A Recipe for Teaching Sifrei Kodesh

How do you make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich? A few months ago, I began my sixth grade religious school class by asking my students this question while presenting sandwich-making materials to my computer camera. They instructed me to put the peanut butter on the bread. So, as they said, I put my unopened jar of peanut butter on top of my twist-tied bag of bread. They rolled their eyes and chastised me. Then, they amended their initial instruction: open the jar of peanut butter. We went on like this for several minutes until they wrote a thorough and specific recipe for the perfect peanut butter and jelly sandwich—which I then made and tasted.

The goal of this introduction was not for me to have an afternoon snack (although the sandwich was delicious). I did this activity near the beginning of our unit on Sifrei Kodesh (Holy Books) to help my students understand the Mishnah. Oftentimes, I explained, the Torah instructs us something like: “Make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.” The Mishnah, a compilation of rabbinic thought from the third century CE, takes us step-by-step through the early rabbinic interpretation of those instructions called halakhah (Jewish law). Later, my students would learn that the Talmud takes this recipe one step further, detailing which brands of peanut butter one can buy and which pieces of bread certain rabbis chose.

HUC did not teach me that the Mishnah is like a recipe book. But I was simultaneously studying the Mishnah in Dr. Jason Kalman’s early rabbinic literature course. We discussed the rabbis’ theology, psychology, and context—all the elements that make the Mishnah the text it is. As interesting as this class was for me, I knew that my religious school class would not be successful if I presented the material in the same way. I have made my commitments to studying Judaism; my students are still deciding whether or not and how to commit.

The recipe analogy came out of a conversation with my supervisor, Rebekah Skirball-Miller. While brainstorming, she suggested I start with something familiar and tangible for my students. The Mishnah might have been new for my students, but they were all familiar with the concept of following specific instructions, whether in the kitchen, in a science experiment, or in a video game. As a religious school teacher, I have found that students need to feel material is personally relevant to their lives before they become interested in its content. An abstract relevance to living a Jewish life is not enough, especially when the students are still trying to figure out their identities and what their connection to Judaism will be. 

Sixth grade is the perfect time for a unit on Sifrei Kodesh. As my students are facing Jewish adulthood, I presented them with detailed recipe books for a Jewish life. I also found that I could test my own understanding of the material and my developing translation skills by teaching what I learned in in Dr. Kalman’s class to others. 

For example, we discussed Mishnah Yoma 8:4: “As for children, they are not subject on Yom Kippur [to fasting]; however, they are educated one year or two years before [they reach the age of obligation], so that they will be in the habit of mitzvot.” In Dr. Kalman’s class, we discussed why the rabbis placed such specific parameters on ritual observance. In religious school, we discussed why one might feel obligated to fast at all.

This text felt relevant for two reasons: We studied it during the High Holy Day season, and it dealt specifically with the transition from childhood to adulthood. My students shared their personal experiences and connections with this practice, and together we tried to figure out why the rabbis care about the age at which one starts fasting for Yom Kippur. As Dr. Kalman did for me, I hoped to provide my students with more context for a familiar Jewish practice while also inviting them to think critically about the practices in which they already partake.

I did not want to teach only facts or laws to my students. A passage like Mishnah Yoma 8:4—never mind Sifrei Kodesh as a whole—will not matter to them until they recognize that they are living it. I also wanted them to recognize that they have the power to shape the recipes we as Jews follow; after all, they are the arbiters of their own Jewish commitment. By joining the Jewish conversation, they give themselves the power to write their own recipes. It is my goal to model participation in the shaping, even if it sometimes leads to sticky fingers for the rest of class. The sandwich is worth it in the end.

Ilana Symons currently serves as the student rabbi for Temple Beth Sholom in Marquette, MI and as a teaching fellow at Adath Israel Congregation in Cincinnati.

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