liberating. It gives expression to multiple pure voices that have been suppressed and silenced—and after all, liberation is one of the central themes of Passover. Many people are now attempting not only to make the place of women equal to that of men at the seder table, but also to find special ways to highlight their function and role in the story of the nation and the family.


Rabbi Dalia Marx, PhD, is the Rabbi Aaron D. Panken Professor of Liturgy at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Jerusalem. She is the chief editor of T’filat HaAdam, the Israeli Reform prayer book (MaRaM, 2020). From Time to Time: Journeys in the Jewish Calendar was first published in Israel in 2018 as Bazman and has been translated into German, Spanish, and now English.

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CCAR Press Rabbinic Careers

Helping Shine the Inner Light: A Rabbi as Editor

CCAR Press Editor Rabbi Annie Villarreal-Belford discusses bringing a rabbinic touch to the work of guiding authors and their books through the publication process.

When I left the congregational rabbinate after eighteen years and started working for CCAR Press as their new editor, I had no idea what to expect. It is true that I worked for the URJ Press for two years as an intern while in rabbinical school, but my entire working life since ordination consisted of serving congregations. Being a rabbi, for many of us and definitely for me, was never just a job—it was holy service, it was my identity, it was my soul’s calling. What kind of rabbi would I be now?

We all have a different understanding of what it means to be a rabbi: a teacher, a leader, a guide, a counselor, a sh’liach tzibur (prayer leader), a manager. The list stretches on, and while I spent a great many hours in all of these roles, I have always believed that being a rabbi means recognizing and affirming others’ inner lights, and helping them shine those lights into the world. I worried that even though I was ready to leave congregational work I would no longer be able to do that work of seeing and uplifting inner light. In the past two years as editor at CCAR Press, I learned how pointless that worrying was.

As an editor, I am extremely privileged to read and work with our authors, phenomenal colleagues who already have a strong sense of their inner light. Sometimes, though, it is hard to translate that sense into words on paper, and this is where I can lean into my sense of what it means to be a rabbi. I try to find the essential voice that flows through the books I edit and clarify, refine, and shine a light on it. I am an editor, yes. And I am also serving as rabbi to the text and its author—recognizing and affirming the author’s inner light as revealed through their words, and helping them shine their lights even more clearly and brightly into the world.

When I left the congregational rabbinate after eighteen years and started working as an editor, I didn’t know that I would still be serving as a rabbi, albeit in a novel (no pun intended) way.


Rabbi Annie Villarreal-Belford is the editor at CCAR Press. She is a contributor to Inscribed: Encounters with the Ten Commandments (CCAR Press, 2020).

Categories
Books CCAR Press Torah

Challah as Chavruta: Rabbi Vanessa Harper on ‘Loaves of Torah’

Rabbi Vanessa M. Harper is the author of Loaves of Torah: Exploring the Jewish Year through Challah, recently published by CCAR Press. In this interview, she explains the importance of challah in Jewish tradition, her creative process, and why it’s important to embrace alternative ways of engaging in Torah study.

What is the significance of challah in Judaism?

Challah is no ordinary bread. It is rich with religious and spiritual resonance, as well as powerful sensory memories that are often connected to community and culture, making it one of the few loci on which the increasing number of Jews who identify as cultural or non-religious—as well as religious and/or spiritually-oriented Jews of all denominations—are able to come together with equal levels of enjoyment, access, and license to innovate.

Religiously, challah connects back to the biblical practice of tithing (still in effect today for those who perform hafrashat challah with their dough; see Numbers 15:17–21) and to the sacrificial altar (many challah shapes are inspired by the twelve lechem panim described in Leviticus 24:5–9). On a spiritual level, making and shaping challah dough also offers a microcosmic connection to Creation. Culturally, challah has taken on many different flavors and shapes over the centuries, but it has always been a beloved feature of the Shabbat and holiday table. It’s a beautiful and delicious form of identification, as well as physical and spiritual nourishment!

Why did you choose challah as your artistic medium?

It might be more accurate to say that challah chose me. This project started as an experiment, and it turned out that challah dough happened to be a medium that ignited my creativity. One thing I love about working with dough is that it is a medium with boundaries—it’s not as versatile as clay, for instance, and you have to learn how to work with it—and that it is alive, and thus has some input into the final product, based on how it rises, etc. In that way, it’s very much like studying with a chavruta (study partner).

When planning one of your challot, how do you choose the symbol or image you want to bring to life?

I always start by reading the parashah, or studying texts on the holiday or month for which I’m shaping. I try to go in with my mind open to any words, images, or concepts that stand out to me, and I take a very broad idea to the kitchen counter. The interpretation usually starts to take shape as I’m actually working with the dough. I don’t always know exactly how it’s going to turn out, and sometimes the best shapes emerge when I go into shaping without any ideas in mind at all.

Why is it important to incorporate creative techniques when studying Torah?

Studies show that when we are actively using our hands, we activate different pathways in our brain, and we make connections we may not have otherwise made. I know that I certainly think differently and see through different lenses when I’m shaping dough than I do when writing a sermon or preparing a traditional text study, and so for me one of the great personal benefits of this practice is that it expands my understanding of Torah. For many people who do not process or express themselves best in traditional formats like reading, writing, and speaking, incorporating creative approaches to Torah study opens up an ability to approach the text at all, or to express a novel interpretation of its wisdom—one which might not have surfaced if the opportunity to work in another kind of expressive language wasn’t made available.

What are some lessons you hope readers take away from Loaves of Torah?

A person’s Torah is only revealed when we create space for the language which their soul speaks to flourish, and my deepest hope is that Loaves of Torah creates some of that space for new Torah to be revealed by inviting more languages and more voices into our Jewish learning and living spaces. This book is, at its heart, an invitation to engage with Torah in a way that is playful and personal, modern and multifaceted, and through that engagement, I hope you’ll find a lens that helps you make Torah your own.


Rabbi Vanessa M. Harper is Senior Director of Adult Jewish Living at Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and Reform Rabbi in Residence at Gann Academy. She is the author of Loaves of Torah: Exploring the Jewish Year through Challah (CCAR Press, 2023).

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CCAR Press Israel Passover

CCAR Passover Haggadah Supplement: Prayers, Poems, Songs, and Meditations in Response to October 7

In the months since October 7, 2023, CCAR members have shared powerful prayers and meditations focused on the war in Israel and the release of the hostages. The CCAR has compiled some of these resources into a Haggadah supplement, available to the public as a free PDF download. We hope that these readings make their way into Passover seders throughout the Jewish community. In this introduction to the supplement, Rabbi Annie Villarreal-Belford, Editor at CCAR Press, reflects on celebrating Passover at this fraught moment.

Passover is our celebration of redemption. We remember that in ancient Egypt, we were slaves; we celebrate our miraculous exodus and freedom. We raise each of the four cups of wine to acknowledge the joy we feel that we live as free people today.

This year, however, our joy is tempered with the knowledge that not all Jews are free. The war in Israel that began on October 7, a day on which over 240 Israelis were taken hostage and approximately 1,200 Israelis were killed, is an ever-present reminder that in every generation, Jews must do the work to ensure our safety and freedom, so that we can work for the safety and freedom of all.

This year, our hearts are grieving for the more than 600 Israeli soldiers who have been killed in action, for their families and friends, and for the entire country—to which we are intimately connected—that has been thrown into turmoil, terror, and sorrow. May their memories be a blessing.

During our seders, we will remove ten drops from our wine glasses for each of the ten plagues that caused such destruction on the Egyptians because of Pharaoh’s hard-heartedness. So too, our hearts are heavy with the thought of the innocent Palestinians who have died or are suffering. The wine drops are a reminder that compassion is part of our seder experience, and our compassion this Passover is heightened.

Every single hostage who remains captive in Gaza is one too many. Echoing the words of Yehuda Amichai in his poem “The Diameter of the Bomb,” the diameter of the impact of each hostage taken is so much larger than just the impact on an individual. Their families, their friends, their communities, the entire country, and the worldwide Jewish community have felt the shuddering impacts of October 7. As we gather around our Passover tables—both personal and communal—our hearts are with our fellow Jews who are desperate for freedom. We hope that the readings included in this supplement can be woven throughout your seder so that our awareness—and our prayers—hold each hostage in our thoughts until all are free.

Download the free supplement here.


Rabbi Annie Villarreal-Belford is the Editor at CCAR Press. She is a contributor to Inscribed: Encounters with the Ten Commandments (CCAR Press, 2020). A graduate of the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University), Rabbi Villarreal-Belford was ordained at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in New York and holds a doctorate in Pastoral Logotherapy from the Graduate Theological Foundation.

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Books CCAR Press Responsa

Claiming the Halachic Tradition: Rabbi Mark Washofsky on ‘Reading Reform Responsa’

Rabbi Mark Washofsky, PhD, is the author of Reading Reform Responsa: Jewish Tradition, Reform Rabbis, and Today’s Issues, now available from CCAR Press. In this excerpt from the preface, he explains the book’s structure and introduces his argument for why responsa—and the halachah they reference—are essential to Reform Jewish life.

I want to invite you to join me in reading some of the most fascinating texts that rabbis have ever written. They are responsa, answers to questions about Jewish religious practice submitted to them by individuals and communities. More specifically, they are Reform responsa, composed by Reform rabbis for an audience of progressive Jewish readers.

Fascinating? Okay, I’ll admit it: I’m prejudiced. Much of my academic career as a student of the literature of Jewish law (halachah) has involved the study of the genre known as rabbinical responsa (sh’eilot ut’shuvot, “questions and answers”), documents dating from the eighth century CE to our own day. And as a member of the Responsa Committee of the Central Conference of American Rabbis from 1985 to 2017, I have taken part in composing many Reform responsa. I have lived for decades with responsa as both a reader and a writer, so it’s little wonder that I’m partial to them. Nor should it be surprising that I want you to share my enthusiasm… which goes a long way toward explaining the existence of this book.

But why should you share my enthusiasm? That’s a big question, too big for this preface. Think of the book itself as an extended answer. The introduction explains what responsa are and their significance in the history of Judaism. It discusses the nature and history of the genre in general and of Reform responsa in particular. And it offers suggestions as to why Reform rabbis write responsa, why those responsa legitimately claim importance, and why they deserve to be read carefully and critically. The chapters that follow guide us through the reading of Reform responsa on ten subjects that I hope you will find interesting and that provide good examples of how these texts work and how they seek to accomplish the goals that their authors set for them. In the conclusion, I make some inferences and observations about the role that responsa play in Reform Jewish thought and life.

What I can and should do in this preface is to name some of the convictions that have brought me to write this book and that will no doubt be evident throughout its pages. First, responsa are an essential literary tool—maybe the most important such tool—through which rabbis (including Reform rabbis) create Torah and create community. Responsa create Torah because they answer new questions, those that the existing texts of halachah do not explicitly address, or hard questions, which the texts do not resolve in any clear and agreed upon way. Responsa create community because they are essays in persuasion. Responsa writers do more than simply declare their decisions. They argue for those decisions, with the goal of persuading their intended readers to adopt that argument as their own, to form a community around this particular understanding of the message of Torah on the question at hand. Second, Reform responsa resemble traditional responsa in that they are halachic texts, drawing their support from the literature of the Jewish legal tradition. The very existence of a genre called “Reform responsa,” by far the largest body of writing on issues of Reform religious practice, demonstrates the continuing relevance of halachah to Reform Jewish life. And third, Reform responsa differ from traditional responsa. Written by Reform rabbis and speaking to an audience of Reform Jews, they embody a uniquely Reform Jewish discourse, our own way of understanding the halachic tradition and of making meaning within our community. Reform responsa assert our own claim upon the halachic tradition, our refusal to grant to others the exclusive right to interpret that tradition and to say what it means.

Order Reading Reform Responsa here.


Rabbi Mark Washofsky, PhD, is an emeritus professor of Jewish Law and Practice at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati. He served as chair of the Responsa Committee of the Central Conference of American Rabbis from 1996 to 2017. He is currently the chair of the Solomon B. Freehof Institute of Progressive Halakhah. His publications include Jewish Living: A Guide to Contemporary Reform PracticeReform Responsa for the Twenty-First Century (CCAR Press, 2010), and Reading Reform Responsa: Jewish Tradition, Reform Rabbis, and Today’s Issues (CCAR Press, 2024).

Categories
Books CCAR Press Reform Judaism

How Disruption Shaped Jewish History: Rabbi Stanley Davids and Dr. Leah Hochman on ‘Re-forming Judaism’

Rabbi Stanley M. Davids and Leah Hochman, PhD, are coeditors of Re-forming Judaism: Moments of Disruption in Jewish Thought, recently published by CCAR Press. In this interview, they discuss the book’s development, the unique topics addressed by contributors, and the future of Judaism.

What was the inspiration behind Re-forming Judaism?  

Rabbi Stanley Davids: I am proud of my place within Reform Judaism, but I remain amazed and frustrated that so many of our people, lay and professional alike, don’t really understand how we fit within the flow of Jewish history. It is in the very DNA of Judaism to be able to encounter the shifts and changes in religious thought and within the lands where we live—and to dramatically reposition Judaism. The status quo was always a potential death knell; flexibility, creativity, and devotion to our core values allowed us to rise above both physical and intellectual rubble and to move our mission forward. When I found a true partner in Leah Hochman, I knew that we could craft a message that would have significant value and resonance.

Dr. Leah Hochman: Stan has long been interested in the multiple paths by which Jews and Judaism have come to be where and how they are. The book is his brainchild; he put together an exploratory committee of really smart people to think through some of the ways Jews tell the story of intellectual growth (and decline). Using disruptions in Jewish religious thought as a framework brought the project together. Nothing in history happens in a straight line; Judaism’s (and Jews’) ability to pivot, re-form, respond, and grow has ensured its vibrancy and continuance.

What was the editing process like? Did you learn anything new from working on this book?

SD: Our wonderful collection of authors represented widely diverse fields of expertise. They had a true passion for their subject matter. The editing process was at times quite grueling. We had to reduce the chapters to an acceptable size. We had to point out where many of our potential readers would not have the skill set to understand technical allusions. We knew that we were creating a book that did not have to be read chapter by chapter, but still, the chapters had to be in conversation with each other. I treasure what I learned—and the inspiration that I gained—from each chapter and from each author.

LH: We were extraordinarily lucky that so many talented thinkers were not only interested in the project, but were generous with their participation in its completion. Stan and I, along with the deeply committed CCAR Press editorial team, met several times to think through the organization of the book, who might contribute, and how to ensure a balance of topics, authors, and themes. The entire process occurred during the COVID shutdowns—pre-vaccine to post-Omicron—and was marked by disruptions of illness, personal loss, and changes in the CCAR office. I learned that Stan is a fierce champion of what matters and that persistence requires a whole lot of effort. It was a long haul, but thankfully, also an enormously fruitful one.

Are there any disruptions discussed in the book that readers may find surprising?

SD: I can speak only for myself, not for our readers. Surprising? So many. How the Torah emerged as a massive response to disruption. How Pauline Christianity helped shape post-Churban (destruction of the Second Temple) Judaism. How the world of Sephardim confronted very different disruptions—and thus shaped a culture quite different from the world of the Ashkenazim. How an understanding of the dynamics of gender and of synagogue music was dramatically enhanced by our own camp movements. And how adaptations to previous disruptions must be carefully studied so that we can navigate tomorrow’s world.

LH: I think all of them are surprising! I have learned an enormous amount from each of these chapters—they zero in on precise moments of growth and adaptation and unpack those moments to showcase how ingeniously our forebearers have created and preserved a sense of Jewish purpose and intentionality. Stephen Smith’s article on Holocaust witness testimony might be the most immediately surprising, but honestly, there is something for everyone in these essays.

Why is it important that we, as Jews, understand the various disruptions that have gotten us to this point in our history?

SD: Disruptions keep on coming. Sometimes they are products of natural disasters. Sometimes they are products of radical internal challenges to how we interface with the non-Jewish world. Sometimes they are the product of radical shifts in how the Western world understands the meaning and purpose of existence. Sometimes they arise as responses to horrible wars and to brutal assaults against us. We cannot understand who we are and where we are going if we cannot understand how we got “here” from “there.”

LH: We are currently living in a time period of deep concretization of story—such and such happened, in so and so way, and that’s that. And we are deepening the trenches between multiple versions of similar stories. I think it’s crucial for all of us to remember that we have choices in how we respond to the disruptions of today and that we can learn a lot from a careful and thoughtful look at our pasts.


What disruptions are we experiencing today?

LH: What a question! It feels ineffective to call the October 7 massacre, and the ongoing war in Gaza, a disruption. We had barely understood our losses from the pandemic and the full nature of the threats to individual autonomy in the US, when American Jewry needed to shift its focus to the crises in Israel and the exponential rise in antisemitism here. The twenty-first century has been wildly disruptive in virtually every way.

SD: October 7 is a disruption that will reshape Israeli understandings of themselves, American Jewish understandings of ourselves, and what Israel will mean to us tomorrow. The political climate in America represents a massive shift in Jewish comfort in this, our home. We are being forced to confront a resurgent antisemitism, along with a sense that we are being marginalized from groups and communities that once were our greatest allies. Denominationalism is rapidly diminishing as a key factor differentiating one Jewish community from another. The role and purpose of synagogues and the notion of a discipline of worship are fading. Cross-generational commitment to what once was considered normative is weakening. And here’s the key point: history teaches us that we have no idea as to what major disruptions lie just beyond the corner. We dare not confront such uncertainties unprepared. This book is both a warning and an enormous source of hope.


Rabbi Stanley M. Davids is rabbi emeritus of Temple Emanu-El of Greater Atlanta. Leah Hochman, PhD, directs the Louchheim School for Judaic Studies at the University of Southern California and is an associate professor at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion. Rabbi Davids and Dr. Hochman are coeditors of Reforming Judaism: Moments of Disruption in Jewish Thought (CCAR Press, 2023).

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Books CCAR Press Women in the Rabbinate

Among the Pioneers: Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell on ‘The First Fifty Years’ of Women in the Rabbinate

Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell is the coeditor of The First Fifty Years: A Jubilee in Prose and Poetry Honoring Women Rabbis, available from CCAR Press. In this post, she reflects on the editing process, her personal path to the rabbinate, and the many meaningful contributions of women rabbis.

Tell us about the process of coediting this book.

I was honored and delighted when Rabbi Hara Person, CCAR Chief Executive, approached me about partnering with her on The First Fifty Years, and was pleased to have the opportunity to work with the talented Jessica Greenbaum as well. I have been blessed to spend my rabbinate exploring—and living—the feminist transformation of Judaism, and collaborating with others on several other books that open new doors to Jewish text and practice.

Collecting and reading the powerful submissions of colleagues who serve in a range of leadership roles was a delight. I learned from each essay, and was moved and lifted up by my colleagues’ thoughtfulness, their insights, their resilience, and their courage. And because we asked for brief essays, the process of editing was a pleasure. As all writers know, it is a greater challenge to write a succinct piece than a longer one, and as editors we benefited from our contributors’ efforts to submit short, well-crafted pieces.

How did you decide to become a rabbi?

I graduated from college in 1970, and to continue my Jewish learning, I moved to Boston to pursue an MA in Contemporary Jewish Studies at Brandeis. A world of intense Jewish life opened for me there; I joined the Zamir Chorale, became a regular davener at Havurat Shalom, joined the editorial staff of Response magazine, and immersed myself in a vibrant, if male-centered, Jewish counterculture. But this was before any of us knew that women could be rabbis! Several years later (1976 or 1977), as the program director at Indiana University Hillel in Bloomington, I met Rabbi Sandy Sasso, the first woman to graduate from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. As she spoke to our students, I thought, I can do this! I designed a course on Jewish women’s history for the university, and traveled to the HUC-JIR library in Cincinnati to search for resources to teach the course. Was my moment of revelation standing at the card catalog, thumbing through the small wooden box of cards under the heading “Women”? I don’t remember how the light shone through the library windows that day, but I think I knew then—I belong here.

I completed my doctorate, was accepted at HUC-JIR, and moved to Cincinnati in the fall of 1981 to study intensive Hebrew at the College. My second daughter was born in December, and in September 1982, I joined my classmates as a second year student.

What contributions have women made to the rabbinate?

I think that we have taken the feminist dictum of the late 1960s, “the personal is political,” and expanded it. The College, and the American Jewish world, was not ready for us. Our school had few women’s bathrooms! Many of us felt invisible—or worse, targeted by male professors and mentors who could not see beyond the oppressive patriarchy and overt and covert sexism and homophobia of our texts, and thousands of years of interpretation and practice.

Five decades after Rabbi Sally Priesand smashed the glass ceiling of male rabbinic hegemony, we have challenged and changed both the face and the body of Judaism. We bring our full selves to our work, to our families, to our communities, to our world. We claim kol ishah as a chorus of diverse voices that include many who had not felt heard or seen by the Jewish community. We women rabbis are powerful preachers, scintillating scholars, compassionate comforters, and creators of transformative rituals and liturgies. We build and sustain community with vision and humor. We challenge and comfort, we cajole and console. We are rich and varied.

It is a privilege to be among the pioneers. May we continue to learn from and delight in those who are now shaping the future!


Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, PhD, serves as Spiritual Director at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion. She is the editor of The Open Door: A Passover Haggadah (CCAR Press, 2002) and coeditor of The First Fifty Years: A Jubilee in Prose and Poetry Honoring Women Rabbis (CCAR Press, 2023).

Categories
Books CCAR Press Israel

Renewing the Journey of the Jewish Year: Rabbi Dalia Marx on ‘From Time to Time’

Rabbi Dalia Marx, PhD, is the author of From Time to Time: Journeys in the Jewish Calendar, now available from CCAR Press. In this excerpt from the preface, she meditates on Jewish time and discusses how the book contains a multiplicity of voices. 

What is time? What is this slippery, uncontrollable element in our lives? The thing that sometimes flies at top speed and sometimes refuses to budge? The thing that moves babies to start turning over on their bellies, sit up, stand, and grow into children, that causes the young to grow tall and adds the graceful touch of silver hair to older people? How can we define the constant, inscrutable flow that we call “time”?

Ever since ancient times, people have endeavored to understand time and control it by dividing it into measurable units: hours, days, months, and years. This division grants us a certain sense of control over our lives and that unrestrainable demon we call time. Holidays and observances enable us to focus attention on experiences and memories, to sort and store them in particular emotional and intellectual drawers. Taking stock of our lives is what Jews do on Yom Kippur, but Purim should have a good measure of lighthearted celebration. How would our lives look if every day were Purim or, alternatively, Yom Kippur? There has to be some kind of order. Measuring time and subjecting it to discipline is the basis of all culture. “Teach us to count ourdays rightly,” says King David, the sweet singer of Israel, “that we may obtain a wise heart” (Psalm 90:12).[1]

The goal I have set for myself with this book is to open windows and doors to our calendar, to air out rooms that have been closed for a long time, to illuminate hidden places, and to do my part in broadening our shared tent, as the prophet Isaiah put it, “Enlarge the site of your tent, let the cloths of your dwelling extend. Do not stint! Lengthen the ropes, and then drive the pegs firm” (Isaiah 54:2).

Each month in the year has its own character, its own special flavors and aromas. I have tried to bring them into these pages. Each chapter is a deep dive into one of the Hebrew year’s twelve months, according to a fixed structure: a kavanah (intention) prayer, an introduction, a “Poem of the Month,” sections (which I call iyunim) that examine a series of topics, and a “Prayer of the Month.” The kavanah is an intention-setting prayer or meditation that spells out my wishes for all of us during each particular month. The short introduction to each chapter, labeled “At the Gates of . . . ,” previews the iyunim sections. In each chapter, I have highlighted a poem, song, or piyyut (liturgical poem) written for or mentioning the month’s events. The iyunim sections address various subjects that arise from the nature or events of the month. The Prayer of the Month might be a prayer recited during a particular month or another prayer that illuminates an aspect of the month. There are numerous sidebars alongside the text, where I have placed midrashim (exegesis), supplementary piyutim, thoughts, and additional materials.

Friends who read drafts of the various chapters commented that I adopt different styles and voices in the different iyunim sections. I was happy to receive those responses. Pluralism and diversity are important elements in the message of the book. I profoundly believe in the power of these values. Different topics require different voices and varied approaches. By design, the narrative voice in this book is sometimes personal and sometimes academic. Sometimes the perspective is historical, and sometimes it is cultural and religious.

It is also important to me to challenge the supposed contradiction between what is considered “religious” and “secular,” presenting the entire range of the Jewish discourse in Israel and beyond. Even if there is a degree of criticism here and there, it was always written out of love and belonging.

As a Jewish woman born in Jerusalem, a rabbi and a scholar of liturgy, and a professor at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, it is important to me to weave together both old and new, feminine and masculine, Western and Eastern, familiar and less familiar throughout the book. I sought to include Jewish voices from different eras and places that express a range of positions and trends of thought. The criterion for focusing on specific subjects, additional texts, and poetry was first and foremost the quality of the material rather than a technical attempt to present all voices. I was happy to see that what emerged from my keyboard reflected the beneficial and fruitful diversity I had hoped for. I have not attempted to encompass everything. After all, this is not an encyclopedic work. I merely wanted to offer suggestions for thought, conversation, and even healthy debate.

Originally, this book was written by an Israeli for Israelis, but this translation attempts to offer insight not only into Israeli culture and religious expression but also more broadly into Jewish culture and Jewish religious expression. This English volume also seeks to be inclusive of the experiences of people who live in English-speaking countries. At the same time, many of the prayers and poems appear in both English and Hebrew, because I want to share the power and beauty I find in the Hebrew language. Even if you cannot read the Hebrew, I hope that the image of the original text is powerful in and of itself. …

I invite you to come along on this journey through our calendar year—the Jewish one, the Israeli one—ancient but always in the process of renewal. You can read the book from cover to cover, take it month by month, or even iyun to iyun, reading about each month’s special days and events as they arrive. I do not expect you to agree with everything I wrote. In fact, I will be happy if what you read stimulates your own new thoughts and encourages you to set off on additional journeys to ancient and modern destinations, both far and near.


Rabbi Dalia Marx, PhD, is the Rabbi Aaron D. Panken Professor of Liturgy at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Jerusalem. She is the chief editor of T’filat HaAdam, the Israeli Reform prayer book (MaRaM, 2020). From Time to Time: Journeys in the Jewish Calendar was first published in Israel in 2018 as Bazman and has been translated into German, Spanish, and now English.


[1] See the classic essay on time by the sociologist Norbert Elias, An Essay on Time, ed. Steven Loyal and Stephen Mennell (Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2007).

Categories
Books CCAR Press

New Pathways to Classic Prayers: Alden Solovy on ‘This Joyous Soul’

Alden Solovy, author of This Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient Yearnings, reflects on the goals behind the project, how worshipers can use his work in tandem with Mishkan T’filah, and how the book offers a sense of hope.

What inspired This Joyous Soul?

The book was inspired by my deep love of prayer, both as a form of creative expression and a path to connection with the Divine. Along with that, the book was driven by my desire to open new pathways into our classic prayers. The artistry of our prayerbook—Mishkan T’filah: A Reform Siddur—served as the backdrop and canvas for my writing.

This Joyous Soul is structured to reflect the morning service found within Mishkan T’filah. How can readers use it in tandem with the prayer book?

In key sections of Mishkan T’filah, the left-hand pages offer alternatives to the traditional prayers found on the right-hand page. This Joyous Soul was written as a source of new “left-hand pages,” offering new poetry, meditations, interpretations, challenges, reframings, and flights of fancy based on our classic prayers. You can use This Joyous Soul side-by-side with Mishkan T’filah to enliven your prayers. Rabbis can use these new “left-hand pages” in communal worship. The book can be used as a study text to deepen your understanding of our prayer tradition. My core hope, however, is that congregations will place copies of This Joyous Soul in prayer spaces alongside Mishkan T’filah. That is my vision and ultimately why I wrote the book.

The subtitle of This Joyous Soul is “A New Voice for Ancient Yearnings.” What does this mean to you?

Jewish prayer, throughout the ages, maintains a brilliant balance between the traditional themes, content, and tone of our centuries-old prayer book, while remaining open to new expressions of spirituality in each generation. This Joyous Soul is an exploration of our common, modern experiences—in life and in prayer—in dialogue with the age-old yearnings of our people. This Joyous Soul (which has the nickname “Joyous”) offers modern expression to classic prayers as handed down for millennia. Rabbi Sally J. Priesand explains this balance in her introduction to the book.

What was the most challenging part of writing this volume?

Prayer is an intimate, personal experience. At the same time, congregational worship is a shared, communal experience. I wrote Joyous to be both a doorway into deepening one’s individual prayer practice and a volume that would resonate so strongly with Mishkan T’filah that congregational rabbis would bring the book into prayer spaces, put it in the pews, and place it on the sanctuary bookshelf alongside the siddur. My goal—to write a volume of new prayers that could be used equally well both in private prayer and in communal worship—was the core writing challenge. This volume is the result.

How can this book speak to difficult times such as the one we’re living in now?

In a word: hope. Joyous is infused with hope for ourselves, our families, our congregations, the Jewish people, all peoples, the world, and the future. There is hope without end, from the opening to the close of the volume. There are prayers of gratitude, wonder, and renewal—all leading to hope. The prayer “For Peace in the Middle East” is one example. Yet let me quote the last stanza of the book, from a prayer called “Let Tranquility Reign”:

Let these prayers ascend

To the lofty heights,

So that the nations

And peoples of the earth

Will rejoice in holiness,

Will rejoice in splendor,

And will rejoice, together, in righteousness.

Sitting at my desk here in Jerusalem, worried about the future of Israel and the rising global tide of antisemitism, there is no balm more healing, no prayer more joyous, than the hope of a better world. To that, let us say, “Amen.”


Alden Solovy is a liturgist who made aliyah to Jerusalem in 2012. He is the author of This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New DayThis Joyous Soul: A New Voice for Ancient YearningsThis Precious Life: Encountering the Divine in Poetry and Prayer, and These Words: Poetic Midrash on the Language of Torah, all published by CCAR Press.

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Books CCAR Press

What Is the Shir Shel Yom (Psalm of the Day)?

Rabbi Debra J. Robbins is the author of New Each Day: A Spiritual Practice for Reading Psalms, now available from CCAR Press. In this excerpt from the introduction, she examines the history and purpose of the Shir Shel Yom (Psalm of the Day).

I don’t know if the great modern Hebrew Israeli poet Lea Goldberg had a spiritual practice of reading a biblical psalm each day. In one of her poems, she sings like the Psalmist, “Teach my lips . . . a hymn of praise . . . lest routine set my ways,”[1] suggesting that even this inspired writer of poems needed a source to give voice to the world she saw around her in early twentieth century Palestine. It was a world filled with the diverse beauty of fruit trees, the decay of leaves at the turn of the season, the injustices of war, poverty, and suffering of neighbors, yearning for hope and peace. She turned her personal observations and universal feelings into poems, much like the ancient psalmists did, echoing their language in her hymn of praise, as her blessing, to the Holy One who renews our days.

Drawing on the description of a biblical ritual described in the Mishnah, around the second to third century of the Common Era, Jewish tradition developed the custom of Shir Shel Yom (Psalm of the Day), adding a cycle of seven psalms, biblical liturgical poem/songs, to the daily morning liturgy. The rabbis who selected and placed these psalms may or may not have been Lea Goldberg’s teachers, but they certainly have been mine. Reading a different hymn of praise each day helps ensure that we don’t see the new day as the one before. The seven-day cycle propels us forward, inviting us to notice the bright beauty of creation and the darkness that shrouds human systems of justice. This routine allows us to look into ourselves and beyond ourselves—to see others as vulnerable regardless of how vulnerable we may feel—in the community that needs us.

I like routines and have learned from Lea Goldberg that the best ones should not be too routine and completely set our ways. The cycle of Shir Shel Yom offers the ideal balanced practice: the psalms remain constant, but the person reading them and the surrounding world are new each day, making it impossible for “routine to set our ways.” It is always Psalm 24 on Sunday, 48 on Monday, 82 on Tuesday, followed by 94 on Wednesday and then 81 on Thursday. Friday is assigned Psalm 93, and the week culminates on Shabbat/Saturday with Psalm 92. The psalms identified two thousand years ago have amazingly remained the same, but what has not endured beyond the briefest of explanations of the choices is the answer to the question “Why these seven psalms?” I’ll share six possibilities, confident that you, the reader, will provide a seventh as a result of engaging in this practice.

  • With 150 psalms to choose from, why not start with Psalm 1 and just keep reading one a day for 150 days and then begin again? A cycle of 150 doesn’t match anything in the natural cycle of Creation, but a cycle of seven matches God’s days of Creation from the Torah and the human creation of the “week” to reflect it.
  • Some of the psalms are very long—Psalm 119 has 176 verses—and others are short— Psalm 117 has plenty of power packed into its two verses. The Shir Shel Yom package of seven is well-balanced: the shortest selection is five verses (Psalm 93 for Friday) and the longest only twenty-six (Psalms 94:1–95:3 for Wednesday).
  • The content of the 150 psalms is as diverse as human emotions and experiences, and the seven selected are well curated to reflect the possibilities and trajectory of daily and weekly life, keeping the focus on arriving at Shabbat.
  • Certainly in biblical times, and at least until Johannes Gutenberg began to print Bibles in 1454, very few individuals owned their own books or could read; in contrast, the singing of psalms—biblical poems set to music—was accessible to all. Mastering a repertoire of seven, in addition to some of the others for special occasions, was a manageable lifetime achievement.
  • Another option might have been to allow each person to select their own seven psalms. This (at least for me) is daunting, and I’d likely spend my lifetime simply trying to choose rather than engaging in the practice.
  • Most compelling is the connection that comes with the practice. These seven may not be my favorite psalms, but they are the treasures and traditions of my ancestors, like the pearls I wear that belonged to my great-aunt or the recipes I make from my grandmother’s cards on Passover. I feel connected across time to all the generations before me who have offered the same poems—in different languages and using different translations—for more than two thousand years. I feel connected with others in my generation whom I will never know, but with whom I am in relationship as we share the same practice, engaging with the same text every day.

I have come to love these psalms and the steady flow from week to week that comes with their practice. On this Monday I am not the same as I was the Monday before, and the light is not the same and the temperature is not the same; events in the world, in my life, have all shifted in ways large and small. And a Tuesday in November, between Election Day and Thanksgiving, is not the same as the Tuesday in January after Martin Luther King Day, or in August during the Hebrew month of Elul, when our time to prepare for the High Holy Days draws near. Each week and each month is different, but Shir Shel Yom anchors us and gives us a secure mooring as our lips learn, over and over again, to offer blessing.


Rabbi Debra J. Robbins serves Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, Texas. She is the author of Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27: A Spiritual Practice for the Jewish New Year (2019) and New Each Day: A Spiritual Practice for Reading Psalms (2023) from CCAR Press.


[1] The entirety of this poem by Lea Goldberg (1911–70) can be found in Mishkan T’filah: A Reform Siddur (New York: Central Conference of American Rabbis, 2007), p. 145, adapted. Thanks to Rabbi Jonathan Slater for identifying the original publication in Barak Baboker, as part of a three-part collection Shirei Sof HaDerech, published around 1955. This poem has been set to music by Cantor Benjie Ellen Schiller.