Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Slichot in a Nutshell

I hadn't planned to write about slichot for another week or two, but apparently Sephardi custom is to say Slichot for the entire month of Elul. That means they start tonight. Or so I think. Ask your rabbi. Ashkenazim should begin saying slichot on Saturday night, September 24, 2011. Since it'll be after midnight, it will technically be Sunday, Sept. 25.

What are slichot? They're penitential prayers. Now, they prepare us for the High Holydays, but they are said on somber days throughout the year. For instance, fast days. Notably, slichot are not recited on Tisha B'Av. I'd be curious to know why, if anyone here knows. My guess is that they are preempted by kinnot.

The content: depends on your minhag. I apparently don't remember this, but my research says that the Ashkenazim recite different slichot each day, but that the Sephardim recite the same service every day.

The timing is a little tricky. Each year, check with your rabbi to make sure you have the right beginning date. 

The first time you say slichot is at midnight or shortly thereafter on Saturday night. All other days (Jewish days, night and then day), slichot are said in the early morning before shacharit (morning prayers). However, you can continue say them shortly after midnight if you wish, apparently. The Ashkenazim only say slichot a minimum of 4 times before Rosh Hashanah, but may say them up to a week and a half before Rosh Hashanah.

Most Jews continue to say slichot during the 10 Days of Repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. (Note that Chabad does not.)

Some portions of selichot can only be said with a minyan, so it is preferable to go to synagogue instead of saying them at home.

A tricky semantics note: the word "slichot" refers to the prayers themselves, but also to the slichot service as a whole.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

UPDATED: Word of the Day: Bentch

Bentch is a very commonly-used term, but it can be hard for people to understand since it sounds exactly like the English word "bench." So today, we're gonna bentch licht, bentch gomel, and bentch after dinner!

Bentch (pronounced like and sometimes written as "bench") is the Yiddish word for "pray." It's a verb. "Bentching" is the noun. "Davening" is the Yiddish word normally used for praying, but bentching is still used for very particular kinds of davening. You can "daven" anything, but you only "bentch" a few particular things. It doesn't make any sense to a native English speaker, so just memorize its uses.

Let's discuss these phrases in turn:
  • Bentching: The grace after meals, birkat hamazon. You bentch from a bentcher, those little books on the table that are probably in a napkin holder. If "bentch" is used by itself, the person is talking about this bentching.
  • Bentch gomel: A prayer said during a Torah service when someone survives a life-threatening event. See Phrase of the Day: Bentching Gomel.
  • Bentch licht: Lighting Shabbat candles. This is the least-used of the phrases.
UPDATE: The commenters have added a couple of uses and clarified that bentch generally means "bless," so it is used when making brachot (blessings). These are the additions:
  • Bentch the kids. This is when parents bless their children on Friday nights soon after Shabbat starts.
  • Bentch lulav. This is the blessing over the lulav during Sukkot. We'll return to this in greater detail in just a few short weeks. The lulav is perhaps the craziest-appearing thing that Jews do.
  • I also suggest that you read the Curmudgeonly Israeli Giyoret's use of bentch in the first comment below. It's hilarious.
Used in context:
  • It's time to bentch.
  • Should married women bentch gomel or should their husband bentch it for them? (An actual halachic maklokes)
  • Have you bentched yet?
  • Give her a second, she's bentching.
  • It's almost time to bentch licht.

Monday, August 29, 2011

What You Should Know Before Going to Your First Orthodox Shabbat Dinner

There is a fantastic post over at Out of the Ortho Box: The 10 Things I Want My Shabbat Guests to Know.

What do you wish you'd known? 

For me, it was the toilet. 

Elul: A Time of Anticipation

Tonight begins the two days of rosh chodesh Elul, the new month of Elul. (Don't get confused. Tonight starts the last day of Av, and tomorrow night starts the first day of Elul. Both days are rosh chodesh Elul. That's two-day rosh chodesh for you!)

Elul is the last month of the Jewish calendar, as we eagerly anticipate the High Holydays next month, in Tishrei.

I think that's the essence of Elul: Anticipation. We anticipate, so we prepare. Anticipation manifests itself in many ways, sometimes positive, sometimes negative. Anticipation can be scary or it can be intoxicating. You anticipate medical test results, but you also anticipate your birthday. This year, I personally hope to tap into the excitement aspect of anticipation.

I think of Elul as completing the circle of the year. I begin to look towards the new year with new goals and new things to do, but I still need to tie up the loose ends of the current year. We're preparing for the upcoming High Holidays, but we're also reflecting on our actions over the past year. 

One of my favorite mystical ideas/"trivia questions" in Judaism is that Elul may be an acronym for "Ani l'dodi v'dodi li," "I am my Beloved's and my Beloved is mine" (Song of Songs, Shir haShirim 6:3).

So how do we prepare? 

There are some changes to the liturgy during Elul:
  • Psalms/Tehilim 27 is added to the end of shacharit and mincha prayers. If you keep turning pages, you'll see it.
  • The shofar is blown after sharcharis each morning. The shofar is often associated with a wake-up call. That makes Elul the ultimate snooze button. It is not blown on Shabbat (which is an interesting rabbinic debate for another day).
  • Near the end of the month, we begin reciting slichot, penitential prayers (your community custom will determine the appropriate time). I'll write more about slichot later this month.

Some other customs:
  • This is the time to begin seeking forgiveness from others before Yom Kippur. Hashem cannot forgive you for your sins against other people until you have sought forgiveness and made atonement with the other person.
  • Likewise, this is a time of reflection on the year. What goals did you accomplish? Where did you fall short? What middos (character traits) should you focus on in the coming year? How can you improve your relationship with Hashem and with your fellow human beings?
  • Focus on teshuva (repentence), prayer, and tzedakah.
  • From rosh chodesh Elul until Rosh Hashanah, greet others with a wish that they be inscribed and sealed in the book of life for a good year: "K'siva v'chasima tovah." It literally means "A good writing and sealing." Don't worry if you don't memorize that. You don't sin or create a faux pas by not saying it. You can even say, "You too!"
  • Some have their tefilin and mezuzot checked during this month.
  • Some visit cemeteries to visit the resting place of loved ones and reflect on mortality.

May you experience unprecedented growth this Elul!

Friday, August 26, 2011

Me, Myself, and Irene

I thought I was done with hurricanes when I left South Carolina, and done with earthquakes when I left California. This week has been devoted to proving me wrong. New York City saw an earthquake earlier this week and will soon deal with at least a category 1 hurricane.

Excuse me while I go batten down the hatches to ride this storm out.

If you're facing Irene before NYC is, check out Shabbat Protocols in Case of a Hurricane from the OU.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Only Cholent Recipe You'll Ever Need

Shabbos Cholent really isn't hard to make. 

Open your fridge. Is there food in it? Good. You're on the right track already.

Put your crockpot on the counter. If you're really fancy, put a crockpot bag in there to make it easier to clean up.

If you're not so fancy, you can spray some Pam or other non-stick stuff on the sides if not using a crockpot bag.

If you want a gold star, put your crockpot on a timer. Make sure the timer only turns it off, not on.

Let's begin.

Put in some potatoes. They can be sliced, quartered, or whole. Whatever floats your boat.

Put in any other veggies you want to include.

