Category Archives: Mitzvah Day

Wearing Masks

Torah For Today! Wearing Masks

Rabbi Jeff Berger takes a topical issue and looks at Jewish texts for a response

Mask (Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash)

Two words in Hebrew describe a mask – masveh and masakh. We find masveh in the Torah following the sin of the Golden Calf. 

Moses’s second 40-day experience atop Sinai, which effected forgiveness for the Israelites, brought the replacement set of tablets. 

To assuage their fears, he temporarily veiled his face. Thereafter, in the presence of the divine, and again when conveying God’s teaching to the nation, his face was allowed to shine. 

But in between those encounters, he masked himself. (Misinterpreting this verse, Michelangelo created the statue of Moses with horns.)

The word masakh appears in the description of the curtain that shielded the entrance to the desert Tabernacle. It served as a decorative tapestry and obstructed a direct public view of the divine service.

In each case, these coverings protected others, preventing them from being overwhelmed by God’s glory.  The Israelites were unable to withstand the unfiltered intensity of the divine presence.

In the context of Covid-19 and our government’s requirement to wear masks in public where social distancing rules can’t be maintained, mask-wearing fulfils an altruistic function. 

Dr Ellie Cannon, who attended the recent Mitzvah Day ‘Mask-making with Hugh Dennis’ online event that I helped to organise, said: ‘There is nothing greater we could do as an act of kindness, or a mitzvah, than wear a mask. My mask protects you and yours protects me.”

As we return to synagogue and Jewish ceremonial life, we will be shielded like Moses. 

Our hope is that one day soon, it will be safe to leave off our masks and again experience among ourselves and with others, without fear, the unfiltered intensity of God’s glory.

  •  Rabbi Jeff Berger can be reached at


Shavuot- Counting the Days & the Weeks

As the UK ‘lockdown’ begins to ease, here is a reflection on the meaning of Shavuot as we experience it in this time of pandemic.


Many of us have been counting 7 days and 7 weeks since the 2nd night of Passover – in anticipation of Shavuot, the Jewish festival that commemorates the giving of the 10 Commandments.

As Moshe, toward the end of his life, told the young generation of Israelites who had survived wandering in the desert (Deut. 4:33-34), ‘Did ever a people hear the voice of G-d speaking out of the midst of fire, as you have, and lived?’ The awesome experience of being in the Divine Presence at Sinai after escaping oppression in Egypt, catalyzed our ancestors into becoming a distinct nation, with 10 categories of responsibilities to the Almighty and to each other.

But sustainability isn’t accomplished by words alone. The Jewish people needed a place and practices to experience G-d’s presence every day and a code of behaviour to ensure we were looking after each other properly.

Following the initial shock and fear that COVID-19 induced, we realized things would get worse before they got better. With reluctant acceptance, we assessed and adapted communal life, learning that although we couldn’t practice as usual we could find new ways to connect. Communities shifted to virtual gatherings, to pray together, celebrate together, to reach out to one another, to study, sing, and mourn together.

Once we had settled into our adapted ‘temporary’ reality, we reconnected with our community partners, people of all faiths and backgrounds, and realized that even when we are isolated at home, we can come together to do small acts of kindness for others. Now, more than ever, unity, connection and caring for the vulnerable and isolated is of the utmost importance.

Earlier this month hundreds joined us to Cook-along with Maureen Lipman as part of Every Mitzvah Matters. The act of cooking a hearty, nutritious homemade meal filled with love for another person, showed how much we care. This created ripples throughout families and local neighbourhoods and taught us that we can all do something small to put a smile on someone’s face.

As I mentioned earlier, for the past 7 weeks we’ve done a lot of counting. We’ve counted days in isolation without seeing loved ones and we’ve paid close attention to the COVID-19 infection rates. As the figures have slowly started to recede, we have begun to breathe a sigh of relief, whilst acknowledging that minority communities including our own, have been deeply hit.

There is still much collective uncertainty, although we hope to slowly shift towards familiar patterns. We must acknowledge that the world we will be returning to will not look or feel the same. The accumulated sense of loss and suffering will need to be addressed. We will have to see how much of the economy can be rescued. We must be aware that those most vulnerable prior to COVID-19 will continue to be incredibly vulnerable, and very likely the numbers of vulnerable people will rise even further.

Midrash Tanhuma describes the voice of G-d at Sinai as having emerged when the world was in total silence. It further informs that this Heavenly voice continues daily to ring out those primordial words ‘I am the Lord, your G-d’, calling us to listen and to return to the Truth of all Truths.

For me, this period of counting has given the opportunity to take measure. I’ve enjoyed the birdsong, occasional walks in a nearby nature reserve, and moments of pristine silence.

This year’s Omer, counting period, helped me realize that the true meaning of Shavuot is more than commemorating receiving the 10 Commandments at the base of Mount Sinai once a year, and it’s more than bringing those spiritual duties into my home through Mitzvot. Shavuot is hearing the Almighty’s voice echoing every day in the silence of my own heart.

Each of us is made in the image of the Divine, and I believe when we listen to and find the Heavenly voice inside ourselves we can recognize it in others. It doesn’t matter what faith or background we come from, or how we practice, but simply that we are all human. Only then can healing begin and we can rebuild the world we wish to create.

Let us take this time as we celebrate the gift of the Torah, of harvests and the blossoming of new fruits, to remember what truly matters and what we wish to take with us into the uncertain future ahead.

And of course, let’s enjoy some delicious cheesecake!

Moadim LeSimcha

Rabbi Jeff and the Mitzvah Day Team

Mitzvah Day launches interfaith volunteering scheme for small acts of communal kindness

‘Every Mitzvah Matters’ begins with eight leaders from different faiths cooking together online as a way of caring for other people

Eight leaders from different religions came together to care for other people, through cooking via Zoom, and launch the new Every Mitzvah Matters interfaith volunteering scheme.

Created by the charity Mitzvah Day, the scheme will see regular online get-togethers by people from all faiths and none, where they will take part in various social action projects designed to help their neighbours and the most vulnerable in their local communities. It is intended to highlight and encourage the small every day acts of heroism that people are doing for each other during this coronavirus crisis.

The cooking event saw the faith leaders unite online from their own kitchens and chat about the dishes they were cooking, the significance of food in their religions and who the final meals would be going to. In most cases these were taken to nearby vulnerable or elderly people who would appreciate this personal touch.

The interfaith cooking was hosted by Mitzvah Day’s founder and chair Laura Marks OBE. She said: “The little of acts of kindness we are seeing every day in this crisis are bringing our local communities together in a way I’ve never witnessed before. Our aim is to encourage even more people to take part, and show just how easy it is to be part of Britain’s new army of carers as, truly, Every Mitzvah Matters.”

Laura, who made a ratatouille using anything in her fridge, was joined by:

  • Rabbi Jeff Berger, representing the Jewish faith and cooking his own hybrid British/American creation called ‘mac and cauliflower and cheese’. Rabbi Jeff is an interfaith adviser.
  • Siriol Davies, representing the Christian faith and cooking a roasted butternut squash curry. Siriol is the presence and engagement national coordinator for the Church of England.
  • Hifsa Haroon-Iqbal MBE, representing the Muslim faith and cooking samosas for the breaking of the daily fast of Ramadan. Hifsa is chair of the Jewish Muslim women’s network Nisa-Nashim.
  • Ravinder Kaur Nijjar representing the Sikh faith and cooking a potato and pea curry. Ravinder is a prominent Scottish interfaith consultant and educationalist
  • Bhante Pannavamsa representing the Buddhist faith and cooking wild mushroom tortellini and gnocchi. Bhante is a Buddhist monk and chef.
  • Ashwin Mehta representing the Jain faith and cooking an udon noodle stir fry with sweetcorn soup. Ashwin is a trustee of the SMRD Jain spiritual centre.
  • Armin Dastoor representing the Zoroastrian faith and cooking a sweet vermicelli dish usually cooked for special occasions. Armin runs a catering business serving the Zoroastrian community and all interested in Indian food.

Further Every Mitzvah Matters events are planned and will include a range of online sessions including family friendly activities. Anyone wishing to take part should contact

United Nations – 17 Global SDGs

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I imagine that it will soon be unusual for anyone living in the 21st Century not to be aware of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set by the global community at the United Nations in 2015. The aim of the SDGs is to create a map to a more sustainable future for all of humanity. More information can be found here.

My introduction to SDGs began a few years ago at a conference in Caux, Switzerland.

According to the UN website, ‘Sustainable Development Goals address the global challenges we face, including those related to poverty, inequality, climate, environmental degradation, prosperity, and peace & justice.’ They are interconnected with the aim for the world community to achieve them by 2030.

At first glance, one might not necessarily associate all of these goals with Judaism but we believe the argument can be made that they’re as Jewish as can be. We may simply need to widen our definition of ‘who should be included’ in our sense of Jewish responsibility for helping to create a better world.

The most basic goals are aimed at Eliminating Poverty (1), Zero Hunger (2), Good Health & Well-being (3) and Quality Education (4). These would surely fall under the category of Gemilut Chasadim (Acts of Loving Kindness) which we associate back to the Biblical time of Abraham & Sarah.

Now you might be asking, how does this connect to my Mitzvah Day project? If you’re looking for projects that connect to these SDGs, you can find out if there is a night shelter or foodbank nearby that would appreciate some support. There might be a cooking project you can run for a local homeless shelter, or you may look to promote quality education through initiatives such as the Mary’s Meals back pack project.

Then there’s Clean Water & Sanitation (6), Affordable & Clean Energy (7), Decent Work & Economic Growth (8), and Industry, Innovation & Infrastructure (9), affiliated with our idea of Tikkun Olam (Repairing our World). By creating enriched opportunities for people around the globe, we minimise much of the current suffering among people in countries of all economic standings.

Mitzvah Day is currently in around 30 countries around the world and we can’t wait to see where it goes next. You can also support these causes through running a bike collection for the Bike Project, collecting ring-pulls to be sent to the Philippines by The Purple Community Fund as part of a recycling, women’s empowerment and training programme, or support the Lord’s Taverners Club with sports kit – they also provide training around the world for people to become sports coaches.

Then there are the economic goals of Sustainable Cities & Communities (11), Responsible Consumption & Production (12), Climate Action (13), Life below Water (14), and Life on Land (15) which can be linked to humanity’s responsibility found at the beginning of Bereishit where G-d charges Adam & Eve to ‘serve & preserve’ the Garden of Eden.

Now this clearly ties into our 2019 theme and Mitzvah Day’s ongoing commitment to be as environmentally friendly as possible. You’ve likely already heard about ways to organise a litter pick in your local area, projects for planting trees and wildflowers, making vegan bird feeders and upcycling projects like making dog toys, using old textiles, for animal shelters.

And finally, there are the goals of Gender Equality (5), Reduced Inequalities (10), Peace, Justice & Strong Institutions (16), and Partnerships for the Goals (17), which are addressed by our Jewish principle of Tzedek (Justice).

Mitzvah Day strongly believes in partnership principles, these are the relationships that connect us and allows us to thrive. Whether working to make things happen with a local charity partner, as part of different faith communities coming together, or in a partnership within your community – we are stronger together than we are apart.

A Mitzvah Day charity partner that deeply espouses these values is René Cassin who works to promote and protect Universal Human Rights. If you’re interested in learning more about modern day slavery, the refugee crisis, detention centres, discrimination against minorities or other human rights causes, Rene Cassin can support you in bringing this to your community.

That the first human beings were created in G-d’s image (B’Tselem Elohkim) reinforces the need, as well as the opportunity, to see in each person regardless of race, religion, cultural background or ethnicity, the Spirit of G-d. Encouraging people to live according to their higher ideals benefits us all.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals not only tie into our key Jewish principles of Tikkun Olam (Repairing our World), Gemilut Chasadim (Acts of Loving Kindness) and Tzedek (Justice) but we hope they’ll connect to your Mitzvah Day projects as well.

Wishing you a refreshing August.

Rabbi Jeff & the Mitzvah Day Team

Reflections on Ramadan and Interfaith Iftars

Reflections on Ramadan and Interfaith Iftars by Rabbi Jeff Berger

Ramadan UK 2019 occurred from 5 May to 4 June, and the fasts typically began as early as 3:00am and often went out after 9:00pm.

Now here’s a little bit of astronomy for you. A solar calendar has 365 1/4 days, the lunar one is roughly 354 1/3 days. While the Jewish calendar is solar-lunar in composure and adjusts so that Passover always falls during the spring, the Muslim one is only lunar. Thus, each year the start of Ramadan shifts by 11 days. Muslims over 18 years old will remember fasting in the middle of the English winter when dawn is close to 8:00am and sunset occurs around 4:00pm. Muslims also have a way of adjusting the time for breaking-the-fast in areas closer to the polar caps where sunset is delayed for long periods.

Occurring in the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and involving fasting (sawm) from pre-dawn to dusk as well as much prayer and reflection, the month of Ramadan marks the first revelation of the Quran to the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh).

For the devout, it offers an opportunity to read through Islamic Scripture, leading to a sense of spiritual purification. Muslims are encouraged to increase their financial giving (zakat), and all good deeds (taqwa) are amplified many times over.

Children above puberty are expected to fast during the month of Ramadan. Men and women refrain from marital relations. There are fasting exemptions for pregnant and nursing women as well as for the sick or the elderly. The fast ends each day with a meal known as Iftar.

At Mitzvah Day, most of our staff were invited to join an Iftar at least once last month. Whether it was a gathering like the one hosted by Naz Legacy in partnership with the Mayor of London, which began at St Pauls Cathedral with Bishop Sarah with the Iftar meal at Guildhall joined by Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, or more local ones, like in Gospel Oak where the community is still coming to grips with a fatal knife crime that occurred in early April, the overwhelming sense a guest receives is a deep warmth and hospitality. The hosts went to great lengths to provide kosher food for Jewish visitors and to cater for all different dietary requirements, and the warmth of welcome and embrace overflowed.

Iftars are a bit like the New Year count down. People begin gathering an hour or so before the fast goes out, to either help set up the room or to hear speeches from the local Imam or community leaders explaining the aims of Ramadan and some of the tenets of Islam. More than once, unsuspecting non-Muslim guests were caught off guard when a microphone was handed to them with the request to say a few words.

And then, as the Muezzin calls out the end of the fast, you can hear bottles uncapped and the sound of water pouring into glasses, followed closely by the offering of a very sweet dried date. The rest of the evening progresses rather quickly as there is only a short while to have the first bites of food before it’s time for the night prayers. The main meal follows thereafter.

Beyond the incredible and seemingly effortless hospitality from those who have been without food or liquid for 18 hours day-in and day-out throughout Ramadan, is that sense of holiness that comes from religious fasting. Over the past few years it has become commonplace for government offices, synagogues and churches to host Iftars for their Muslim neighbours – as a way to reach out, to build bridges and to improve social cohesion.

From a Jewish perspective, one couldn’t help but notice remarkable similarities. In Hebrew the word for Fasting is Tsom compared to the Arabic Sawm. Muslims have a tradition during the last 10 days of Ramadan to increase their reading of the Quran in the Mosque. Because it’s not known on which night (Laylat al Qadr) the revelation occurred, there’s a custom to stay awake on odd-numbered nights. Many Jews just did the same thing on Shavuot to commemorate the revelation at Sinai.

The Mitzvah Day Team would like to extend a special thanks to all those that hosted us and to all those that extended invitations, as we couldn’t attend them all. It was a pleasure and a privilege to be so warmly welcomed into so many communities this past month and we look forward to joining you for Mitzvah Day projects in November!

Shavuot – Festival of the Harvests

Shavuot – Festival of the Harvests

Shavuot is one of the 3 major ‘foot festivals’ in the Torah because it was a time of pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The Biblical description of Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, marks the conclusion of the counting of the 49 days, 7 weeks of the Omer which counts the time from Passover to Shavuot, the harvest festival. There are two harvest items that were taken as offerings to the temple, the first being an offering of 2 superior loaves of bread made of the finest white flour from the new wheat crop and the second was bringing the first summer fruits.

The Talmud describes how farmers throughout the land would tie their first new buds with a ribbon and later when these matured into fruits, they would be harvested, delicately placed in a basket and taken to the Temple in gratitude to the Almighty for the land’s bountiful produce.

Not long ago on a study tour in Israel, a Christian minister was awestruck trying to imagine the animated procession of devout farmers on their ascent to the Holy City, because pilgrimage is a part of all of the Abrahamic traditions. For Muslims, hajj, pilgrimage to Mecca, bears a striking resemblance to our foot festivals and even the word chag and haj can be seen to come from the same root sources.

When the pilgrims arrived to Jerusalem with their gifts, the farmers would recite a declaration that still appears in our Passover Haggadah, a testimony to the Almighty’s kindness not just to us, but to our forefathers going back to the promise made by G-d to Abraham and his descendants.

Shavuot is also associated with the Book of Ruth because it takes place during the harvest season, and Ruth who was widowed and living with her widowed mother-in-law Naomi, extended herself in an act of selflessness and kindness by collecting grain for their household. The once wealthy Naomi who had lost her status and possessions during a prolonged stay in Moav, was left with nothing except the generosity of the local farmers, who according to the Torah laws, allocated a portion of their fields for the poor. Ruth’s good fortune was to end up in the field of Boaz, a wealthy and generous patron.

From these 2 elaborate harvest ceremonies and from the decision by the sages of old to link the Book of Ruth with Shavuot, we can learn important lessons. The first I would like to focus on is the need for those of us who have plenty, to follow the example of Boaz, to graciously share what we have with those in need.

The second message we can take is that, whether it would have been commanded in the Torah or not, we are universally and morally compelled to help look after the welfare of our fellow human beings. For those in need of compassion, or for others starting their lives over after traumatic circumstances forced them to relocate to the UK, surely we can spare something, especially a small portion of our time, to be of support to them.

This is a message especially relevant for those of us at Mitzvah Day who continually reach out to charity partners old and new, and our dedicated Mitzvah Day participants, learning about their needs and how we can support them both during Mitzvah Day and throughout the year.

Be sure to check out our available projects page and make sure you’re registered for Mitzvah Day 2019, November 17th!

Wishing you a joyous Shavuot festival,

Rabbi Jeff and the Mitzvah Day team