Sunday, August 7, 2011

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.


  1. Sorry, but as someone who grew up religious, I am certain that brushing teeth with regular toothpaste and washing hands with soap and hot water are forbidden on Shabbos due to performance of the melachos (offhand, I believe it would be mamarayach for brushing and bishul and mamarayach for washing).
    I sort of wonder who is telling you these 'kulos.' It sounds like a quite liberal Modern Orthodox stance. There's a difference between everyone brushing their teeth because they hate not to and everyone brushing their teeth because it's permitted.

    From the wording of the beginning of this post, it seems like you've aborted your Orthodox conversion, is this correct?

    1. No, I'm referring to how I was initially turned away from orthodoxy. I'm still here.

      As for toothbrushing, I have been told the issue is bubbles. I've also heard something about it being preferable to have toothbrush and toothpaste only used on Shabbat. I also know there is Shabbat-friendly toothpaste made by a company similar to the Shabbat Lamp. I would say the people I've heard it's ok from are primarily "just plain orthodox." The beauty of growing up in a community is that you have right and wrong answers. I've been without a community, so I am not (at least not yet) tied to one community's holding on any issue. People say the best part about converting is choosing your own minhag.

      But as a practical matter, I have to ask...How do you deal with that disgusting feeling for 25 hours? It actually makes me gag it's so gross. I can deal with greasy hair, but not brushing my teeth makes me physically ill.

  2. Okay, that's good. Although I have wondered if, based on your stories on the politics about conversion whether some of your posts are really such a good idea for you.

    As someone who flosses every night and brushes my teeth every twelve hours (usually 8:00), I just got used to not brushing on Shabbos. Maybe one 'trick' of mine is to floss and brush before Shabbos. Other than that, I don't really notice it. I'm much more bothered by the handwashing thing.

    1. Originally posted: August 7, 2011 at 9:39 AM

      Hmm...good advice. Thanks!

      As for're right. I worry about posting on here, which is why I've generally stayed away from talking about myself explicitly. On the other hand, who is standing up for conversion candidates? The rabbis who do are quickly dismissed and discredited as being "too modern orthodox." And there is no one presenting the candidate's point of view, except second-hand. The candidates are not being allowed to share their experiences or their side of the story. Heck, I have to start a blog to get my experiences out there.

      I mentioned somewhere else the other day that I have a real problem with "poking the dragon" when I believe there is injustice. I also think this is one of the most "Jewish" traits I have. It has caused me to suffer in several areas of my life, but I think it's worth it. It was/is the right thing to do. Any short-term punishment from society will be repaid with blessings. And I've found that to be true. People trust me to be honest precisely because I'm willing to be honest and speak up for the right thing when it's difficult.

    2. Amen, Kochava, yasher koach to you for poking the dragon!

  3. you can use mouthwash to get rid of the bad morning breath. there are also "liquid toothpastes" that should be better from a halachic standpoint, but I dont know if everyone approves or not

  4. Re: tooth brushing.

    Rinsing with mouthwash can also help. Part of the problem may relate to spreading toothpaste, as well the risk of bleeding gums (not for everyone, obviously).

    Washing can be an issue with heating the water, as well.

  5. In addition to my technical comment (and my ginormous rant fighting its way through blogger), I think that this paragraph deserves its own post:

    "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."

    Although I'd be lying if the first thought through my head wasn't "Professional, eh... how do I get _that_ job" :)

  6. As I understand it, brushing teeth is muttar according to the Rav and R Shachter, i.e. the YU world, so if the people were from a more right wing place, this wouldn't necessarily be considered a chumra as much as different poskim rule differently. If people are interested, here are two Hirhurim articles about it and
    Among the other ones you mentioned, I have always learned that you can't wash with hot water because you are causing new water to be heated in the boiler and that you cant use a bar of soap but that there is nothing wrong with using liquid soap (so much so that in my house, we always called the liquid soap 'shabbos soap')

    1. Originally posted: August 8, 2011 at 12:50 AM

      What I want to know is who on earth still washes their hands with bar soap?? Gross. Liquid soap is the bee's knees.

  7. This was a fascinating story: thanks a lot for sharing.

    This comment is about to be long, and possibly excessively verbose. I'm posting it as is for the simple reason that if I were to wait a day, and attempt to edit and revise it (as well as fact check it for correctnesss), I'd expect it to be better than it will be, so I'm taking advantage of the excuse of not having thorough editing to justify any mistakes :)

    There is one nuance I'd like to highlight. What is called "chumra", really falls into one of several categories (often more than one):

    1. The halacha is universally acknowledged to be X, but for extra-halachic reasons, some want to be strict, and declare that we should practice Y.

    2. The halacha is clearly X, but because famous Rabbi Whoever said Y, we try to accomadate Y in deference to his opinion. This is very common among "Briskers", who try to "be yotzei every shittah" (fulfill every opinion), even though it may lead to contradictory practices.

    3. The halacha is unclear. Perhaps it seems to be X, but there may be a reason to think Y. Unlike the previous case, it is not certain that X is right, but likely. In this case, we may follow Y "to be safe". This is often true for things like assuming a larger measurement for k'zayis (i.e., how much food needs to be eaten to fulfill a mitzvah like matza). Note that in this case, the halacha is only like Y l'chumra, but not l'kula; i.e., we'd require benching after eating for X mL of food, but ask that ideally one eat 2X at the seder.

    4. Straight up halachic disagreement. One Rav says X, one says Y. Each person follows what their Rav tells them and/or their family custom, if any (I should add a note that a custom has defined parameters; not every ignorance practice (either strict or lenient) is considered a minhag).

    5. The halacha is fairly clear like Y, however, there is a mitigating factor permitting X under certain circumstances. In this case, it would be more accurate to call X a kula and Y the halacha, if this is what is commonly agreed upon.

    [I'm probably missing a case or two, but I think you can see where I'm going with this].

    Both in the more modern communities and among followers of the Chazon Ish (not all Chareidim, and specifically _not_ among Chassidim, in my experience), I've seen a lot of energy expended in teaching the precise boundries between "halacha", "minhag", and "chumra". I would say, without any qualifications, that understanding the difference between these categories is essential to being a "Halachic Jew" [by which I mean a Jew who lives life according to halacha; I'm not refering to any issues surrounding conversion here].

    However, the fact that a practice may be "just a minhag" (sic) or "a chumra" (especially in cases (4) and (5) above does not mean, under any circumstances, that it is invalid or subject to a haphazard review outside of a well defined halachic process. It seems to me that one disagreeable side effect of some of this knowledge is a tendency to disparage others who either (a) pasken (rule) strictly or (b) choose to follow the stricter practice, and certainly for the newly educated student himself to jettison many of these restrictive practices in a way that his (perhaps textually ignorant) grandfather would have found appalling.

    The balance is not one that I myself feel qualified to decide; while anyone who knows me knows that I'm hardly a "daas teyreh"-nik, this is one issue that I feel strongly that I'm too biased to decide for myself. I certainly do not propose ignorance as a solution (that's a bandaid, and a poor one at that), but I do often wonder how to teach respect and reverance to balance the familiarity that comes with additional knowledge.

    [btw, just to be clear, I'm not referring to anyone in specific here; while I can certainly be passive agressive when I want to, this is not one of those times :) ]

  8. It's not that tooth-brushing and hand-washing are themselves forbidden on Shabbos, it's that these activities, done in the weekday manner, involve melacha. So they may be done on Shabbos if done in a different manner. Tooth-brushing involves memarayach, so use a liquidy toothpaste; it sometimes causes bleeding, so use a soft brush and be 100% sure you won't cause bleeding. (This site goes over some other problems and takes a more machmir stance: Hand-washing in warm water isn't itself forbidden, as far as I know, but turning on the warm tap is (bishul). I don't know of any possible problem with using liquid hand soap, but bar soap would pose a problem of memarayach.

    My attitude toward chumros comes from two amazing ideas from two very different people whom I respect very much. My personal rav (YU, RCA) said something amazing about chumros that I'll never forget: if an individual wants to take on a chumrah, that's admirable and wonderful. The problem is making a chumrah the baseline standard for an entire community. And Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller (Neve Yerushalayim, pretty right-wing) says, if you want to be mehader in some aspect of your Torah observance, why choose something that's visible to others? I think combining these two perspectives gives a very healthy outlook on chumros - it's a good thing to take on a chumrah that's meaningful to me, so long as I'm doing it for God, not for appearances, and so long as I make sure that I don't write others off for keeping "just" the basic standard.

  9. foryourhonor - it sometimes causes bleeding

    Letting kids run around outside also sometimes causes bleeding (perhaps even more often on average than toothbrushing). So, do we also forbid allowing kids to play/run around on shabbat?

    but turning on the warm tap is (bishul)

    What if the hot water heater is set to a temperature that is lower than the threshold for bishul? (as is, in fact, recommended by most household child safety experts)

  10. You can use (some say diluted) liquid soap on Shabbat, just not solid bar soap. There are multiple opinions on brushing your teeth. My feeling is that that practice is not something that is normally exposed to the community or will affect other community members so study the various rulings and do the one that balances your legal sensibility and your personal hygiene appropriately.

    The trend towards chumra can be pervasive. I was just studying yesterday (pause to get a source) whether one is permitted to pour water onto a clean cloth on Shabbat (for example to make a damp cloth to cool someone's brow) or whether that is prohibited as laundering. This is a debate among the Rishonim (medieval commentators)- there is debate about whether the author of Shulchan Aruch permits it, but most people understand that the Rama (who wrote the supercommentary on the Shulchan Aruch that is followed by most Ashkenazim) permits it. But here are the practical rulings of a number of achronim (post 1500 CE commentators):

    1) Shulchan Aruch HaRav (Lubavitch) says that the Rama permits it, but that we should be machmir (strict) and not do so because this is a matter of Torah law.
    2) Mishna Berurah (late 19th/early 20th century) says that the Vilna Gaon says that the Rama permits it as long as the intent isn't to launder, but that we should be machmir because this is a matter of Torah law.
    3) The Yalkut Yosef (Rabbi Ovadya Yosef, 20th/21st Century) says that the Shulchan Aruch allows it, but that we should be machmir.

  11. Re: water and yad soledes bo: the general recommendation is < 120F. Yad soledes bo could be as low as 104F. No one sets their water heater that low (and in Israel, with koltim it can easily reach 150F).

  12. Mark - I am not a posek and the point of my comment was not to offer halachic advice. Your second question is an interesting one, but I don't know the answer. Your first question seems a bit silly. Toothbrushing is more like picking a scab than like running around outside, in that one is directly and intentionally manipulating one's flesh in a way that may cause blood to be drawn. Of course, if I'm scrupulous about dental hygiene, I can be reasonably certain that bleeding will not occur. This is probably the case for most people. The minority who have a reasonable concern that bleeding will occur should probably take precautions when brushing on Shabbos.

  13. And re: tooth brushing where there may be bleeding.

    If there's a doubt, it's permitted (safek psik reisha d'lo neicha lei; a potential undesirable inevitable outcome). But if a person knows that his gums always bleed, or even often (50%), it becomes a full fledged psik reisha and is prohibited, even though (a) he has no intention to cause the bleeding and (b) he doesn't want the bleeding to take place.

  14. thank you for this great post. I was one of the people asking to understand your 'personal' journey more, so I am really grateful you've chosen to write this even amidst the 'politics' problems of conversion!


  15. "It's not that tooth-brushing and hand-washing are themselves forbidden on Shabbos, it's that these activities, done in the weekday manner, involve melacha."

    To my best understanding there is no actual m'lacha involved. What may occur is a rabbinic extension of the Torah prohibitions. That is an important distinction, though certainly not to be taken lightly. In these cases, it is important to note that the rabbinic prohibitions are not universally agreed upon, and these things are accepted as normal behavior with minor modification possible. Kavod Habriyot (human dignity) is not to be taken lightly either; nor the notion in rabbinic literature that we are all in the category of 'istanis'/delicate about our hygiene.

    Washing: One should not use hot water from a tap, unless it comes directly from a solar heater. But one might put a small amount of hot water from the Shabbat urn into a sink of cold water, so that one may wash their face in the morning. Using bar soap is potentially problematic from a rabbinic standpoint; but liquid soaps are common and perfectly acceptable. If it can be poured, it is liquid enough to be used without a problem. That standard, by the way, may also be applied to skin lotions.

    Brushing teeth: One could forgo this and just use mouthwash for the duration of Shabbat, but it isn't necessary. As already noted, many rabbanim are on record for allowing toothbrushing on Shabbat. Rafi noted that if one is hesitant about using toothpaste (not necessarily a problem), a liquid dentifrice can be used. Very common in Israel. When I was younger we used Tayadent liquid, though many of our friends and neighbors (rabbanim included) just used toothpaste. The issue of bleeding gums also may not be a problem for some. For those who are worried about it, a softer toothbrush, or one's finger, or just mouthwash are all possibilities.

    As I have noted before, there really is no substitute for being well informed; and then having a properly informed conversation with the LOR. Conjecture or just copying what others do leads to bad Torah, whether lenient or strict. To use Rav Soloveitchik's notion, submission is certainly a value; but remaining uninformed leads to distorting the truth of Hashem's Torah, and that should concern us greatly.

  16. The lowest temperature I've read recommended for hot water heaters is 120F. Yad Soledet Bo (minimal cooking temperature is somewhere between 114F and 140F depending on both the authority and the context.

    Even if the water is only heated to 110F, I would consult a rav as to whether there is a concern that adding more cold water to the tank will cause the hot water heater to ignite, potentially violating the melacha of kindling. I imagine it would matter whether there was a hot water tank (and what its capacity was) or some sort of tankless system. Some people are lenient with some solar water heaters.

  17. "Some people are lenient with some solar water heaters."

    Actually, it is the other way 'round. The use of water heated by the sun is inherently permitted (מעיקר הדין). Some are strict, and prohibit or limit the use because they are concerned that one may light the electric element on a cloudy day. That is why in the first addition of Sh'mirat Shabbat K'hilchata the use of solar heaters was simply permitted; while in the second and succeeding editions Rav Neuwirth wrote that one should not use them on Shabbat, leaving the inherent permitted status to a footnote. The permissibility is a really a pretty simple matter in the g'mara and so agreed by later poskim. Limiting their use is actually a humra/stricture. If one sees the solar heater as heating not by the sun directly, but rather by a consequence of the sun (toldat hashemesh), then there is a rabbinic prohibition in the g'mara due to the inability to distinguish this from something heated by the fire. In such a case, Rav Frank and others note that there is still a once-removed-stage of activity involved in opening the tap; and so it would still be permitted even by that view. This is a good example of how once a humra takes hold, much of the public forget or lose sight of what the halacha really is.

  18. Loved this post. I was definitely much more machmir than necessary when becoming frum, and thankfully, wonderfully, my husband, who is nice and frum, but very normal and reasonable, has helped me mellow in ways that make observance halachic but not over-the-top.

    The comment here are very interesting, and I enjoyed the discussion. I am totally with you on the fuzzy tooth thing. Yuck.

    As for chumros (loved the quote by Rbn Heller up there by for your honor), I feel like it's best to consult with your Rav before deciding to take on (or drop off) of anything.

  19. Cooking in the sun is considered totally mutar, but cooking via something heated by the sun is not. The solar panels used in Israel are of the second category; instead of exposing the water to sunlight, they pass through black pipes which are in the sun. The pipes are heated by the sun, which in turn heats the water.

    I don't know if they've always been this way, but this is what modern Israelis have available.

  20. Fascinating post and discussion.

  21. I knew that the examples given would cause these issues! Lol. I remember when you messaged me saying tooth brushing on shabbos and I said "well some people say that's not a chumrah but halacha." Haha. It's all the manner in which you do something.

    I think much better examples of chumrot for this would be things like lubavitchers(and possibly others) putting on tefillin twice to also fulfill Rabbeinu Tam's definition of tefillin, gebrokts on pesach(and speaking of pesach, kitniyot is a huge chumrah in itself, and the peeling root veggies before they are cooked), etc.

    I like Mikeage's examples of the 'types' of what we call chumrah, and I agree with some being chumrah and some are clearly not :)

    And yeah, seriously, who uses bar soap? I don't understand why anyone is even arguing that handwashing is assur, because there is a very obvious, very common halachic way that it is permissible. We use liquid soap and not hot water. What's the issue guys?

  22. Here's a pdf by Rabbi Aryeh Lebowitz that brings the issues involved with brushing teeth on Shabbos. He brings 8 separate issues that the Poskim discuss. He brings both strict and lenient opinions:

  23. Originally posted: August 7, 2011 at 3:39 PM

    Going generally off-topic, I thought cooking via solar heat was assur because it's still causing something to be cooked? Like the silver-lined sun things that can bake cakes. I thought the silver stuff made the difference, but I can't imagine it's much different from a solar water heater. Granted, I know little about the workings of solar water heaters.

  24. Originally posted: August 7, 2011 at 9:56 AM

    I just had a thought. Maybe at least handsoap is justified because of pikuach nefesh because of our knowledge today of how germs spread? I have no idea, but that just occurred to me as a reasonable possibility.

  25. There was a psak (ruling) years ago by Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt"l, that you are allowed to use a soft toothbrush, with no toothpaste or water, as long as you don't have a tendency to bleed. That's what I do.

    I was also taught by a choshuv(important) Rav and dayan (judge)that you are allowed to use liquid soap on Shabbos only if you dilute it before Shabbos (some rabbis will say it's ok to dilute it on Shabbos, but this Rav didn't) until it's liquid enough that when you pour it on your hand it feels watery and not thick and soapy.

    It's always best to choose a reliable Orthodox Rav and ask him your shailos (questions). He will give you a psak that takes into consideration things like your current level, what's accepted in your community, etc. Especially since there are so many different levels of chumra and kula, it's best to get his guidance.

    Thanks for sharing your experience. You should know that even people who are FFB (frum from birth) and have been doing this all their lives need to constantly learn and grow in their practice of Orthodox Judaism. It's not "cut and dry" and there's always more to learn. Of course it's an even bigger challenge for someone relatively new to all this. The main goal is to keep learning, keep trying to grow and strive to get closer to Hashem and do His ratzon (will, what He wants from us.) I wish you lots of continued growth and a feeling of joy in your pursuit of pleasing Hashem!