Beans are usually a good idea.

Throw in some barley because only the best cholents have barley. (Quinoa is an acceptable alternative.)

Then, the piece de resistance: the meat. Vegetarian cholent is just vegetarian chili. Pick the meat of your choice or multiple meats. Kishka is popular, but don't ask what it's made of.

Once this is all taken care of, throw in everything in your fridge. A little mustard, a little ketchup, some hot sauce, fruit preserves, duck sauce, soy sauce, Italian dressing, tomato sauce, whatever. It will be delicious no matter what you do.

For good measure, add a lot of spices. Cinnamon, cajun spices, paprika, onion powder, crushed red pepper, cayenne pepper, curry powder, garlic, whatever you can find.

Voila! Cholent!

Bonus points if you put an egg on top. You'll be an honorary Sephardi, and the egg will turn interesting colors!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Phrase of the Day: Bentching Gomel

Bentching gomel is a special prayer that allows you to thank Hashem for delivering you from danger. (Imagine being at a football game..."Go, Mel!" It doesn't rhyme with camel.) 

You must have actually been in danger. Close to danger isn't enough. You have defied death, so now you should thank Hashem in public during the Torah service. You recite it in front of a minyan, and they answer, "Amen, and may He who bestowed goodness on you continue to bestow goodness on you forever." This ceremony replaces the sacrifice that you would have brought in the times of the Beit HaMikdash.

Note: "Bentching" as a word will be dealt with separately next week.

There are traditionally four categories of events that give you the opportunity to bentch gomel. (It's called birkat hagomel in Hebrew.)
  • Crossing a sea
  • Crossing a desert
  • Being released from imprisonment (always check your situation with your rabbi)
  • Surviving a serious illness or injury
The desert and sea issues are particularly complicated with airplanes. You should check with your rabbi how your congregation deals with airplane trips. If they "count," you should bentch gomel for each leg of your trip.

Just to be clear: bentching gomel is totally optional. You haven't committed an aveira (sin) if you were in one of those situations and don't arrange to bentch gomel. However, you should "run to do a mitzvah," and this is such an easy mitzvah to fulfill, so why not do it! 

Traditionally, illness included giving birth. Today, it's debated whether giving birth justifies bentching gomel since it is (thankfully) a very safe process today. However, if there were complications, you certainly could say it.

It is debated whether women can/should bentch gomel. While women were allowed to bring the sacrifice that bentching gomel replaces, Ashkenazim traditionally held that it was immodest for a woman to recite the prayer in front of the minyan of men required. Today, synagogues have split on this issue. Rav Moshe Feinstein (great rabbi generally accepted by most Americans) ruled that women could recite it, but that it should preferably be done in her husband's presence if she has a husband. 

If you are a woman and "allowed" to bentch gomel, you will generally recite it from the women's section. Recite it loud enough so that at least ten Jewish men can hear you and respond. If you would rather your husband recite it on your behalf, you may certainly do that instead.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

UPDATED: Your Community Standards v. Travel

What happens when your community standards (which are either halacha or custom) are not the standards of a place you travel to?

Let's discuss some examples (this is not exhaustive):
  • You live in the diaspora, so you celebrate an "extra" day of yom tov for 8 days of Pesach. You travel to Israel, where Pesach is celebrated for only 7 days. (This is halacha.)
  • Your community says something is not kosher, but the community you're visiting says it is kosher. (Glatt kosher could be an example. Bailey's Irish Cream is a better example. See the comments to Shailah and Machlokas)
  • Standards of tzinus.
  • You're Ashkenazi, so you don't eat kitniyot on Pesach. You're staying with a Sephardi family, and they prepare kitniyot side dishes. 
As a general rule, you should maintain your community standards (assuming they are your standards), no matter where you travel. Thus, you celebrate 8 days of Pesach in Israel.

However, if you actually move to the new community, that may change things. It may also matter if your standards are "less strict" than the community you're visiting. In some cases, it may be appropriate to temporarily adopt the "stricter" standards (presuming that you want to do that). In such a case, you should speak with your rabbi.

This applies to all but the kitniyot, which is custom that has become halacha for the Ashkenazi. However, the halacha is about eating kitniyot, not possessing it, not being in the same room with it, not having it sit on a plate in front of you. So assuming that everything is kosher, you may eat with the Sephardi family (or invite a Sephardi to your potluck) during Pesach even if you don't eat kitniyot.

Monday, August 22, 2011

News: Gwyneth Paltrow Announces She's Raising Her Children Jewish ...Huh?

Gwyneth Paltrow has announced that she is raising her children Jewishly. US Weekly has one version of the story: "Gwyneth Paltrow: I'm Raising Apple and Moses Jewish." However, the story is wrong in that the episode did not show anyone giving Paltrow lessons in Jewish halacha about matrilineal descent. While I'm sure it came up in real life, it didn't make it into the episode itself.

But really? Oy to the vey.

Paltrow's father is Jewish, and she was raised celebrating both Christian and Jewish traditions. She describes this as "such a nice way to grow up." Excuse me while I am underwhelmed by your enthusiasm.

I'm also confused as to how a celebrity "announces" that she is changing how she raises her children. Do you hold a press conference? "I am here to announce that I now declare my children to be Jews. I am also extending their bedtime by one hour. Thank you, and have a good evening." I'm confused how this got into the news at all.

I guess I'm just confused overall. But on the other hand, I don't care what childrearing decisions a celebrity makes. While I think this decision will lead to some difficult identity issues for her children regarding any Jewishness they are raised with (but with 2 non-Jewish parents, I can't imagine it's a lot), that is not my business. It's between the parents and a rabbi. Why is this newsworthy?? Yet here it is on my blog. I haven't written it yet, but this story puts the fire under me to write about intermarriage sooner than I had intended, especially since "patrilineal Jews" are a large number of conservative and orthodox converts today. It's not fair to the children, and Paltrow's situation is that much worse as neither parent actually believes he or she is Jewish. It's programming your children with identity issues by telling them they are part of a group that both parents know do not accept them. 

If you want to watch the mentioned video of Who Do You Think You Are, it's still up on Hulu. To her credit, at least Paltrow can pronounce chutzpah. We'll talk about her version of kabbalah soon enough ::eyeroll::

End snarkiness. What, you didn't know that I'm the snarkopotomus?

Friday, August 19, 2011

Frum and Fabulous in the Office

People have asked for office-appropriate frum fashion choices. Really, frum clothing lends itself easily to the office environment. (Women's suits may be a very different story, based on the standards of your community.) 

After more than a year at my prior job, my co-workers (who were also my classmates and friends) hadn't realized that I wear skirts full-time. They also didn't notice that I am shomer negiah. Instead, they thought I was just "classy" and professional. Maybe they're just blind, but I don't think modest dress and behavior should be in-your-face. I think that would actually be immodest, not to mention the possibility of embarrassing the other person. But, as in all things, opinions and halachic rulings differ.

This applique 3/4 sleeve sweater is from Nordstrom Rack. The skirt is a plain black suit-material skirt, like you would find on any self-respecting seminary graduate. The shirt underneath the sweater is a sleeveless tan shell. It's also made from sweater-like material. I've owned it so long that I'm afraid I don't remember where it came from. 

