James Edward Johnson

my thoughts from right to left

This Shabbat in Iowa City … The Torah portion – Va-ethannan (1 of 3)

with 3 comments


A mezuzah, which is affixed to the door posts of Jewish homes, contains a scroll with the Hebrew words of the Shema.

This is part one of a three part series. – Read Part 1 – The Torah portion – Va-ethannan Part 2 – Getting a minyan and Part 3 – The importance of egalitarianism in the Jewish hinterland.

On every Shabbat morning, Jews read a part of the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, at morning services.  On the Jewish calendar, we read a section of the Torah each week such that we read the entire Torah every year.  This week, we read Va-ethannan, which is the second portion of Deuteronomy, or in transliterated Hebrew, Devarim.

This portion is unusually significant.  It contains two passages that are of major importance.  The first, which is recognizable to Jews and Christians alike, is that the portion contains one of the recitations of the Ten Commandments.

While Jews have 613 commandments in the Torah, there is no doubt that these ten are of elevated importance.  They appear in Jewish iconography and, as tablets, were the material representation of the entire Torah covenant between God and the Jewish people.    While today synagogues have arks to hold their Torah scrolls, the original ark in the Tabernacle and later in the First Temple contained these tablets.

Hearing the Ten Commandments read aloud in the synagogue in Hebrew is an important experience that happens only twice a year.  They are read first in Exodus, or in transliterated Hebrew, Shemot.  This week was their second reading.

The other passage of tremendous importance this week was the recitation of the Shema.  In English it reads, “Hear, O Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is One.”  In transliterated Hebrew, it reads, “Shema, Yisrael, Adonai eloheinu, Adonai echad.”  This is the only time it is recited in the Torah and if there is a single passage of Hebrew that a Jew knows, it is this one.  Observant Jews recite it every morning and every night and at every service.  According to the command following this verse, they bind the words in little boxes on their arms and forehead each morning, and affix them in little containers to their door posts.  If able, Jews should try to make these their last words.  Even very non-observant Jews do some of these.  There is no other verse that receives even remotely this level of attention.

In short, if one is compelled to come to services based on the content of the portion, this week was uniquely compelling.  It is interesting, therefore, that in Iowa City, there was a risk that we would be unable to read it.  And, indeed, in many Iowa towns, they probably did not read it.  That will be the subject of the next part.


Written by JamesEJ

Saturday, July 24, 2010 at 8:45 pm

Posted in judaism, other

Tagged with , , , ,

3 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. I think it is good to point out that the Hebrew/Jewish names of the books are not the Christian/Latin names of the books. This is significant in that it demonstrates (in yet another way) that the Hebrew Bible is NOT the Old Testament. For Jews these books are about certain topics, for Christians in several cases the books are about completely different things.

    Shmot means “names” right? But Exodus means “departure”.

    I don’t know. maybe it’s not appropriate in your article–it just seemed a little strange to read Exodus and Shmot together as if they meant the same thing.

    BTW, James, I see that you are going to write about the importance of egalitarianism……I want to pose a question to you along those lines, if I may. You know that I think that counting women in the minyan has enabled men to shirk their attendence and ritual obligations. So, do you think it is possible for there to be an egalitarian Judaism in which women are NOT counted in the minyan? That is, a Judaism in which women are enabled to fulfill all of the various ritual roles, up on the bimah, etc–but we still require ten MEN to pray certain prayers—what would you think about that sort of Judaism? I am serious.

    PS. I love that you have been wrapping Teffilin!


    Sunday, July 25, 2010 at 9:24 am

  2. […] is part one of a three part series. – Read Part 1 – The Torah portion – Va-ethannan Part 2 – Getting a minyan and Part 3 – The importance of egalitarianism in the Jewish […]

  3. […] is part one of a three part series. – Read Part 1 – The Torah portion – Va-ethannan Part 2 – Getting a minyan and Part 3 – The importance of egalitarianism in the Jewish […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: