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Tuesday, December 7, 2010


The Bible was written in an archaic language, and, therefore, it is, at times, difficult to figure out what the authors/editors meant to say. Often, the Bible uses figurative language and even euphemisms that are different from ours. In the next few postings I would like to explore a few examples.
But first, a definition. A “metaphor” is a figure of speech in which a term or phrase is applied to something to which it is not literally applicable in order to suggest a similarity, such as, “My life is a dream,” or, “He is drowning in money,”; whereas “euphemism” refers to the substitution of an inoffensive noun or verb for one that could be offensive or unpleasant, such as, “he passed away” for “he died.”
Let us start with the various meanings of the Hebrew word yad, “hand.”
a) In its basic meaning, yad refers to the human hand, such as, “When Joseph saw that his father was placing his right hand (yad yemino) on Ephraim’s head, he thought it wrong” (Gen. 48: 17)
b) By extension, yad is also used a metaphor for “power” or “strength,” such as, “When Israel saw the wondrous power (ha-yad ha-gedolah) which the Lord had wielded against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord” (Ex. 14: 31)
c) At times, yad can mean “side,” “along,” such as, “The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe in the Nile, while her maidens walked along ( al- yad) the Nile” ( Ex. 2: 5)
d) In some cases, yad can mean “place,” such as, “The men of Ai looked back and saw the smoke of the city rising to the sky; they had no room (yadayim, lit. ‘hands’) for flight in any direction.” (Josh. 8: 20)
e) In a few places, yad means “monument,” in the sense that a hand points to and marks, such as, “”Saul went to Carmel, where he erected a monument (yad) for himself” (I Sam. 15: 12), or, ” I will give them [i.e., Sabbath observing eunuchs who were high government officials], in My House, and within My walls, a monument and a name (yad va-shem), better than sons and daughters.” (Isa. 56: 5) (Note: the well-known Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem today is named “Yad Va-Shem”).
f) In addition, some scholars have suggested that yad has also been used as euphemism for “latrine” and “genitals,” and point to two possible texts. The first one is in Deuteronomy, which reads, “You shall have a yad outside the camp, where you can relieve yourself” (23: 13). Some sources translate the word as “place” or “area,” in the sense of “designated area” for defecation (NRSV; see also Onkelos, Sifre). In the Dead Sea Scrolls, “hand” is used in relation to latrines: “There shall be a distance between all their camps and the ‘place of the hands’ (m’kom yad) of about 2000 cubits” (The War Scroll, 7/7), and, “You shall make latrines (m’kom yad) for them outside of the city” (Temple Scroll, 46/13). Consequently, the Jerusalem Bible translates the passage in Deuteronomy as, “You must have a latrine outside the camp.”

The other word is found in an obscure passage in Isaiah 57:8: addressing the idolaters among the Israelites, the prophet says, “You have loved bedding with them [the pagan objects], you have looked upon the yad.” Some interpreters render the last word as “place” (Metzudad Tzion), others, as “symbol” (Anchor Bible, McKenzie), or “you have chosen lust” (NJPS), and some, influenced by the context, translate it as “phallus,” (e.g., You have looked on their manhood” (New American Bible), or “You looked upon with lust on their naked bodies” (New International Version, 2010).

This survey clearly indicates that a simple Hebrew word meaning “hand,” has been used in the Bible by extension metaphorically as well as, possibly, euphemistically.

Next I will study the word, “feet.”

Rifat Sonsino

Sunday, November 14, 2010


A few weeks ago, after I administered the mid-term exam, one student confidentially told me that she had seen one student surfing the net for the correct answers. (I do allow laptops in the room). She did not want to be a snitch but felt that such action was unfair to the rest of the students. I have been teaching at Boston College for the last 10 years, and I have never before experienced anything like that. I was really hurt, because I felt the “cheater” had abused my trust.
I thanked the student and said that I needed to think about what course of action to take next. I then contacted my colleagues on the faculty and asked for their input. I also put my dilemma on Facebook and solicited advice. The responders were all over the map: you should give a new exam to the whole class; ask the “cheater” to come forward; force the accuser to identify the culprit and let the accused defend him/herself; forget about it inasmuch as you did not witness the infraction.
To force the accuser to reveal the name of the “cheater,” I felt, would jeopardize her standing in class. On the other hand, could she be a liar? Wanting to make sure that the allegation was correct, I questioned the accuser whether the “cheater” was on her side of the room or on the other side, and how did she see that someone was in fact looking for answers on the web? She told me that the student was sitting towards the front, and that she could see the monitor from the back. Later on, she even volunteered to reveal the name of the culprit, but I felt that this accusation would force the alleged “cheater” to confront her later on, an event that I was determined to avoid.
During the next class, I told the students that I was informed by a student that someone had cheated during the exam, and if that person were to show courage and identify him/herself to me alone, I would give that person an F, and the whole thing would be forgotten. But if within 24 hours no one would come forward, I would have no other alternative but to give another exam, because the first one was tainted. Regrettably, no one confessed.
So what did I do? Because I did not personally witness the cheating incident, I gave everyone a short quiz instead of a new exam. I was not happy with this solution, but I felt it was the best compromise. However, I am still sad that someone in class wanted to take an easy way out and burdened everyone else with a new quiz.
What would you have done?
Rifat Sonsino

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


It is well known in many Jewish circles today that the mixing of dairy and meat products is prohibited. In other words, you cannot have a cheeseburger! One can eat dairy and then meat, some say immediately after, others by waiting up to two hours. But if you wish to eat meat first and then dairy, you have to wait up to six hours. (Some wait only two hours.) Yet, the biblical text clearly states that when three angels came to visit Abraham, he “took curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared” (Gen. 18: 8), and stood by them “as they ate.” The word “curd” here (hemah in Hebrew) is most likely a type of modern yogurt; “calf” (ben bakar in Hebrew) could refer either to the entire calf (Josephus says he served them “a roasted calf”), or part of it (some rabbinic sources say he served them only tongue with mustard, a delicacy). What is going on here?
Ancient sages were very much aware of the problem of Abraham serving dairy and meat products together in contravention of the laws of Kashrut, and tried to resolve it in a variety of ways: First, they dealt with the issue of angels eating food. A few ancient sources---(like Tobit {12:19; an Apocryphal book of the third cent. BCE}; Josephus {the first century CE historian; Antiquities 1: 11/2}, Targum Jonathan as well as some later rabbinic commentators {e.g. BM 86 b; Rashi})--- specify that the angels did not eat, but pretended as if they were eating; one Talmudic source, however, says that the angels actually did eat, thus following the local custom (BM 86b).
Second, with regard to the mixing of milk and meat, rabbinic sources came up with a few fancy answers:
a) The mixture of milk and meat was forbidden only after the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, and, because Abraham lived before that period, it was perfectly legitimate (Etz Hayyim).
b) Abraham served the angels milk and only then did he offer them meat in accordance with the dietary laws, for, even though not commended, Abraham followed all the laws of the Torah (Kid. 4: 14).
c) Abraham served the angels milk and meat together because he thought they were gentiles who were not bound by Jewish law (Likute Sihot, Vol 5, p.193, n.63).
d) The Meam Loez, the famous Sephardic commentary written in Izmir, Turkey, in Ladino, by Rabbi Jacob Kulli (1864), claims that Abraham stood by the angels, making sure that each guest chose to eat either dairy or meat, and would not mix the two.
In reality, the rule against mixing dairy with meat is not biblical, and Rabbis had a hard time justifying it on the basis of a law that prohibits “boiling a kid in its mother’s milk” (Ex. 23:19; 34: 26; Deut. 14: 21). The original meaning of this law is unknown. Maimonides suggested a pagan background. But the Rabbis, for reasons that are not clear to us, turned this prohibition into a major component of the laws of kashrut that bind many observant Jews today.
Bottom line: our biblical law is unaware of this rabbinic rule, and the sages used an obscure text to justify it. Consequently, many Jews feel guilty today when they consume the two together.
Rifat Sonsino

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


There is a raging Islamophobia in our country these days. Coming out of the 9/11 tragedy in NYC, and spurred on by the attempt to build a mosque close to ground zero, many people are developing an emotional fear of all Moslems who, they believe, are bent on taking over the USA. The situation is worse in Europe.
Recently, Bill O’Reilly, during a show of the “View,” claimed that “Moslems killed us on 9/11,” prompting two of the women panelists to walk out in disgust. He then apologized, and the participants returned to the stage. Also, in October, a hard-working Pakistani man by the name of Pir Khan, appeared on Chanel 5 in Boston, complaining that his life has been turned upside down because of a false claim that he had funneled money to Faisal Shahzad, a terrorist who tried to blow up a car in Times Square. Pir was arrested but released in July for lack of evidence. Now he faces deportation, and his landlord wants him out of the house. His wife, a Caucasian woman, is also devastated by the turn of events. How does one restore this man’s good name?
It is true that, of the many terrorists who have attacked us or have attempted to cause damage in our country, the majority have been Moslems. (The Oklahoma bomber was not). However, to think that every Moslem is a suicide bomber is an absurdity and a dangerous generalization. I grew up in Istanbul and still have good friends there. I can assure you that my Turkish friends who happen to be Moslems are not terrorists.
These days it is becoming very uncomfortable having an Arabic sounding name in the USA. Many jump to conclusion that the fellow must be wearing a bomb on his chest. From now on, I think, I am going to call myself Robert because I don’t want people to think that Rifat is a blood-thirsty fanatic. But maybe when they hear that I am a Rabbi they will change their mind.
Rifat Sonsino

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


I have been part of synagogue life since I was a little child. I remember attending High Holiday services with my father when I was barely 6 years old; as a teen-ager I led such services as the hazzan kavua of my Orthodox synagogue, and officiated as a Reform Rabbi for more than 40 years. Even though I am still inspired by many sections of the liturgy, I find others dull, repetitive and, at times, even irrelevant. Perhaps, for the next year and beyond, especially now that the Reform Rabbinate is planning to create a new High Holiday prayerbook, we need to rethink the entire liturgy for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Here are my reflections on this important issue:

1. In many of our prayers, God should be portrayed as a companion, a “co-creator” (Plaskow), or an energy that continues to sustain us. Not everyone in the congregation subscribes to a personal God (theism). We need to make room for the diversity of theological positions in our midst.

2. The reading of the Binding of Isaac (Gen.22) as the Torah portion for the first day of Rosh Hashanah is highly problematic. No matter how one interprets it, for me, the belief that God demands the sacrifice of one’s son as a test for faith and loyalty is theologically repulsive. Instead, I would read the two stories of Creation (Gen. 1 on the first day and Gen. 2 on the following day) not only to indicate the different views on this subject, but also to enable the preacher to talk about the continuous creativity in our time.

3. Even though Yom Kippur is a day of heshbon hanefesh (self-examination), I find the multiple repetition of Al Het (“For the sin we have committed”) and the series of confessions a bit too much. Once is enough.

4. After acknowledging our limitation as humans, and that we are “of little merit,” we then need to stress our ability to overcome our daily challenges. To portray human beings as gnats is not helpful. How many times do we have to repeat that we are sinners? Shouldn’t we encourage people to use their inner strength to do good? Yom Kippur service tends to be a downer. I want people to leave uplifted, re-energized, hopeful. We should have more prayers, like the one entitled “We Rejoice” (p.320/1), that enable us to express our gratitude for what we have, reinforcing our ability to improve ourselves and our society.

5. The Afternoon and Neilah services on Yom Kippur are repetitious and boring. The Avodah service, which recalls the rituals of the ancient priests during the Day of Atonement at the Temple of Jerusalem, is totally irrelevant today. Instead, we should organize study sessions, and struggle with biblical, rabbinic or contemporary Jewish texts that contain insights into how we could change for the better.

6. Some of our prayers cannot or should not be uttered in these days, such as, “You are just, whatever befalls us” (p. 270). After the Holocaust, I cannot say that any more.

7. Sephardic Jews don’t recite the Unetane Tokef (“let us proclaim the sacred power of the day”), which is theologically questionable in our time, with all the primitive imagery it contains as it compares humans to sheep while going under the shepherd’s staff. Instead, we should read more great poetry, either by the famous Jewish-Spanish bards of the medieval times-at least they wrote sublime verses-, or those written in the modern period.

I realize that this proposal is quite drastic, but if we want to pray with integrity and conviction, we need to have the tools available to us on one of the holiest seasons of the Jewish calendar. Just think about it!

Rifat Sonsino

Friday, September 3, 2010


Recently, the famous British mathematician and physicist, Steven Hawking announced in his new book, The Great Design, that the world’s appearance can be explained by the laws of physics and without any reference to a “benevolent creator who made the Universe for our benefit.” Some people are very upset by it, because, they believe, it contradicts the teachings of the Hebrew Bible on this subject. In reality, when Genesis speaks of “God created,” it really means “God brought some shape to it,” and it was only in the medieval period that the question of “creation out of nothing” became popular- but I digress.
I am not at all upset by Hawking’s assertions, and my God concept is not affected by it. As a religious naturalist, who assumes that the universe is energized and sustained by a divine power, I pay little attention to the question of how the universe came into being. I leave this discussion to the scientists. I do not believe in a personal God who cares for individuals, who is involved in history and who seems to operate as a capricious deity, responding to the whims of humanity. For me, the laws of nature reflect the workings of God, and I simply try to adjust my life to these laws.
Hawking is not alone in his position. There are many people in this world who are searching for a meaningful religious experience that is reasonable and rational, one that gives equal weight to the emotions and to the mind. I attempted to expound this way of thinking in my book, Six Jewish Spiritual Paths (Vermont: Jewish Lights, 2000) where prayer is viewed primarily as an introspective activity whose only role is to change the individual and not the world around him/her, where religious ritual is viewed as the primary means to establish personal discipline and to connect one to his/her community and tradition, unencumbered by the specific will of God as reflected in biblical or rabbinic laws (God , I am sure, has other tasks than worry about what I eat, drink or wear!), where religion ultimately means a search for meaning and purpose in life, leading to a high moral life in society.
A couple of weeks ago, Glenn Beck, in his “Restoring Honor Rally” in Washington, DC, asked people to return to God. By that he meant, the traditional theistic view of God. Well, he does not have the exclusive rights to the divinity. As a religious person, I too, invite people to return to God, but to a God concept which is in consonance with science and to a God who, as Einstein allegedly said, does not play dice with the universe. If you are such a person, especially now that we are about to embark on the Jewish High Holidays when religious feelings are at their highest, please join me in my religious quest, with a rational approach. And if you have an interest, please check out my detailed discussion in my book on Spirituality. You may like it.
Rifat Sonsino

Monday, July 5, 2010


During the month of June, I went to Barcelona for the third year in a row in order to help out my small Reform congregation, Bet Shalom, with services and lectures, and to officiate at two weddings of temple members, both dear friends. We stayed about two weeks in this fascinating city.
The first wedding (she originally from Uruguay and he from Colombia) took place in one of the suburbs of Barcelona on a Sunday noon time at a luxurious restaurant/function hall. The weather was absolutely beautiful, dry, sunny and in the 70s. Friends of the couple had come to set up the Huppah the night before because the florist was unaccustomed to doing a Jewish wedding. However, they realized that the canopy could not be left alone overnight for fear that it would be destroyed by young people who usually come to the hall on Saturday nights. So, they took it down and set it up again the next morning at 8 am. The outdoor wedding ceremony was scheduled for 12 noon, but knowing Spain, I was sure it would start much later. To my surprise, the bride, in her late 20’s, arrived at 12. 15 pm; she emerged out a fancy car and walked down the aisle accompanied by her father. She looked radiant. The clergy (that is, the Cantor and I), the groom, 31, and the wedding party were already waiting under the Huppah.
Once the religious ceremony was completed, we all adjourned to the gardens for cocktails. For many people in attendance this was their first Reform Jewish ceremony. I received lots of complements from many Orthodox Jews who were present about the egalitarian nature of the Reform Jewish ritual. They specifically liked the fact that I used both Hebrew and Spanish during the liturgy. This wedding ceremony did wonders for my congregation because it proved to the Orthodox that our religious ceremonies are within the broad spectrum of traditional Judaism.
The cocktail hour lasted until about 3 pm, and then we were invited in for lunch. The food was outstanding, considering the fact that there were about 180 in attendance. In between meals, we had Israeli dancing and Latin music by a DJ. People went wild. Around 5 pm, not one but three consecutive desserts were served. Each table was then asked to make a toast for the groom and bride. The wedding cake showed up around 6 pm. Then a band of Mariachis came to entertain the crowd, surprising both the bride and the groom. (It was arranged by the groom’s parents). This was followed by more music, including rock’n’roll, American style. We did not leave the party until 9 pm. It was a long day but a beautiful one.
The second wedding took place the following Sunday late in the afternoon in one of Barcelona’s fancy mansions. The couple, in their 40’s, decided to have an extended cocktail with tapas following a religious ceremony in an open patio-garden. Again, the weather cooperated. For the majority of the guests this was their very first Jewish wedding. They were fascinated by the beauty of the ritual and by the tone of informality I created during the service. A jazz band entertained the guests, and a friend of the couple sang a few songs in English, but also one or two in Ladino. The bride and the groom exuded much happiness. The food was superb. We all took part in Israeli dancing and spent many hours talking to friends. I was approached by a lot of people who were curious about Judaism and Jewish wedding customs. I also answered questions regarding Israel and the Palestinians, and was delighted to find out that I was among people who were very supportive of Israel. This is note-worthy, because the Spanish tend to side with the Palestinians.
Just before I returned to Boston the local papers revealed that during the Second World War, General Franco ordered that a list of all Jews living in Spain be compiled, and this list of 6000 names were ultimately turned over to Himmler in Germany. This second wedding proved that Israel does have a few friends in Spain now, but could use lots more.
Rabbi Rifat Sonsino

Wednesday, June 2, 2010


There is a Jewish saying, “You have to have “Mazel”(“Good luck”) in life.” Sometimes when you are in the right place at the right time, good things happen; but also under the same circumstances terrible events may strike you unexpectedly. I experienced this two weeks ago when I had to pass a kidney stone.

It came out of the blue. While I was working on an article at home, I felt a sharp pain on my side that I could not shake off. I tried to walk; it did not go away. I tried to lie down; it would not subside. It would ease off a bit, and then come back with a fury. I was in a daze, not knowing what to do. Is this an emergency? Will it go away? I called my doctor but could not reach her. When the pain arrived again, in the third cycle, I said to my wife who, lucky for me, was at home at the moment to take me to the local hospital because I could not bear the pain anymore. Within a few minutes, the ambulance came, and they wheeled me into the emergency room.

There my luck worked like a charm. One of the attending nurses asked me, “Are you Rabbi Sonsino from Needham?” “Yes,” I said, “I lived in Needham for 25 years.” He added, “Then you must be the father of Deborah Seri who tutored my son; she did such a great job!” Subsequently, when another nurse identified herself as a student at Boston College, where I teach, I could not believe my fortune, knowing that I would be well taken care of by two professionals who had some personal connection to me.

My pain continued. They gave me morphine to help me out. I started to invoke all the deities I knew, from the Babylonian Marduk down, to no avail. Not that I really expected any assistance, anyway. Nature has to take its course. (The Rabbis teach, “don’t depend on a miracle”). After a cat scan, it was confirmed that I did in fact have a kidney stone that was going down through the tubes in my body and two more that were lodged in the kidneys. After sedating me a bit more, they sent me home with their good wishes that I pass the stone soon. To my surprise and pleasure I passed the stone the next morning without much fanfare, and returned to life as if nothing had happened. One of my colleagues later on reminded me (facetiously, of course) that this was the real meaning of the Hebrew expression "gam ze yaavor" (“This too shall pass”)!(The doctors will “zap” the other two soon).

That day I realized for certain that I need to give thanks to God for my good fortune, for every healthy day I have, and to try to enjoy life to the fullest, because you never know what the day will bring.

Rifat Sonsino

Thursday, May 20, 2010


With life experience one develops a wider perspective on many issues. You have been there, you have done that, and now you should be ready to share it with others. It is a truly noble attitude and generous commitment. However, the advice must be genuine and disinterested. It should also inspire conduct.
It is beneficial to heed people with experience, whether they are above you or beneath you, for wisdom can be found in any age. According to the Rabbis even God took counsel with the angels when God decided to create the first human being: “Let us create man” (Gen. 1:2).
I have a friend who was very successful in business and decided to become an advisor after his own retirement. He sits with an executive of the company, looks at the operation of the institution, and gives him/her free recommendation as to how things ought to be handled in order to produce better results. But not everyone pays attention to good counsel.
In the Bible, after the death of King Solomon, his son, King Rehoboam faced a rebellion by the northern tribes. They told him, if you ease our burden we will serve you well, if not, we will part company. Rehoboam first consulted with his senior advisors who told him to go easy on the northerners, whereas the younger counselors suggested that he needs to stand up and show them who the real king is.Rehoboam ignored the old and preferred the young. The northerners did not like Rehoboam’s response, seceded and set up their own Kingdom of Israel in the north.
In the rabbinic period, the Sages, having deposed Rabbi Gamaliel II, nominated Rabbi Eleazar b. Azariah (2nd cent. CE) to become the new head of the Sanhedrin. Before accepting the offer, however, he said he needed to consult with his wife; she told him not to take the position but he ignored her advice, and ended up keeping his new post just a short while.
It is exhilarating when your recommendations are welcome and they bring good results. On the other hand, it is frustrating when you give your best advice but the advisee ignores your counsel. There is no way to force him/her to accept your word. Thus you see failure in front of your eyes, when it could have been success. But, as the old saying goes, “you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink.” You end up saying to yourself, why don’t they just listen to experience?
Rifat Sonsino

Tuesday, May 11, 2010


As far back as I can remember, my mother, of blessed memory, used to drill into my head the notion that I needed to be my own boss. “Don’t depend on others,” she used to say. “People are fickle,” and then added, “they always follow their own interests.” Her attitude was colored by my father’s sad experience as an official of the Jewish community in Istanbul, Turkey where he worked as the executive secretary of the Chief Rabbinate. In his position, he had to depend on the will and wish of other board members to carry out any program for what my mother considered a meager salary.

There is no doubt that it is better to stand on one’s feet and forge your own destiny. You don’t have to rely on other people to pursue your personal plans, or deal with the whims of individuals who at times can play games with your life. If you succeed, you are entitled to glory; if you fail, you cannot blame anyone else but you. Besides, all acknowledge that your own needs come first. If you cannot meet them adequately, you cannot be helpful to others. Doesn’t the flight attendant tell all the passengers, “In case of an emergency, please place the oxygen mask on your face and then put it on the face of your child?” An older Jewish sage seems to have echoed this instruction when he stated, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” Another one wrote, “when a person eats at his own table, his mind is at ease” (Avot d’Rabbi Natan, 30). In other words, it is better to rely on your own resources than to depend on the charity of others, including your children.

So, for many years, I followed my mother’s advice, and tried to be as independent as possible. Years later, when I started to get tired of being the number-two Rabbi in my previous synagogue, I looked for a temple where I would be the only or senior Rabbi, only to find out that I now had 1500 bosses!

That realization made me re-think whether being your boss is at all possible in life. In our interaction with others, we all depend on other people’s good will to accomplish anything of value. An old Rabbinic Midrash states, “There is no barber that cuts his own hair” (Lev. R. 14: 9). Instead of acting on our own, I believe, we are better off working cooperatively with others. Do you think the President of the United States, the most powerful person on earth, can function alone? He, too, needs to listen to his advisors, and, at times, even work with adversaries in order to bring to fruition any kind of plan. It is good to have confidence on one’s ability; it is praiseworthy to come up with good ideas and show leadership in our line of work, but nothing will occur if we do not find reliable individuals who will help us succeed. Who is fortunate? He who finds a good advisor who is also a dependable friend. I have found such people, and I am blessed.

Rifat Sonsino

Thursday, April 29, 2010


For the last two years I have been helping out a small Reform congregation in Barcelona, Spain with its religious services and educational programs. They have been in existence only four years, but have made tremendous progress in the face of great difficulties.

Splitting from a fifteen-year old liberal congregation called Atid, the leaders of the new group, called Bet Shalom, set up a house of worship in what can best be described as a large garage in Gracia, a lovely Barcelona neighborhood. They number about 40-60 people but are highly enthusiastic. They do not have a full-time Rabbi, nor can they afford one.

I found them on line when I read a blurb about their existence. The fact that I speak Spanish was of great advantage to them. Not only did they welcome my help but also invited me to visit them. So, in 2008, Ines and I spent the month of June in Barcelona leading services, offering adult education classes and participating in a religious dialogue with the city’s non-Jewish clergy. Also, I was able to bring them a Torah Scroll (generously donated by Temple Beth Israel of Sharon, PA). I even did a wedding and converted six of their members to Judaism, using the nudist beach as the Mikvah.

Their dedication and hard work are note-worthy. They attract young people in search of a liberal understanding of Judaism. In their crammed little space, they meet regularly every Shabbat evening, and, following lay led-services, serve an elaborate Shabbat meal for everyone in attendance. They also offer adult education programs and Introduction to Judaism classes for prospective converts. Impressed by their enthusiasm, I decided to help them out even further. So, last summer, during the month of June 2009, Ines and I returned to Barcelona for fifteen days to lead services, teach classes and broaden their scope of contacts with many liberal Jewish institutions around the world.

So far, 2010 has been a year of great accomplishments for Bet Shalom. Through the efforts of my colleague, Rabbi James Glazier (who spend a few months with them last year), my personal contacts, and their own list of accomplishments, the congregation has been formally admitted into membership by the European Region of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ). Furthermore, a number of their prospective converts underwent a formal Giyyur (conversion) under the auspices of the European Bet Din of the WUPJ. One of the congregants, Dr. Felipe Ojeda, a prominent surgeon trained by me in Jewish law and customs, was recently certified as the first Reform Mohel in Spain by the Berit Mila Program of Reform Judaism -the first ever in Spain!

This coming June (2010), Ines and I plan to make our third trip to Barcelona. I expect to do all the rabbinic work as previously, plus I am looking forward to officiating at the wedding of two of their leaders. Now the congregation is at a point where they could use the services of a rabbi, perhaps on a part-time basis, who will come in periodically to lead them in their mission. I cannot continue to do this work far away from the States.

Who will it be?

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010


This past week, in a class dealing with Jewish weddings, one of my students at Boston College was reading an English text that included the Hebrew word huppah (pronounced as “hoopah” meaning, “[wedding] canopy”). He innocently pronounced it as “tchoopah” because the transliteration in front of him had “chuppah.” I smiled and corrected him. He is not alone. Most Americans, upon seeing the letters “ch”, pronounce it as “tch” like “Churchill” or “charity.” That is why I find the rendition of the Hebrew letter het (ח) as “ch” absolutely silly!

Hebrew is a west-Semitic language, which contains a number of letters that cannot easily be transliterated for lack of equivalencies. To resolve this problem, many systems have been devised to reproduce as close as possible the sound of Hebrew letters into English or other European languages. Among them the one created by the Society of Biblical Literature or the Academy of the Hebrew Language is well known to scholars and popular writers; none of them, however, is adequate or totally correct. They are often cumbersome and not always user-friendly.

Today, most Jews, unless they are of Arabic speaking countries, do not pronounce the letter het, a strong guttural coming from the back of the throat, differently from any another hard “h” like the English “hot” or “Humphrey.” Its sound would be close to the German “ch” as in “buch” [pronounced as “booh, meaning “book”] or “Achtung” [pronounced as “ahtoong, meaning “attention”), and in Spanish, like the “j” in Juan.”

Many American publications follow the German method, and transliterate het as “ch.” But this method often ends up being funny for a western reader. For example, the Hebrew/Yiddish word for “friends/company” is hevre, and is often romanized as “chèvre;” but that means “goat” in French. The Hebrew word for “festival” is hag, but it is usually transliterated as “Chag;” this sounds like the song my granddaughter, almost three, sings, “Toot toot chugga chugga big red car.” The Hebrew hai means “life” but when rendered as “chai” it reminds me of “Çay”[pronounced as "tchai"], a Turkish word meaning “tea.” Recently, in a discussion about Jewish circumcision, one of my students kept saying “tchi-toosch,” until I realized that he meant hittukh (meaning, “cutting”), because the text he had in his hand read “chituch.” I don’t think you can say with a straight face “chidush” for the Hebrew word hiddush (“novelty”). This is absurd.

So, I am, once again, starting a campaign to drop the silly “ch” from the system of transliteration. I tried before but was not able to get the attention of key people in the publishing industry. Using “h” for the letter het may not be the best solution but at least an American reader will be able to read it closer to the way in which it is pronounced by a Hebrew speaking person today. In my work, I render the letter "het" as "h" and the latter "kaf'/khaf" as "kh." Hence, for instance, I prefer Hanukah to “Chanukah” (it is not ‘tcha-nukah); hayyim (“life”) to "chayyim,” "barukh" to "baruch,"or hasid (“pious”) to “chasid.”

Hopefully, I made my point. Please drop the silly “ch!”

Rifat Sonsino

Thursday, March 18, 2010


At Boston College I am usually called, “Professor” or “Rabbi.” (Once, I was even called “Father”--Well, I teach in a Catholic College!). However, recently, one of my students wrote me an email addressing me as “Hey.” In another case, a student sent me a note that began with “Dear Rifat.” I was surprised and taken aback. Who are these bad-mannered individuals who dare to address a teacher “Hey” of by his first name? What kind of an upbringing did they have from their parents and other adults? Newspapers often report on how some students disrespect their instructors in the public schools. There is even as association called National Association for Prevention of Teacher Abuse (NAPTA); that is, for abuse by students.

I grew up in a community that demanded high respect for elders and teachers. When I was in High School in Istanbul, we used to stand up when the teacher walked into the classroom. Even in Law School, when the professor entered the lecture hall, the entire class stood on its feet. We never addressed our teachers by their first name. Later on, when I was at the rabbinic seminary and then at my graduate school, we always called our professors by their title. Even now, after so many years, I still call my former teachers, some of whom are my age and a few younger than me, by their academic titles; never by their first name. That does not mean that I liked or loved all my instructors. In fact, some I did not care for, others I feared, and a few I could not stand. But there were others, maybe five or six, who had tremendous influence in my life, and I am who I am because of them. But I always treated all my mentors with respect. That is what I was taught.

Rabbinic literature urges every individual to find a mentor: “Get yourself a teacher” (Avot 1:6). “Revere your teacher as you revere Heaven,” says another source (Avot: 4:15 end). Ancient Rabbis place a teacher on a higher plane than a parent. Thus, they argue, if one finds a lost article belonging to a parent and another to a teacher, the teacher’s article must be returned first” (BM 33a). Though the honor due a teacher is a given in rabbinic literature, the sages also state that the teacher needs to earn this trust and respect: “Let the honor of your disciple be as dear to you as your own,” states one Rabbi (Avot: 4: 15a).

As a teacher I try to emulate the best of my mentors, because I realize that by teaching I am also molding my students’ character. What a high responsibility! I hope you too will always remember your favorite teachers, and bless their name every day.

Rifat Sonsino