Columns - 2015

    By any other name

    Judaism has a long history of name changes. Since early in the Torah, numerous names have been changed to add a piece of the Big G to certain special people's monikers. Abram became Abraham, Sarai became Sarah. Jacob became Israel. Hoshea became Joshua. Zimmerman became Dylan.

    Following in that divine tradition, but with decidedly less divine influence, this column is changing its name. It is not changing to protect the innocent -- that ship sailed long ago for this columnist as well as for both of you readers, by virtue of prolonged exposure.

    So, what is the significance of Rear Pew Mirror?

    At most synagogue services, the front row is empty. Sometimes the family for a bar or bat mitzvah is there, but that is either by instruction or because they don't know better.

    A rabbi with whom I worked in Pittsburgh often explained this orchestra-seat emptiness by stating that the front row is reserved for the righteous and the pure of heart. After hearing that, I acted on my newfound obligation and immediately started to sit in the back row at all services, unless compelled by family.

    It's just as well because it's harder for a rabbi to hear sermon heckling from back there.

    Similarly, this column has been featured on the back page of the magazine, though technically it is the front of the magazine for any Hebrew readers who out of habit approach each issue from right to left.

    As always, this space is still for rant. Both of you will continue to receive the same quality of humor as before, for which the editorial staff insisted on including this apology. So fear not, while you gather your remaining Passover marshmallows for the Lag b'Omer bonfire so you can make S'mor-a Matzah.

    Speaking of the Lag chag, too little in Jewish humor is said about the Omer. That gap will not be filled by the following.

    Why do we count the Omer each year? For the same theological reason as many other things we do: Because the Torah says so.

    However, while the original verse is widely published in Leviticus, the recently discovered Mishnah tractate Bava Gump reveals an additional excerpt that provides still more detail as to the Omer counting process.

    From the Book of Omerments, Chapter Four, Verses 16 through 20:

    "Thou must count to forty-nine. Forty-nine shall be the number of the counting, and the number of the counting shall be forty-nine.

    "Fifty shalt thou not count, neither shalt thou count forty-eight, excepting that thou then proceedeth to forty-nine.

    "Fifty-one is right out."

    This did not lead to enough confusion, so the rabbis added another level of complexity by forbidding mention of the number to be counted until it is counted.

    "Thou shalt not say the day of which thou counteth, until thou hast counted it.

    "If thou doest so, thou hast counted before thou intended to count, thus surprising yourself.

    "Imagineth: 'We are about to count the twenty-fifth day of the Om... I just counted the twenty-fifth day of the Omer.'"

    Bava Gump believed the worst part of this was that this guy probably did the same thing on the previous twenty-four days, too. And lived.

    Of course, the culmination of the Omer is Shavuot -- the third of the three festival holidays. It commemorates the giving of the Torah with two days of services attended only by the few remaining people who were actually (and not midrashically) present for the giving at Sinai.

    This year, Shavuot is coincident with Memorial Day weekend. For those who don't usually attend Shavuot services, it gives them double the excuse not to. However, the simultaneous Shavuot and Memorial Day weekend reduces by one the usual calendar events people use for avoiding services.

    Next year, it will return to normal, adding back another day for fewer people to notice the guy muttering to himself in the rear pew.

    Doug Brook is a writer in Silicon Valley who is brushing up his Shakespeare as the new Executive Director of Silicon Valley Shakespeare. For past columns, other writings, and more, visit For exclusive online content, follow

    Copyright Doug Brook. All rights reserved.