I'm not wearing shoes in that picture, but I would recommend that shoes complete your office attire. However, I can only recommend heels of a reasonable height, which I believe is a maximum of 4 inches. Any more than that, and you are walking with tiny steps and look like you have a watermelon between your knees. No one, and I mean no one, can walk properly in high stilettos. Not to mention drawing inappropriate attention, which is what hooker heels are intended to do. In the office situation, flats or heels of 1-2 inches ("kitten heels") are both appropriate and flattering. That's your unsolicited fashion advice for the day.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

What CAN I do on Shabbat? Shabbos-Friendly Activities

You've heard it before (and maybe you've even said it), "Shabbat is so restrictive. All you can do is go to synagogue." And reenforcing that perception, a Google search looking for activities allowed on Shabbat only returns pages and pages of things you can't do on Shabbat. For someone new to Shabbat, you're left wading through all the prohibitions and must figure out what's left when you rule everything else out.

I'm here to assure you that Shabbat is fun, peaceful, and can be filled with many activities! But as many people say, you can't understand the peace of Shabbat until you do it. 

Here is a list of ideas to get you thinking about the possibilities of Shabbat! Please feel free to add more Shabbat-friendly activities in the comments section! (After all, I'm a pretty boring person, so I'm sure I don't know the full breadth of possibility!)
  • Napping (my favorite!)
  • Studying Torah subjects
  • Reading
  • Reading to your kids (or other people's kids!)
  • Walks outdoors (be careful of eruv, distance, and exercise issues)
  • "Marital relations"
  • Playing with your kids
  • Socializing outdoors, in homes, or in the synagogue
  • Snacking (Calories don't count on Shabbat, but my scale calls Shabbat's bluff)
  • Singing
  • Checkers
  • Chess
  • Charades
  • Card games
  • Mah jong
  • Dominoes
  • Bananagrams or Scrabble (check with your rabbi about specifics)
  • Possibly baseball, basketball, or other outdoor games (check with your rabbi). I haven't inquired into this, but games like kickball and soccer seem like a bad idea if played on non-parking lot/driveway surfaces.
For games, remember that you can't write down scores or write as part of the game. However, there are other ways to keep score, such as a pile of jelly beans. 

In short, it's amazing how fast Shabbat goes. It's over before you know it, and you didn't accomplish half the things you wanted to (usually reading-wise). You will never lack things to do on Shabbat, I assure you. Assuming you want to do anything at all! Some weeks, you just need to disengage from the entire world, and that's okay too.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Management Update: The blog just hit 100,000 views!

Yes, I'm a dork. A dork who loves statistics.

The blog just crossed 100,000 views. And yes, I did watch the stats page this evening to make sure I'd see it happen! I predicted that it would cross this milestone tomorrow, and I wasn't sure whether the blog or my car would cross 100,000 first. (I should make up the car's missing 400 miles tomorrow.) The blog has won.

Thank you, dear readers!

The Value of Productivity

The Lubavitcher Rebbe used to tell a story:

A nobleman who enjoyed the aesthetics of life hired a farmer to stand inside his castle and move back and forth with a hand pick, just as he would do in the field. The nobleman took great pleasure in the simple elegance of the farmer's sway, and he paid the farmer well for his "work." Still, after entertaining the nobleman for several days, the farmer refused to continue. "But I pay you generously," said the surprised nobleman, many times more than you would make by working in the field. And you don't have to exert yourself nearly as much." 
"You don't seem to understand," the farmer replied. "I cannot continue doing something - even if it takes no toil and effort - that doesn't produce. I would rather work much harder and be productive than be paid well to do something that bears no fruit. 
- Toward a Meaningful Life: The Wisdom of the Rebbe, p94-95 
The author goes on to give the Rebbe's explanation of this story (my paraphrasing/understanding): Our body and soul are different (obviously). The body becomes tired and needs to be refueled. The soul doesn't tire when you are doing the right things. It has virtually unlimited energy. Ideally, body and soul stay in balance, each taking care of the other.

Each day, you should ask, "Am I using all of my G-d given resources and abilities to produce more than was given to me?" This is taking the idea of "profit" to a global scale. It means taking your resources and abilities and creating something bigger. It means giving your majority stockholder, Hashem, a good return on his investment. (That last sentence is my addition.)

And this is precisely why unemployment doesn't agree with me. It's why my mind feels like it's running on overdrive while my body can be so tired. Thank you, Rebbe. I needed that insight. But until I can feel productive, I don't anticipate a change. (I'd love to volunteer, but I am hesitant to commit to anything when my schedule could -and hopefully will - change dramatically at any minute.)

End rant.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Phrase of the Day: Talmid Chacham

For your post-Tu B'Av pleasure...

Doesn't every man want to be a Talmid chacham? I know every woman wants to marry one. Even more than they want to marry the Old Spice Guy. (Old Old Spice Guy Isaiah, not New Old Spice Guy Fabio.)

Talmid chacham just means Torah scholar. An illustration of such a man is below.

Now the hardest part: the plural of Talmid chacham is Talmidei chachamim. Say that three times fast.

And before you ask, Talmud tavlin means "Torah is the spice for life" (according to my Twitterverse). Clever, right?

Monday, August 15, 2011

Management Update: Updated Conversion Candidate Toolbox

I've edited and updated the conversion candidate's toolbox on the right side of your screen. 

Today is Tu B'Av

Today is Tu B'Av, the 15th of Av.

Tu B'Av is not the most well-known holiday, putting it lightly. The Shulchan Aruch doesn't even mention its history or customs except for the adjustments to the daily prayers for a holiday. On the other hand, the Talmud considers this the most important festival of the year, along with Yom Kippur! You might have heard it called "Jewish Valentine's Day." 

Strange, no? 

Historically, people say this was a date when the single women would borrow white dresses from each other and go dance in the fields to catch a husband. The women borrowed clothing so that each could be equal. (On the other hand, if a girl cared about that, she'd just trade with someone of a similar station in life, no?)

There are several reasons given for celebrating on Tu B'Av:
  • The dying of the generation in the desert stopped.
  • The restrictions on inter-tribal marriage were lifted. This refers to the rule created because of the daughters of Tzelafchad: that daughters who inherited land in Israel should only marry men from their own tribe. Keep it in the family, you understand?
  • The restriction on intermarrying with the tribe of Benjamin was lifted. This resulted from the Battle of Gibeah.
  • The king of the Northern Kingdom of Israel lifted the roadblocks that prevented its citizens from making the pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem. (However, the Book of Our Heritage has an interesting claim that this was actually a terrible thing.)
  • This was the day of the year when no more wood was cut for use in the Temple for scarifies. After this date, the sun didn't shine strongly enough to dry out the wood properly.
  • The Romans allowed the bodies of those massacred at Beitar to be buried.
However, since Av is the saddest month of the Jewish year, Tu B'Av will one day be the festival of our redemption when our tears are turned to joy in the days of Moshiach. 

So what does Tu B'Av mean for you today? Starting tonight, we should increase our Torah study each night. The nights are getting longer, and "the night was created for study."

Friday, August 12, 2011

My Narrow, Unsympathetic Point of View

Today, I'd like to take a minute to discuss something that I believe is important to clarify.

From a comment: "There is a lot of pain involved with conversion for many people, but I've noticed time and again that you don't seem to see this. Human feelings and embarrassment and dignity are a PART of halacha... I've read a lot of your blog posts, and I have to say, I think that you have a narrow view--your own point of view--but I find that you don't sympathize with the point of view of other converts. Not everyone else wants to be "outed" or "out there." Some of us were raised believing we were Jewish. Some of us ARE Jewish, like me, but due to lack of documentation, are not considered Jewish. Some of us have been tormented, teased, and degraded for not having the right paper work."

For the record, I suppose I should be glad that in 10 months, 275 posts, and 97,000 page views, this is the first negative contact I've received. However, I believe it was a valid point to consider. If it had been a nut-job comment with no possible basis in reality, I wouldn't have been bothered by it. So I wanted to tell you guys a little bit about me, in hopes of clarifying how I approach these kinds of problems.

First - I can only have my own view. I'm afraid I can't apologize for that one. I try to be sympathetic, but not everyone will feel sympathized with. To be perfectly honest, I'm a pretty blunt person. I do my best to sympathize, but at the end of the day, I value the truth over placating people with empty half-truths. But I try to strike a balance. And I don't bother giving the truth if someone won't listen to it. (Halacha is pretty smart there.)

However, I can assure you that I have suffered too. I don't share everything on this blog (or anywhere else for that matter), by a long shot. While my challenges have not been as difficult as those of some, they've certainly been worse than others. My own problems have been largely unique compared to the other stories I've heard in the conversion world. This means that I face unique challenges in dealing with these problems, both with the people involved and emotionally. I have to face situations without precedent. In other words, there is no accepted protocol on how to fight the situation. I'm up the creek without a paddle. And it hurts.

As for understanding that not everyone wants to be "outed," when I speak to others about my status in real life, I always preface it with the fact that I am unusual in being willing to speak about it. I tell them that most people aren't comfortable talking about it. I understand that not everyone wants to discuss it. However, I talk about it because I believe that education and demystification is the most effective way of changing things. I am one of the unusual people comfortable speaking about it, so I feel a particular responsibility for answering the questions other people don't want to. These questions seem natural to them, so it might as well be me answering them. My primary reason for starting the blog was for speaking to conversion candidates who feel alone as I did, but I have found many secondary benefits, including acting as a kind of guinea pig for Jews who want to know more about the people who choose conversion.

I am opposed to people who "blame the victim" for becoming rightfully upset by the poor behavior of others. However, not everyone with a poor choice of words intentionally hurt you. And sometimes, when we're in a particularly bad spot, maybe we shouldn't have been upset. There is a lot of education to be had in the Jewish community, I agree. However, I don't agree that stating someone is a convert is reminding them of a bad past, which is what the halacha is forbidding. Your past should (hopefully) not embarrass you. In fact, it would violate halacha to presume that your past is embarrassing. (For instance, that you are a recovering drug addict/sex fiend.) You were not obligated to the mitzvot pre-conversion, so eating shrimp (or even pre-marital sex) before is not an embarrassment. Being a convert should be a badge of honor, and most people who would say you are a convert use it in that way. If they don't, they're violating the halacha. But let's not accuse everyone of violating halacha when a) they did not intend embarrass you and b) they had no reason to believe you would be embarrassed by it. Granted, this is a huge oversimplification. At the end of the day, there are differences of opinion among both the rabbis and the converts. That's Judaism: 2 Jews, 3 opinions. Thankfully for all of you, I am no posek, so my halachic positions are irrelevant to you. And I try to tell you when there are halachic debates that I know of. I am a blogger, nothing more.

I admit that my general optimism is suspicious. Even I don't understand why I generally lack the horror stories shared by so many people. (Though I shared a few of the more standard ones here.) However, the problems I face are as serious as they come. But they come from people whose opinion means nothing to me. I suspect mental or emotional instabilities that mean that their statements/actions actually have nothing to do with me as an individual. I am a convenient target that fulfills some other emotional need, nothing more. And despite the harm they have caused me in the short term, I triumph in the end. Because I'm doing the right things with the right intent as best as I know how. I'm stronger because of them, even though I may not have wanted the lesson. It's not fair, but that's life. 

I refuse to take the halachic violations of a few and impute those halachic violations to others. Just because some people act poorly doesn't mean everyone is acting poorly. Every person and situation should be judged individually. I believe that is an underlying theme of halacha: even the slightest change of facts can completely change the halachic analysis and result. I love that. Judaism takes us where we are and requires us to analyze each situation on its own merit, rather than making sweeping generalizations. 

I read about a survey once that said people who expect the world to treat them well generally believe that the world actually does treat them well. I believe I am one of those people. Maybe I see the good that others miss and am willing to overlook the bad things that don't really matter. I don't believe that my existence is somehow objectively better than other people's, but I certainly seem to view it more favorably. In fact, if you polled my Facebook friends, you would find that I am somewhat famous for finding little joys and turning the bad situations into funny stories. I consider it a survival technique for reasons none of you will ever know.

In short, this is my philosophy of life: I am responsible for my own happiness.

So at the end of the day, I'm just me. Take it or leave it. I've lost friends for worse reasons. 

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Black and Jewish

There is a lot to be said about being "black and Jewish." I'm not sure I'm the right person to say it, but I certainly have my thoughts on the subject and knowledge of the experiences of others.

I still haven't found the right words, so the discussion will have to wait for another day. At least on here. There are plenty of places to discuss it online.

In the meantime, here is an interesting project from Funny Or Die. Two incredible black and Jewish women, both extremely accomplished. I will just say that it's not fair to be both a gorgeous model AND a child prodigy.

Gotta admit I'm not so pleased with the stereotype that being "black and Jewish" implies "black dad, Jewish mom." (You know, since all Jews must be white.) I guess it's better than the stereotype that all minority Jews must be converts? My verdict? Both stereotypes are equally annoying. However, I don't think I've ever laughed so hard as I did at, "I stab my enemies...with a menorah."

Now who's going to figure out who all those people are for me? I've got Lenny Kravitz, Sammy Davis Jr., and Whoopi Goldberg. (You know, totally never realized Whoopi had a Jewish last name - and it's not from marriage. Note: Jew or Not Jew claims she doesn't have a single Jew in the family tree, even though Whoopi claims, "My family is Jewish, Buddhist, Baptist, and Catholic. I don't believe in man-made religions.") I'm not sure who most of the others are. I recognize most, but I've always been terrible with actors' real names.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Adventures in Semantics: Shailah and Machlokes

Sometimes it feels as though every shailah ends in a machlokes.

A shailah is a question requesting a religious ruling. You are usually asking your own LOR (local orthodox rabbi).

Here are some examples: 
  • Do I need to kasher a can opener? And if so, how?
  • Can I scoop cat litter on Shabbat? Probably not, so can I just throw out all the litter to avoid separating bad from good?
  • Should I report a co-worker who has admitted a violation of company policy to me in confidence?
  • Should my child with a disability attend a school other than the local yeshiva?
  • X has happened. Am I niddah?
  • Are my children allowed to play with legos on Shabbat?
  • Can I brush my teeth on Shabbat?
  • Is Bailey's Irish Creme kosher?

Machlokes (also pronounced machloikes) is when the answer to that question is disputed. You know the old cliche, 2 Jews = 3 opinions. Or in stereotypical lawyerspeak, "It depends." Just about every shailah can be a machlokes.

For instance, I learned from a Twitter debate between rabbis that the lego question above is a machlokes. Whodathunkit? 

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Today is Tisha B'Av

No official post today, as it is a holiday.

Call your mom. Love your neighbor. Love your enemy.

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Destruction of the Beis HaMikdash Continues Today

Starting tonight through Wednesday morning, we mourn the destruction of our Temples.

As some basic Jewish education, what caused the destruction of the First and Second Temples?

There's the "easy" response: 
The First was destroyed by the Babylonians.
The Second by the Romans.

However, the Sages in the Talmud have an additional explanation, in order to show how these nations could be allowed to destroy the place where Hashem resided.

Here is the short answer from Rabbi Eliyahu KiTov in the Book of Our Heritage:
"Why was the first Beis HaMikdash destroyed? Because of three sins that were prevalent: idolatry, forbidden relationships, and murder. During the second Beis HaMikdash, the people learned Torah, fulfilled the mitzvos, and engaged in acts of kindness - why then was it destroyed? Because baseless hatred was prevalent. This teaches us that baseless hatred is equivalent to the three cardinal sins of idolatry, forbidden relationships, and murder."
Going into slightly more detail in a different place, Rabbi KiTov says:
"The sages taught that the first Beis HaMikdash was destroyed because of three sins which Israel committed in that generation: idolatry, forbidden relationships, and murder. There was not a place in the Land of Israel where they did not worship idols. Only when seven successive high courts had worshipped idols; when the people had desecrated Shabbos, stopped children from learning Torah, ceased the recital of the Shema in the morning and at night, and no longer felt shame in front of each another [sic], was the Land destroyed. 
"The second Beis HaMikdash was destroyed because of baseless hatred among the people; because they shamed scholars; because they didn't differentiate between the great and the small; because they lacked men of strong faith; and because they based their judgments on a strict interpretation of Torah law, and would not make concessions to one another."
To me (and I'm surprised I haven't seen this elsewhere), this says that the violation of the halacha between man and Hashem destroyed the first, but the violation of the interpersonal halacha destroyed the Second. It seems counter-intuitive, but murder and forbidden relationships are crimes against Hashem, according to my understanding of the Sages. These crimes deny his kingship by denying the value of the human life. 

Why do I think this is important? You must observe BOTH the ritual and ethical halacha. One is not more important than the other. They are two halves of a whole. When either was ignored, we lost the Temple and the Shechinah's presence among us.

If you want to extrapolate further...the violation of of the laws between man and Hashem took the Temple away from us for approximately 70 years. However, our sinas chinam has caused the Beis HaMikdash to be taken away from us for two thousand years! We even agree that many of the same problems with sinas chinam still exist today.

Perhaps the difference lies in how the two groups of sins are forgiven. As we discuss around the High Holydays, we need only seek forgiveness from Hashem for our sins against Him. However, Hashem does not unilaterally forgive us for our sins against other people unless we seek to make restitution and forgiveness from the person we have sinned against. Because we have refused to make restitution, seek forgiveness, and prevent future sinas chinam, we have no Temple today.

So this Tisha B'Av, begin seeking forgiveness from those you've harmed rather than waiting until Yom Kippur is breathing down your neck.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Tisha B'Av in a Nutshell

This year, Tisha B'Av is sunset of August 8, 2011, until sunset of August 9. 

Tisha B'Av is a 25 hour fast day (sunset to sunset), but there are other prohibitions on Tisha B'Av that also apply to Yom Kippur:

No washing
No bathing
No shaving
No wearing cosmetics
No brushing your teeth. Eww.
No wearing leather shoes (tennis shoes and flip flops are fine - check for leather soles)
No sexual relations
No studying Torah (You may study the laws of mourning, writings related to the destruction of the Temples, or writings about the other tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people)
No work, in the everyday sense of the word. If you must work, try to wait until after midday.
Minimize your smiling, laughing, and idle chat
Avoid greeting others, such as with "hello" or "how are you?"

We sit on low stools like mourners until halachic midday. You will probably still be in the synagogue at that time.

As for washing, let's deal with the hygiene issues. You may wash up after using the restroom. If you become soiled somehow, you can rinse it off with cold water.

As for the morning netilat yadayim (ritual washing), the water should only be poured up to the knuckles. You may use that water on your fingertips to rub your eyes if you wish.

I wish you an easy and meaningful fast! Remember to check out Tips to Ensure an Easier Fast!

Chumrahs: Making This Convert Crazy Since 2004

There have been requests for more "personal" stories about my conversion process. Well, today is your lucky day! If you don't actually care about who I am and how I got here, feel free to stop reading here and check back for a new post later today! Knowing me, this is about to get long-winded.

We're going to talk about chumrahs and how they turned me away from orthodoxy. [Clarification: Before I came back. Keep reading.]

Wikipedia (totally legit for citations, right? Right.) defines a chumrah as "a prohibition or obligation in Jewish practice that exceeds the bare requirements of Halakha." I have tried to cite a "neutral" source rather than give my own definition or that of another allegedly-biased voice. Before we go on, I also want you to read the rest of the entry for "chumrah." I promise it's short. Go now, I'll wait. Done? Good. Moving on now that you have a foundation...

Let me begin by saying that there is a time and a place for chumrahs. However, not all chumrahs are appropriate for all people at all times. Chumrahs should be adopted for the right reasons and when the person is ready to take them on. After all, they're a kind of vow, as far as I can tell. If you aren't ready to take it on, there is no sense in breaking a vow when you could satisfy the halacha without the chumrah.

When I first began exploring Judaism in 2004-2007, I was in an orthodox congregation though I was not observant. Because of what I had been told, I didn't believe it was possible that I could ever be observant. Someone taught me unusual chumrahs because of either a) wanting to discourage the potential convert; b) thinking it was funny to see what I'd believe; or c) not being a practicing orthodox Jew, leading to unintentionally passing on misinformation or the "strictest" answer they knew. I honestly have no idea where these ideas came from, and I'm glad I don't remember because I could be very bitter about it. I feel like I've lost years of my life thanks to this person or group of people. Of course, everything is part of the path you have to take, but this seems a particularly cruel thing to do to a potential convert. 

These were not chumrahs present in my community, and honestly, they aren't present in many communities. However, I had less exposure to my community's practice because I was the only person in my age group. Therefore, I didn't have anyone who could model the observant lifestyle of a college student. There was a generation gap in the community from the age of 14 to the parents of the children, and all the families were in a satellite shul of the main shul. In the main shul itself were primarily retired people, visitors to the city, ...and me. I didn't have a role model, and certainly not one at the same stage of life, which I now believe is essential, especially for a conversion during the transition into adulthood.

So...I left the orthodox world, but couldn't leave Judaism. I moved to rural France, but still couldn't imagine living by any calendar other than the Jewish one. I dorkily read the Aish and Chabad websites every week. I didn't want to stop learning. (I'm sure you would all have something to say about chumrahs and those sites, but this probably isn't the place.) I came to law school, and I decided I needed to shake this "Jewish thing." I decided to date non-Jewishly for marriage (full disclosure: I did continue to date non-Jews while considering conversion while living in the orthodox community. After all, I was never going to be able to convert.). I decided that I should only date atheists because I couldn't bear the thought of raising my children as Christians or as any other religious group. I had at least narrowed down my options to A) Jewish or B) Nothing. (The Noachides are a story for a different day.) I discovered that in the atheist community, they have their own version of the shidduch crisis: Few openly-atheist women, and all atheist singles worry about the possibility of an ATM (atheist-till-marriage). Everyone had a friend who had married a staunch atheist, only to have the partner turn 180 degrees once children were born and insist on a traditional religious upbringing. (Somewhat counter-intuitively, it was usually the father.)

I had vowed to date non-Jewishly for one school year to see if I could live a non-Jewish life with a non-Jewish partner. In December, only halfway through the experiment, I realized that almost every atheist I had dated was Jewish. And that it wasn't for me. I was seeing a very nice Jewish boy at the time who is staunchly atheist, but I couldn't do it. I was unreasonably excited to have met a nice Jewish boy instead. So...I stopped dating. I said I would pursue a conversion at the end of the school year, as the first year of law school doesn't leave much time for anything else. And I almost made it too! As soon as classes were over, I thought attending one service at the conservative shul was manageable, even though it was finals. I was wrong. I went back every day. Exams be damned. I was like a person marooned in the desert who discovers an oasis. I converted conservative less than a year later. (One year minimum is standard in the movement and that community, but as you've figured out, I had a lot of prior Jewish learning.)

Why did I convert conservative? I'm not sure I have a good answer for that. Conversion is such a complicated decision that involves every aspect of your heart and mind. I do admit that I should have researched the conservative movement more. I didn't understand the movement as well as I should have. But that is another discussion for another day. 

In short, my conservative conversion asked me to essentially be modern orthodox observant, but allowing electricity on Shabbat. After some initial angry emotional issues after the conversion (mostly unrelated to this discussion), I knew it was time to calm down and fulfill what I had agreed to. Thankfully, I had the knowledge to know what I had agreed to do and to make an informed decision at the time of the beit din. Because of that, while the beit din obviously didn't intend to ask me to stop driving on Shabbat, I knew that if I was going to agree to the halachic standards the beit din required, I was going to take on orthodox observance of the mitzvot. And that is what I agreed to do when I became Kochava.

While I would probably feel more conflicted about my Jewish status if I didn't believe there were procedural issues with it, I do feel that I did everything "right" for a halachic conversion. But in halachic conversion, there are two elements required (you know, besides the other ones): the convert and the beit din. Just because I fulfilled my side of the halachic deal doesn't foreclose the possibility that the beit din didn't. It takes two to tango, in other words. But I think I was the only person on the dance floor.  I easily say that I'm not Jewish. (I prefer "not halachically Jewish.") If everything had been done "right," maybe I would feel more conflicted. Small blessings in a painful experience?

How does this backstory relate to chumrahs? Once I had vowed to be orthodox, I had a dilemma on my hands: I had left orthodoxy precisely because I had been convinced that it was impossible for me to be observant. So now, I was convinced that I could only be a bad Jew, but I had agreed to fulfill the mitzvot, so I was going to do it the best I knew how. No emotional difficulties there, right? And so I left the conservative movement and came back to orthodoxy, even though I didn't think I could ever measure up to the halacha.

But it wasn't like that. Amazingly, I became fully-observant in 3 months. It was intuitive and organic. It was almost easy. It helped that pre-Conversion 1.0 I was already dressing relatively tzniusly, mostly observing Shabbat, and paying attention to kosher issues before everything hit the fan. 

The problem is that I didn't know I was already fully observant. I thought I was still a horrible Jew, violating halacha left and right. Due to unrelated circumstances, I didn't have any rabbinic guidance at the time and for a long time after.

However, the week of my conservative conversion was registration for Birthright, and I had registered. Completely unrelated to everything you've just read, I "accidentally" ended up on a modern orthodox-specific birthright trip. I wouldn't necessarily call our group modern orthodox, as we included MOs, Satmars, Lubavitch, and "just plain orthodox." The point is that it was a "religious" trip. 

On Birthright, I discovered that I was already fully-observant. And on this trip was born "Spot Kochava's Chumrahs." My roommates discovered something was off when I apologized for breaking Shabbat in front of them by brushing my teeth. They looked at me like I was from Mars. Thankfully, they still love me.

When I returned to Sacramento, I felt more "ok" about life and Jewishness. I no longer suffered the guilt of being an apikores (heretic), but I suffered from confusion and frustration. What else do I do that looks crazy? This is still something that concerns me.

When my other close friend Ilan came to Sacramento, he very quickly joined the Spot the Chumrah club. Until I turn 120, this "game" will be associated with my friends Lily and Ilan. While I spent 10 days in 24 hour contact with Lily on Birthright and we continued talking all the time after returning to the US, Ilan saw me in Jewish contexts every week (and sometimes every day) for nine months. He was very knowledgeable Jewishly (and in everything else), so he was subjected to most of my questions. More often than I would like, and to my embarrassment, the response was a sad look and "Who taught you that??" I credit him (and Heshy Fried of Frum Satire) with most of my knowledge about orthodox societal norms. Ilan also taught me the variance in halacha. I knew it existed, but I didn't know many of the details. So many books and sources for baalei teshuva and conversion candidates only teach the machmir interpretation a) for fear of misleading someone into rejecting their community standard or b) in order to give the "acceptable to just about everyone" ruling. Remember that I managed to survive 7 years with essentially zero Hebrew knowledge. (Also a story for another day.) I am truly a credit to the availability of Jewish knowledge in English, but I am/was unprepared to study the originals.

I don't disagree with that approach for those who are new to orthodoxy, but for people in more isolated areas and/or without rabbinic guidance and "adoptive" orthodox family, those are the only answers they hear long after they've progressed beyond that early stage. Being steeped in "chumrahs-are-the-only-acceptable-answer" leads to that very annoying "flipping out" phenomenon that is characterized by self-righteousness at having discovered The Truth. Being a Southerner raised by atheists, I'm not a fan of people who have discovered The Truth and feel morally obliged to tell me how wrong I am. you've all been wondering what "crazy" things I was taught. Some have a stronger basis in halacha than others. Just to be clear, there's a basis for all of these, but they certainly aren't "the only answer" or even "the most common answer." I know there are others, but I can't remember them now. Quite honestly, I have tried to forget because of the embarrassment they've caused me.
  • You've already heard not brushing teeth on Shabbat. This is probably the best-supported of the chumrahs here, but it's not common practice in most American communities. Thankfully, people seem pretty in favor of hygiene. I am morally opposed to the furry teeth feeling. 
  • Likewise, washing your hands on Shabbat with anything other than cold water. No handsoap for the reason above.
  • Watches are per se muktzeh. (Per se means no exceptions.) Later, I began wearing a watch on Shabbat because I hated that I couldn't break the automatic negative snap-judgment I made of people who wore watches on Shabbat. I had learned this wasn't so, but the idea had become so engraved into my mind, it was hard to adjust my thinking any other way.
  • You can't walk on grass on Shabbat. Yep, I believed you can only walk on concrete or other non-natural surface. After all, you might pull up/break some grass. I still double-take when I see people taking outdoor walks on Shabbat that aren't on a sidewalk. I'm not quite ready to do it myself. And yes, I will hop over that bit of grass in the sidewalk. Now, it's almost funny because of the obvious analogy to "step on a crack and break your mother's back." However, this makes me feel even stupider because this chumrah is almost like a superstition to me now.

I continue to watch my actions and wonder what other chumrahs I have. I have been trained to think that "everyone does it that way." And it's hard to break over 7 years' of thinking. Sometimes it leads to very embarrassing situations, though now I know better to be embarrassed in silence and ask a question later rather than air my ignorance in public. The beauty of having just enough knowledge to get yourself in trouble.

And in summary, this is the WRONG way to discourage a potential convert. I assure you that halacha is terrifying enough without pulling out every minority opinion back to the Mishnah.

Likewise, let's remember that discouraging the potential convert is the job of the rabbi. It is not in the province of a layperson. Discouragement is not required in all cases, and all the other halacha have to be followed when doing it. Discouragement is not an excuse for someone with a couple of years of Jewish education to throw out all the interpersonal halacha and treat another human being poorly, Jewish or not. Leave discouragement to the professionals.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Rabbi Speaks Out Against Geirus l'Chumrahs

Question: What is the status of the 'extra' conversion immersion [tevila leHumra] demanded by some Orthodox rabbis? 

You may know this as geirus l'chumrah. A geirus l'chumrah is when a convert (already converted) is required to undergo a "new" conversion because of doubt about a prior conversion. Sometimes this is necessary. That's why it exists. You discover later than a member of your beit din was breaking Shabbos or otherwise became a questionable dayan (judge) at the time of your conversion, you may want a geirus l'chumrah. However, it is not required. 

Definition: A geirus l'chumrah requires a new beit din oral examination and a new dip in the mikvah. But this time, there is no bracha said because we generally omit a bracha when the bracha's necessity is questionable. I don't know whether a "new" milah (drop of blood taken from the circumcision area of men) is required.

Here is a link answering the question at the beginning of this post: Questioning the Status of a Halachic Conversion is Anti-Halachic and Unethical.

I wholeheartedly agree with Rabbi Yuter. The geirus l'chumrah process is very painful for many converts, usually is based on nothing more than dislike of another subgroup of orthodoxy, and justifies everyone else questioning the convert (and all other converts). A convert is a Jew, and a Jew is a Jew is a Jew. This is unnecessary and against halacha. It is taking on chumrahs for the purpose of being superior to other people, rather than for the purpose of pleasing Hashem. 

And regardless of whether an individual is ever told they must undergo a geirus l'chumrah (it's not exactly a "suggestion"), all orthodox converts today fear that possibility. That possibility is becoming more and more statistically likely today. Worse, today, people now seem to believe that a conversion can be "overturned" because most average Jews have never heard of the term geirus lechumrah before. Because they don't understand the concept, they believe that the convert has been "re-converted" and was not Jewish before. Thus, now the convert's children may be questioned, and they may even be required to do a geirus lechumrah too. These born-Jewish children are also now subject to the sometimes-painful limits that converts must face.

For a stereotypical look at the argument that people "requiring" geirus l'chumrah are not Jews at all, check out this firey blog discussion from 2009: Subbotnik Jews of Ilyinka are Jews. "If these people need GIUR LECHUMRA it means that they are NOT Jews, period, no ifs ands or buts, no matter how emotional and sad their tale..."

A World Without Music

There are various times during the year when orthodox Jews don't listen to music. Most of the time, it's a practical matter. For instance, on Shabbat and yontif, my iPod is quiet simply because I don't manipulate electricity. Other times, it's a matter of custom (which some hold to be so pervasive as to qualify as halacha). Sefira (the counting of the Omer) and the Three Weeks/Nine Days, for example.

When I became Shabbat observant, the lack of background music/sound was what struck me the most. I lived alone, and life became silent for 25 hours a week. I went into sound withdrawal. In the beginning, I left the radio on a timer so that I could wean myself more slowly. To be honest, I don't see why leaving music or a TV on is any different than putting a lamp or crockpot on a timer. I see that it's not Shabbosdich (in the spirit of Shabbos), but is it actually prohibited halachically? People tell me that it is. Some say it's not technically, but it's just not done. (Unless there is a seriously major sports game on Friday night.)

It seems like everyone has a different way of observing this no-music custom during Sefira, the Three Weeks, and the Nine Days. Assuming they've even accepted the custom for one, two, or all of those time periods, just about everyone rules out concerts. However, maybe a cappella concerts and CDs are fine. (The Maccabeats try to catch that crowd.) For the amateur musician, maybe it means not practicing, going to a class, or listening to others. Some also don't listen to recorded music. (Halachically, things can be different when recorded, but that is a very complicated discussion for another day.)

This gets more complicated when you're not in control of the music. Some don't go to the movies (which could also be avoiding celebrations, enjoyment, etc). Some avoid places where music is played. In most of the world, that seems nearly impossible. I'm sure some people stop watching TV because of the possibility of commercial jingles and intro music, but I don't think I know those people. I do know many who don't go to movies, and frankly, I don't see the distinction, unless it's the other people and a more "festive" atmosphere.

Supposedly this is about mourning. Mourners don't listen to music for various time periods, depending on custom. I get that, at least for a time. When my friend passed away, I wrote on here about how cheap and meaningless music seemed. But after a couple of weeks, I needed it again, cheap or not. I looked at music differently, but I knew that it still fulfilled something I need.  

This year, the lack of music really got to me. In prior years, I was working. I had things to distract me, people to see. This year, I'm unemployed and spending many hours job-hunting at my computer in addition to my normal hours at the computer. Maybe I would feel differently if I had a roommate, were married, had children, or otherwise had long time periods of human interaction. I don't. So maybe the music is a stand-in for communication and the human connection. I don't know. I do know that I'm calling my dad three and four times a day. Thankfully, he doesn't seem to mind.

My world became very silent very quickly. And I didn't like it. Worse, my subconscious rebelled. Any comment that my subconscious could connect to a song, no matter how tenuously, immediately went on repeat in my head. Usually, I only know one or two lines without the actual song to guide me.

Day 1, Song #1: "Puff the Magic Dragon." I woke up, and there was the song. A full day of only knowing one line of that song is enough to send you to a mental institution. Also guilty: "When I think about you, I touch myself" and "Oklahoma! Where the wind comes sweeping down the plain."

In short, an internal living hell.

And on that note, Shabbat shalom?

Thursday, August 4, 2011

How to Walk a Dog on Shabbat

If you're a pet owner, you have probably already discovered that you're a bit of an oddball in the Jewish community. Especially if you own a dog. (Much less a big dog...or two big dogs like your author.)

Because of the lack of pets in the community, it is key to find a rabbi knowledgeable about these very specific issues. (I'm still looking for that rabbi if you happen to know him!)

There are two main issues with walking a dog on Shabbat (as far as I can tell):

1) The leash outside an eruv.

You can still walk your dog, but the leash need to be "taut." That means that if you have a leash puller, you should be fine. If the leash is drooping, you're suddenly carrying. Another standard involves the leash drooping to within a tefach of the ground or also a tefach away from your hand. My dogs walk with relatively little pulling, so I've considered using a very short (1ft) lead that will automatically be pulled tight. 

If there is an eruv, you should be able to walk your dog normally, so long as you consider the issues below.

2) The poop bags. 

Of course, this assumes that you are a dog owner who fulfills both the legal and moral obligation of dog ownership: Make sure no unsuspecting person steps in your dog's poop. Of course, there is always the diarrhea issue (you can't pick that up sufficiently), but you can't control that. 

The main problem is tearing the poop bags along the perforated line separating the bags. If you carry old plastic shopping bags, this isn't an issue. I'm referring to the bag holders attached to the leash, which are the best invention ever. (See my secret weapon: Bags on Board Bone Dispenser) There is the possibility of tearing the bags apart in an unusual way. However, the easiest (and less weird-looking to passers-by, who may suspect you are breaking Shabbos) is to pre-tear the bags. I then stuff the pre-separated bags into the dispenser. In essence, do whatever you do with your toilet paper on Shabbat.

Note: the bags themselves may also involve issues with making a knot. That should be discussed with your rabbi and should be analogous to your community's practice for tying garbage bags. Worst case scenario, you just don't tie the bags before throwing them away. I don't know, but perhaps the hygienic/health issues for garbage collectors (and the related health codes for disposing of waste) may matter.

The poop bags also raise a carrying issue outside an eruv. (See Reason #35 You Know You're Crazy: Carrying Dog Poop on Shabbat.) If you're within the eruv, you're fine. If a Plan B. I've left the poop bags for retrieval after Shabbat. It's not a great plan, but I don't know the alternative.

Sidenote: Keep in mind that some rabbis hold that pets-especially dogs-are assur (forbidden) in general, not to mention on Shabbos. Even the friendliest animal lover in your life may (rightfully so) refuse to pet your animal on Shabbat because of the possibility of pulling out the animal's hair. There is no sense in being offended by this. But some of the rabbis who hold that pets are allowed say that there is a difference between a pet you own and a pet someone else owns. (I believe this "permission" transfers to temporary owners like petsitters.) The other rabbis who hold that pets are allowed and allow petting them on Shabbat is because the pets are not muktzeh because a pet is set aside for the purpose of petting and affection. Traditionally, pets were muktzeh because their primary use was not allowed on Shabbos (protection, hauling, herding, etc). 

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Power of Pirkei Avot

Today, I want to share a particularly poignant thought from the Pirkei Avot Treasury.

As background, Pirkei Avot is a collection of ethical teachings from the rabbis of the Mishnah. Its uniqueness is that it is the only tractate of the Misnah that does not discuss halacha (at least not overtly); it focuses purely upon the ethical obligations of each of us.

Pirkei Avot is translated as Ethics of the Fathers, but literally means Chapter of the Fathers. "Fathers" is a way of saying "foundational categories." For instance, the categories of "work" on Shabbat are called "avot melacha." In the context of Pirkei Avot, translating it as teachings of the Fathers seems especially appropriate when you consider that the rabbis of the Mishnaic period are our spiritual fathers.

And now here is the piece that spoke to me a few weeks ago:

"For a commandment is a lamp and Torah is light, and the way of life is the remonstrance of reproof." (Psalms/Tehillim 6:23)

         "This verse contains a thumbnail description of the three parts of the Torah. Mitzvah, the physical performance of the commandments, is like a lamp. It is a receptacle that contains oil and wick - or electricity and filament - and provides light. So too, one uses hands to affix a mezuzah, feet to rush to the synagogue, wealth to contribute to charity. Like a lamp that uses physical items to provide and sustain light, the body and the appurtenances of the world combine to do G-d's will in a tangible way. But once the oil is consumed and the wick is spent, the lamp is still and dark. Its light is never more than temporary. Even the longest lasting fluorescent bulb will burn out eventually. And the glow of a mitzvah fades away.
         The Torah, however, is different in a basic way. Its light is spiritual. It unites its student with the Source of all wisdom. Just as His wisdom is timeless, so the Torah is timeless and its spiritual capital permanent.
         Then there is the third component of our faith: the way of life is the remonstrance of reproof. The Sages derive from this phrase that man earns his share in the World to Come only through hard work and suffering (Berachos 5a). The way of life in this world is the highway to the World to Come. It is traversed only with difficulty, because the remonstrance of reproof is often unpleasant, especially for people foolish enough to resent criticism. But intelligent people welcome it, relish it, thrive on it. To aspire to the World to Come without recognizing the need for guidance and criticism is like a diamond miner who refuses to dig. Of course there is a price to pay, but man has no greater bargain."

         - The Pirkei Avos Treasury, Vol. 1, Introduction

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Words You Might Never Pronounce Correctly

There are some Hebrew and Yiddish words you just might never master like a FFB (frum from birth). That's ok. If you get close enough, people will understand what you mean. But as a practical matter, I avoid saying the words I have difficulty with simply so I don't look like a n00b.

"Al Hamichiyah"
"R'tzayh v'hachalitzaynu" (from the Shabbat paragraph from bentching)

This is what I could come up with over one Shabbat. I don't have problems with all of these, but I have certainly heard some problems with them! The combination of hey and chet within a syllable of each other seems to be my personal downfall.

Any others you would like to add to the list?

Monday, August 1, 2011

Why Is Tehillim Our First Line of Defense?

I had the pleasure to hear a shiur this week about a subject I had just put on the "to blog about" list just last week! 

"Why is Tehillim the first resort when something happens?"

As you may or may not have figured out, when something goes wrong, the first thing Jews do is organize a Tehillim drive. Individuals and groups say Tehillim (Psalms) for the benefit of a sick person, a catastrophe, or some other difficulty. Similarly, in the positive context, a kallah (bride) says Tehillim as she waits for her chosson (groom) to veil her before the chuppah ceremony.

I'm glad that someone else got around to doing the research on this topic so I didn't have to. This is my attempt to convey the ideas this speaker shared. And I'm going to condense an hour into a few minutes. I apologize if I butcher her ideas. 

She gave three possible reasons for why Tehillim have such a power in the Jewish mind and heart:

1) David haMelech experienced such joys and difficulties that he is one of the few people in this world who can share words we can connect to in all situations. (King David is generally credited with composing the Tehillim, but he was more of a compiler.) When people who have had a charmed life offer "advice" on how to survive difficulties, it can be hard to take them seriously. Only someone who has experienced the fullness of life can offer appropriate words when we face both challenges and happiness. 

2) Tehillim is the continuation of the Torah. The Torah teaches the halacha (the practicalities of life), while Tehillim teaches us to be spiritual. The speaker had a great example (paraphrasing): halacha looks at a tree and thinks "How does this affect the placement of the succah?" but Tehillim looks at a tree and says "What a beautiful world Hashem has created!"

3) The words themselves have a power that connects us to the generations before us. Over the generations, the words have gained a power of their own. Even if you don't know the meaning of the Hebrew words, just saying them connects you to the faith of those who suffered in the camps of the Holocaust, the victims of the Spanish Inquisition, as well as every family who has faced an illness. You are never alone when you say Tehillim.

Wrapping up, this source provided by the lecturer summed up the class well:
"For, far beyond the confines of the Jewish people, even today, the psalms still serve to life up to G-d the emotions of all those who seek Him, to bring them enlightenment, consolation, and strength, and to inspire them to show self-sacrificing devotion in their conduct on earth."
-Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch