To Kippah or Not to Kippah – A Meqori Question

[Note: The below is for information purposes only, as is everything on this site. The decision to act upon any of it or not is the personal decision of the reader and any details regarding the observance of any halakhah – especially those laws which are intricate, complicated, and/or severe – should be discussed with a competent rav.]

While learning with my son through the Qissur Shulhan Arukh – Hazon Ovadyah, we came upon a curious passage regarding the [supposed] modern meaning of kippoth. Now, to be sure, we do not learn the Qissur Shulhan Arukh as halakhah le-ma’aseh, but primarily as a guide for discussing halakhah, as some of the time what it puts forth as law is actually latter-day custom and ritual which one may either take or leave. However, since Hakham Ovadyah Yosef z”l was overwhelmingly driven by the sources and by iqqar diyn in his halakhic approach, this particular edition usually does a fine job of spelling out the basics.

In the section of Orah Hayyim, Hilkhoth Hanhaghath Adham Ba-Boqer (siman alef – siman zaan), I encountered the following statement:

TEXT

גילוי הראש לאנשים אינו אסור מן הדין ואין בזה משום בחוקותיהם לא תלכו אלא מידת חסידות היא לכסות את ראשו אולם בזמנינו שהחופשיים הולכים ברשות הרבים בגילוי הראש אדם שהוא דתי עליו להזהר במשנה זהירות לכסות ראשו תמיד שיש בזה יותר ממידת חסידות כי הכיפה שעל ראשו היא לסמל ולמופת שמעידה עליו שהוא דתי

TRANSLATION

“Bareheadedness (giluy ha-rosh) for men is not halakhically prohibited, and there is no relationship between not covering one’s head and the Torah prohibition of ‘you shall not walk in their statutes’ (cf. Wayyiqra 18:3). Rather, it is noted [in the sources] as a practice of the exceptionally pious (middath hasiydhuth). However, in our times where secular people walk around in public bareheaded, it is incumbent upon a religious man to be careful in following the advice of the Mishnah that advises one to cover their head always because there is something more in covering the head than just an exceptionally pious practice, for the kippah upon his head is a symbol and a sign that testifies concerning him that he is [properly] religious…”

Upon reading this, my son and I were both struck with the vast assumption that the final line was making and how, for the most part, it was simply untrue. The kippoth on many people we have encountered in the religious Jewish world are simply not a “symbol and a sign” that they were religious. It seems that in many cases the kippah on the heads of “frum” Jews “testifies” about them, but this testimony is nothing more than `eduth sheqer. With so much blatant dissonance between perceived values and the significance attached to kippoth, I think it is an important question to ask what actual purpose they serve.

In our times, far from being an assurance of actual piety, the kippah has become little more than a sectarian I.D. badge. And I would further contend that, because the Haredi-Hasidic world has decided to focus so much on external modes of dress while allowing spiritual and moral bankruptcy among many of their members, the kippah has essentially become meaningless as an indication of yirath shamayim and instead serves in most cases to project false piety. So it behooves us, in my opinion, to ask the fundamental questions of who, when, where, why, and how Jewish men are supposed to cover their heads after it has been clarified whether Jewish men are even required to cover their heads at all. And, as with most halakhic discussions on this site, we will begin with the statements of Hazal.

Passages from the Gemara

keffiyeh-sudar

A Jordanian Arab wearing a keffiyeh, a garment essentially identical to the sudra/sudar mentioned in the Gemara.

Masekheth Berakhoth 60b – Gives the nosah for the berakhah of “spreading one’s sudar upon his head” as “oter yisra’el be-thif’arah – who crowns each Jew with beauty.” The nosah found in the siddur of Rav Saadyah Gaon, however, is “‘otef yisra’el be-thif’arah – who wraps each Jew with beauty” and he instructs that the berakhah should be said upon donning a [main; outer] garment that is exempt from ssissiyoth (Siddur Rasag, p.89). A sudar that is not too large may be such a garment (cf. Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhoth Ssiyssiyth 3:1). Giving the text of a blessing without an explicit directive to wear a particular garment carries with it the strong implication of “if” a person chooses to wear such a garment, then they must pronounce the appropriate blessing, but if they choose not to, then they [obviously] do not need to do so. However, there is nothing in this Gemara that would suggest that it is required for Jewish men to wear a head covering.

Masekheth Shabbath 118b – Among various hakhamiym stating why they felt that they merited to greater spiritual reward(s), Rav Huna is recorded as saying that his reward will be due to the fact that in his life he never walked even the distance of four cubits with a bare head (giluy ha-rosh). This, too, does not mandate that Jewish men cover their head, and it shows that Rav Huna’s practice was a matter of personal piety, not a universal law.

Masekheth Shabbath 156b – Perhaps the central reference to covering the head within the talmudhiym, in this passage astrologers are said to have informed the mother of Rav Nahman bar Yisshaq that he is destined to become a thief. Because of this his mother famously told him, “Cover your head so that the fear of Heaven will be upon you, and request [Divine] mercy.” The Gemara says that Rav Nahman was unaware of the reason for her instructions (apparently she did not tell him about the astrologers) and that one day while sitting bareheaded under a fig tree belonging to someone else he was so overcome by temptation that he climbed the tree and began eating a cluster of figs using just his mouth. This passage does not address the covering of the head being required, in fact it indicates again that most Jewish men did not cover their heads. However, doing so – when coupled with prayer – can be a tool for personal development and mussar.

Masekheth Qiddushiyn 29b – Rav Hisda is praising the person of Rav Hamnuna, his friend, to Rav Huna. Rav Huna says that when Rav Hamnuna visits he would like to meet him. Upon his arrival, Rav Huna noticed that Rav Hamnuna did not wear a sudar and when he asked him why he didn’t cover his head, Rav Hamnuna responded that the reason was because he was not yet married. Rav Huna is then said to have turned away from him, telling him not to appear before him again until he was married. This Gemara indicates two things: [1] that in some parts of the Jewish world in the times of the Amora’iym men did not cover their heads at all until they were married and [2] that appearing before hakhamiym with an uncovered head was considered disrespectful in the opinion of some, but not all.

Masekheth Qiddushiyn 31a – As mentioned in Masekheth Shabbath, Rav Huna, the son of Rav Yehoshua, is said to have not walked even the distance of four cubits because he stated that he believed that the Shekhinah (the “presence” of God; a created light sometimes accompanied by other physical phenomena to indicate holiness and/or blessing – NOT a manifestation of the Divine itself) resided just above his head and he wanted to be reverent. Again, no directive for all Jewish men to cover their heads.

There are other instances in the talmudh where kisuy ha-rosh (“covering of the head”) is mentioned in passing, but these are the main ones that are generally referenced by the literature. And, as is clearly seen, no universal directive for Jewish men to cover their heads exists as a matter of law.

The Opinion of the Rambam

The Rambam essentially codifies the sentiments expressed in the above sections of Gemara and relates them to the practices of the talmidhey ha-hakhamiym in which they engage due to their exalted status in Jewish society (cf. Hilkhoth De’oth 5:10[6]). In the Moreh HaNavokhiym (III:52), he relates similarly to covering the head, again calling it the practice of Torah scholars, but also noting that – metaphysically – it is a recognition that the Shekhinah hovers just above the head of a person. His reference there is specifically to the spiritually elite who are on a high level of personal piety.

There is one place in the Mishneh Torah where the Rambam requires that the head be covered – during tefiyllah and especially as shaliyah ssibbur (cf. Hilkhoth Tefiyllah 5:5). This requirement is based on the explicit directive in this regard in the minor tractate Masekheth Soferiym (14:15). However, the Rambam is not referring to a kippah, but rather the covering of one’s head with a talliyth gadhol.

The opinion expressed by the Rambam is generally considered as normative across the board, encompassing the views of both Ashkenazi and Sefaradi rishoniym.

The Opinion of the Taz

The Turey Zahav (pop. “Taz” – Rabbi David HaLevi Segal, c. 1586-1667) was a Polish rabbi whose commentary on the Shulhan `Arukh by the same name is one of the central works reprinted since the 17th Century. Segal was likely an admirer and believer in the false messiah, Shabbetai Tzvi (yimah shemo wa-zikhro), although he passed away before the entirety of his pseudo-messianic charade came to light.

In his comments on Orah Hayyim 8:3, the Taz states that it is forbidden halakhically to uncover one’s head – even for a moment. His reasoning is that being bareheaded is, in his view, an explicit practice of the non-Jewish nations and their cultures, being therefore a violation of Wayyiqra 18:3, which says, “be-huqqotheyhem lo telekhu – in their statues you shall not walk.” Although Rav Mosheh Feinstein z”l rules based on the strict opinion of the Taz that one should do their best to keep their head covered whenever possible (cf. Iggeroth Mosheh, Orah Hayyim 1:1), most authorities – including Rav Feinstein himself – reject the position of the Taz and instead maintain that wearing a kippah is a matter of custom, not law, and that covering the head in general is a middath hasiydhuth for men and is not a halakhic requirement.

The Coup de Gr”a

Perhaps the most famous opinion on the matter is that expressed by the Gaon of Vilna (pop. “Gra” – Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna, 1720-1797). After examining all of the aforementioned passages and opinions, the Gr”a states emphatically that there is never a halakhic requirement for any Jewish man to cover his head, even while praying. His conclusion (as found in Biur HaGr”a, Orah Hayyim 8:6) is as follows:

TEXT

Biur HaGra OH 8-6 A

Biur HaGra OH 8-6 B

TRANSLATION

“The fundamental principle of the matter is that there is not a prohibition at all to have an uncovered at any time. Only in front of great Torah scholars and also during prayer is it the astute thing to do from the standpoint of proper character development (mussar). And the rest of the day [i.e. outside of prayer and standing before Torah scholars] is only for those holy ones who stand continually before HaShem.”

The last line is meant as a reference to those who, of their own personal piety, decide to cover their heads continually in imitation of those hakhamiym of the Gemara who were said to have done likewise. But the reiteration of the sources by the Gr”a, and his exposition of them, is generally taken as iqqar ha-diyn, as was initially stated above by Qissur Shulhan Arukh of Hakham Ovadyah Yosef z”l.

What to do?

Let me be perfectly clear: I am NOT suggesting that anyone change their current practice. I am not on a campaign to have anyone remove their kippah. However, what I am certainly suggesting is that we see kippoth for what they are – a Jewish custom that is both expedient and astute in certain religious and social contexts, but also possessing the potential (under the current general mindset) to deceive. Therefore, kippoth are not “meaningless” as a symbol of Jewish identity in and of themselves, but they are “meaningless” as a tool for one Jew judging another.

I was once learning with a close friend of mine – who softly identifies as “Haredi” – and in the course of our discussion, the subject of wearing a kippah came up. My friend related that his rav, a prominent Haredi-Hasidic rabbi under whom he learned in yeshivah for years, once stated emphatically that if a Jew does not wear a kippah in public, then he may be assumed to be a qal (“a lightweight,” i.e. someone who is lax in their observance of the Torah and halakhah; in other words, such a person cannot be trusted with kashruth or other religious duties). I was taken aback. “Just like that?” I said, “Without any halakhic basis or personal knowledge of the individual?!” My friend almost immediately realized how harsh and potentially damaging a statement that was and started to try and find a justification for it. I told him that his rav had no right to classify good Jews as sinners without sound halakhic basis for doing so. I further told him that if his rav truly upheld such a position, then ironically it was he himself that was the “qal.” To treat someone as a sinner when they are not – or for a contrived reason not based in halakhah – is the classic definition of siynath hiynam, or “baseless hatred.”

There is a fear, I think, that if rabbis assert the actual laws regarding kippoth and headcovering in general that people will become even more assimilated into non-Jewish culture and eventually leave Judaism as a result. I have seen many great rabbaniym, including Rav Ratson Arussi shlit”a, assert that today “it is different” and that we are now obligated by popular [Haredi-Hasidic] custom to cover our heads, especially when making a berakhah or mention a Divine Name, even though no such halakhic obligation exists. But this begs the question that if not wearing a kippah was somehow some sort of a fast track into apostasy, why didn’t either Hazal, the Geoniym, or the Rishoniym address it? With all of the persecutions and the outright practices of idolatry by the non-Jewish nations around them which historically led to assimilation and apostasy among Jews, yet never was there a decree by Hazal made that Jewish men need to cover their heads in order to solve the problem. And if they did not see it as a solution, then why should we?

The fear is that as secularism encroaches daily upon our faith and our morality, we need every bit of sanctity and personal piety that we can get as religious Jews. Ergo, so this line of thinking goes, giving orthodox Jews the room to choose whether they will wear a kippah or not puts us in danger of losing spiritual ground.  We must make a para-halakhic decree and force everyone to abide by it! In my humble view this is a mistaken philosophy. Not mistaken as in a misunderstanding of the sources, has wa-shalom, but rather a misunderstanding of social reality. As noted above, the orthodox world has unfortunately developed into a situation where dress, not (or, at least more than) deeds or manners, dictate one’s level of devotion to Judaism, and where the presence of a kippah – or lack thereof – can determine how someone will be treated and how their family will be treated. Even the mere color or style of a kippah leads others to make grotesque personal judgments – all completely divorced from an actual examination of moral character. Le-`aniyuth da’ati, it would serve the spirituality and moral atmosphere of Kelal Yisra’el if such empty, external, and ultimately baseless ways of relating to fellow Jews were discouraged, not reinforced. Not placing so much ill-founded emphasis on the wearing of a kippah would eventually force orthodox Jews to relate to actually relate to the person and not their choice of hat.

A Possible Way Forward?

I think that if a significant number of orthodox Jews returned to the practice of carrying a kippah with them to wear at times of prayer, religious ceremonies, or for showing respect to prominent Torah scholars – while all other times being without one – it would eventually cause the Jewish world to be forced to redefine their values. A person who is meticulously shomer shabbath, is careful with kashruth, and in all other ways follows halakhah, yet does not usually wear a kippah while in public might be a moral force to be reckoned with. Perhaps.

So, “to kippah or not to kippah?” is a meqori question – with an answer that definitely comes out on the side of not needing to wear one, but the social impact such a decision makes is potentially complicated and someone who chooses to take that option should think carefully about this.

More later,

Kol tuv,

YB

Electricity on Yom Tov – A Meqori Perspective

[Note: The below is for information purposes only, as is everything on this site. The decision to act or not act upon any of it is the personal decision of the reader and any details regarding the observance of any halakhah – especially those which are intricate and/or are severe – should be discussed with a competent rav.]

The following video (actually, it is an audio shi’ur uploaded to YouTube) was sent to me by a close friend in Israel. The speaker, Rabbi Haim Ovadia, an Israeli-Sefaradi rabbi who received his semikhah from HaRav Mordekhay Eliyahu z”l after studying at the Shehebar Center in Jerusalem and is now a community rabbi in Rockville, Maryland. He is fully-orthodox and also possesses several degrees from various universities. Yet, he admits that his children grew up in a home where they made full use of electricity on yomiym toviym. He also relates that using electricity was the predominant Sefardic practice until more recent times when it was abandoned for political reasons.

There have been many halakhists who have either permitted the use of electricity on Yom Tov (and Shabbath) or have argued for its permissibility. Its use, of course, is limited by the boundaries of melakhah, but barring these concerns – according to Rabbi Ovadia and several of the poseqiym he cites – electricity can actually enhance the joy of the holiday. Imagine being able to microwave food on Yom Tov, or use the dishwasher, or turn lights on and off. It could make a real difference.

One of the arguments made by contemporary mahmiyriym who prohibit the use of electricity on either Shabbath or Yom Tov is that those who did permit it were simply ignorant about how electricity “actually” works. This, as stated by Rabbi Haim Ovadia in the shi’ur, is completely fallacious. The claims made by Haredi-Hasidic groups (usually Ashkenaziym) about electricity have been essentially as follows: [1] Electricity is fire, [2] electricity is (at least safeq) moliydh, makeh be-patiysh, boneh, or some other melakhah de-oraytha, [3] both of these claims were debunked by both science and halakhic reasoning (by both Sefaradiym AND Ashkenaziym) so they admit that it isn’t fire and is [probably] not a melakhah, but [4] those who permitted it in previous decades “didn’t really understand how it works.” So, they began by mistakenly prohibiting it by identifying it as fire, but even after having been conclusively disproven, they maintain that those halakhists who permitted it were just ignorant – which is a convenient claim since most of them have died and cannot defend themselves. This is ridiculous.

Further, it is just another version of the argument for latter-day “kabbalah” in the face of outright contradictions with Torah and halakhah. When confronted with texts written by Saadyah Gaon, Rambam, Rashi, Tosafoth, Ramban, and others who explicitly rejected teachings which were later espoused by the Zohar literature, Luria and his followers, and Hasidism they simply assert that these early authorities were ignorant and mistaken, claiming that they “did not have a mesoireh in the kabboloh” – a statement that is so incredibly stupid and fallacious that it would not be worthy of argument if so many people had not been taken in by it.

Now, just to be sure, while I am certainly an advocate a person’s right to choose whether they will use electricity on yomiym toviym, I am not for poking people in the eye, as it were, with the results of such a choice. What I mean is that there are those who are secure and socially adept who can choose how they will conduct themselves and the lives of their families within their own homes – these people are wise, and they are even more wise if there are ready with sources to calmly and cogently defend their religious practices to those onlookers who might express concern. There are others, however, who are socially inept and feel that it is their business to advertise everything about themselves that is either controversial or out of the mainstream, and then incite arguments with other members of their communities – these people are fools, and even if they knew all the sources to defend themselves, wisdom would still escape them.

As a movement, meqori’iym desperately need to overcome the tendency to want to the throw down at any given moment with fellow Jews or to figuratively wear their “Ani Ma’amiyn” on their sleeve (as Rav Ratson Arusi once personally taught me). We do not owe anyone a statement of faith just because they demand it, but we do owe others respect even if they do not. The rare times that call for harsh or direct exchanges with others should be done with care.

The following mishnayoth from Pirqey Avoth (1:12-17) encapsulate these principles:

TEXT

הלל ושמאי קיבלו מהם.  הלל אומר, הוי כתלמידיו של אהרון אוהב שלום ורודף שלום אוהב את הברייות ומקרבן לתורה הוא היה אומר נגד שמא אבד שמא דילא מוסיף יסוף ודילא יליף קטלא חייב ודישתמש בתגא חלף

הוא היה אומר אם אין אני לי מי לי וכשאני לעצמי מה אני ואם לא עכשיו אימתיי

שמאי אומר עשה תורתך קבע אמור מעט ועשה הרבה והוי מקביל את כל האדם בסבר פנים יפות

רבן גמליאל אומר עשה לך רב והסתלק מן הספק ואל תרבה לעשר אומדות

שמעון בנו אומר כל ימיי גדלתי בין החכמים ולא מצאתי לגוף טוב אלא שתיקה ולא המדרש הוא העיקר אלא המעשה וכל המרבה דברים מביא חטא

רבן שמעון בן גמליאל אומר על שלושה דברים העולם קיים על הדין ועל האמת ועל השלום

TRANSLATION

“Hillel and Shamma’iy received the [the Oral Torah] from [Shema’yah and Avtalyon]. Hillel says, ‘Be like the students of Aharon; love peace and pursue peace; love your fellow creatures and bring them near to the Torah.’ He used to say, ‘One who announces (i.e. to seek personal renown) his name destroys his name. One who does not increase [peace], diminishes. One who does not learn [these lessons] is deserving of death.’ And, ‘One who makes personal use of the Crown [i.e. the Torah] will perish.’

“He used to say, ‘If I am not for myself, then who is for me? If I am for myself [only], what am I? If not now, when?'”

“Shamma’iy says, ‘Make your Torah [study] a fixed practice. Say little and do much. Receive every person with a pleasant countenance.'”

“Rabban Gamli’el says, ‘Appoint for yourself a rav and [thereby] remove yourself from [halakhic] doubt.’ And, ‘Do not increase tithing by estimation [i.e. this is an example of where you should remove legal doubts from your observance of halakhah].'”

“Shim’on his son says, ‘All my days I have grown up among hakhamiym and I have found nothing better for the body other than silence. And the study [of a matter] is not the main thing, but doing. And anyone who increases their words brings about sin.'”

“Rabban Shim’on ben Gamli’el says, ‘The world is upheld by three things: by the law, by the truth, and by peace.'”

May HaShem allow these things to enter our hearts.

Whatever you decide to do, enjoy your upcoming Yom Tov.

Kol tuv uverakhah,

YB

Lag Ba-Omer – A Meqori Perspective

The thirty-third day of sefiyrath ha-omer is widely referred to as “Lag Ba-Omer” (lag being the acronym for 33 in Hebrew – ל”ג) and is usually accompanied with celebrations that feature massive bonfires, among other things. The day is also colored with intensive study of the Zohar and special trips with parties and dancing to the [supposed] grave of Rebbi Shim’on ben Yohay in Meron, Israel. As with most practices invented in more recent history, the exact origins of this day are unknown. And although it at one time was meant to commemorate the end of the plague/execution that was said to affect the students of Rebbi Aqiva in b.Yevamoth 62b, it has been co-opted by kabbalists and has now become the flagship day of latter-day mysticism and a celebration of the Zohar – with Rebbi Shim`on ben Yohay as its patron saint.

More than simply being unknown in origin, the celebratory practices and the piles of “halakhic rulings” that have accrued in its name are completely without basis in Hazal. In fact, Lag Ba-Omer is not mentioned in any rabbinic text prior to the 14th century. And when it is first designated as a distinctive day during the counting of the omer, it is referred to as a tradition from some of the Geonim that it was on this particular day that the students of Rebbi Aqiva stopped dying/being killed (cf. Menahem Meiri, Beth HaBehiyrah to b.Yevamoth 62b). And it is for this reason that there was [supposedly] a call for some celebration, or at least a relaxing of the traditional mourning rites, such as taking a haircut or getting married.

It was not until the early part of the 17th century that the spuriously honored day of Lag Ba-Omer began to be further co-opted by Lurian kabbalists, specifically by Luria’s well-known publicist (and likely producer of pseudepigraphic sayings and ideas in his name) Chaim Vital. In Vital’s work, “Etz Chaim” (cf. Sha’ar Sefiyrath Ha-Omer, chapter 7) he equates the hiylula (pop. “yahrtzeit”) of Rebbi Shim’on ben Yohay with the 33rd day of the omer. According to the Zohar literature, the anniversary of Rebbi Shim’on’s death is actually a day of celebration and great joy (cf. Idra Zuta, Parashath Ha’aziynu). This connection is centered around the false claim that Rebbi Shim’on ben Yohay was actually the author of the Zohar, having supposedly written it while hiding in a cave with his son from the Romans (cf. b. Shabbath 33b). According to the Arokh HaShulhan (493:7), Lag Ba-Omer is the day when Rebbi Shim’on ben Yohay emerged from the cave.

Based on reports of the personal practices of Luria and seeking to imitate him, masses of people go to the [supposed] grave of Rebbi Shim’on in Meron to seek his blessing. Additionally, there has developed a practice of dancing around bonfires and singing praise songs to Rebbi Shim’on ben Yohay (e.g. “Bar Yohay nimshakhta ashreykha…”), and sometimes silk scarves or other elements of clothing are burned while reciting certain kabbalistic incantations in an effort to dispel demons. The entire enterprise has turned into a dangerous, primitive, and idolatrous activity that certainly falls under the category of darkhey emoriy (“ways of the Amorite”). Many people end up turning to Rebbi Shim’on in prayer, making all sorts of requests to their patron saint of the Zohar, committing one of the simplest forms of avodhah zarah – placing intermediaries between oneself and God (Rambam, Mishneh TorahHilkhoth Avodhah Zarah 1:1-2:1).

I have written before on this site about the dubious origins and forgery of the Zohar literature. And now there has developed around it an equally dubious day – a baseless holiday for a baseless book.

The crafting of pseudo or para-halakhic regulations that have no basis in Hazal is actually discussed within the halakhah and is related as being the activity of the Ssadduqiyn (“Sadducees”), the heretics who denied the Oral Torah itself. The Rambam mentions this illegal tendency in Hilkhoth Parah Adhumah 1:14, where he says:

TEXT

הצדוקין היו אומרים שאין מעשה הפרה כשר אלא במעורבי שמש לפיכך היו בית דין בבית שני מטמאין את הכוהן השורף את הפרה בשרץ וכיוצא בו וטובל ואחר כך עוסק בה כדי לבטל דברי אלו הזדים שמורים מהעולה על רוחם לא מן הקבלה

TRANSLATION

“The Ssadduqiyn used to assert that the preparation of the parah was not acceptable (kasher) except for those who, [after having immersed in a miqweh,] wait until after the sun completely sets (i.e. sseth ha-kokhaviym). Therefore [in order to completely dismiss with their heretical contentions] the beth diyn (i.e. the Sanhedriyn) during the Second Temple period would purposefully make the kohen who burned the parah impure through contact with a dead reptile, or something similarly impure, have him immerse [in a miqweh], and directly afterward complete his appointed task. All of this was to nullify the words of these [heretics] who willfully give legal instruction based on what whimsically arises in their mind and not based on the received halakhic tradition…”

Now, I am not saying that inventing religious practices and creating pseudo and/or para-halakhic days of celebration is necessarily equivalent to being a heretic, but judging from the above statement it must be close. And it is certainly considered dangerous enough to warrant the performance of details that directly defy such things in order to keep the halakhah clear in the minds of the people. This concern for halakhic clarity, I suspect, was the reason for the strong reaction from Rebbi Yosiy in the following story related in b.Pesahiym 100a.

TEXT

Pesahim 100a - selection

TRANSLATION

“Once Rebbi Shim’on ben Gamli’el, Rebbi Yehudhah, and Rebbi Yosiy were reclining [together around a table for a meal] in Akko and [while they were eating] the sun set, signaling the beginning of Shabbath. Rebbi Shim’on ben Gamli’el said to Rebbi Yosiy, ‘Would Be-Ribbi (the form of address for one eminent scholar addressing another) like to interrupt the meal now and follow the more stringent halakhic opinion of Yehudhah our colleague?’ He said to him, ‘Each and every day you prefer my halakhic opinions more than those of Rebbi Yehudhah, and now [i.e. when he is here with us] you act as though you prefer his opinions in front of me? Will you also rape the queen with me in the house (quoting from Meghiyllath Ester, 7:8)?’ He said back to him, ‘If so, then we shall not interrupt the meal now lest the students see us and determine the halakhah throughout the generations [incorrectly].’ The students who were there said, ‘They did not move from there until they established that the halakhah was in accordance with the opinion of Rebbi Yosiy.”

There were two opinions about what was necessary if, while eating at a se’odhah on Friday that began after Minhah, the sun completely set: [1] the opinion (held by Rebbi Yehudhah) that once the sun sets it is necessary to interrupt the se’odhah, re-wash, make qiydhush, and begin a completely new meal in honor of Shabbath, and [2] the opinion (held by Rebbi Yosiy) that it was not necessary at sundown to interrupt at all. Between these two opinions, the one held by Rebbi Yosiy had already been determined as the halakhah. However, Rebbi Shim’on ben Gamli’el decided to ask Rebbi Yosiy if he wanted to be hoshesh to the other opinion, since Rebbi Yehudhah was there with them, as apparently some form of respect to his participation in the meal. But Rebbi Yosiy, immediately sensing the potential damage that could be done due to the many students observing their teachers and listening intently to their conversation, reacts very harshly and makes a clear and unquestionable declaration about which opinion was actually the halakhah. He even quotes Ahashwarosh who, returning from the garden to find Haman prostrate on Ester’s couch, says, “Will you also (i.e. after everything else) rape the queen with me here in the house?!” Rebbi Yosiy intends, le-‘aniyuth da’ati, to indicate that setting a mistaken halakhic example for the students, and by extension the Jewish public, is akin to raping the legal process (i.e. forcing a halakhic position which is not halakhah). Now, in this case the position of Rebbi Yehudhah was not heresy and he was not a Ssadduqiy, but nevertheless they made sure that everyone in attendance understood clearly that his position was not the halakhah and should not be followed.

When it comes to kabbalistic practices that were instituted by various latter-day mystics and “prophets” (although they did not always lay claim openly to the title of “prophet,” they nevertheless claimed – or their followers claimed on their behalf – to have possessed “ruach ha-kodesh,” a form of prophecy) we need to be diligent to resist them through non-participation. The incredible number of urban myths and legends regarding actual Jewish law and practice among the general populace of religious Jews is proof-positive that too many have stood by and consented to the inventions of regional scholars without basis in the received halakhic tradition, and even more have helped to cement the general Jewish sentiment that such practices, once inaugurated, can never be annulled since they somehow magically became a part of the “mesorah.”

Once again, the Jewish people today lack the authority of lawmaker in respect to halakhah and retain solely the authority of a lawyer. All any rabbi, teacher, scholar, or beyth diyn can do is apply the law as it stands to various circumstances and make very limited, low-level, regional rulings within the bounds of codified halakhah. While there still remains legal diversity within the bounds of the halakhah as it currently stands, any real changes to its determinations cannot take place until proper universal (i.e. Sanhedrinal) authority is restored.

The policies of “live and let live” and “go along to get along” with regard to the constant religious extremism and social pressure of the Haredi-Hasidic world is how we got to where we are in the first place. When faced with a more-or-less docile normative orthodox mainstream and a pushy elitist Haredi-Hasidic fringe, the latter was either tolerated by the former or – as the case usually is – succeeded in intimidating them. As a result, the twisted religious outlook of the once Haredi-Hasidic fringe has been allowed to infect and overtake the vast majority of Judaism. In the name of “unity” between Jews (which is ludicrous since the Haredi-Hasidic camp unites with no one), we have allowed heresy, corruption, and a plethora of contrived Eurocentric practices to enter Judaism and masquerade as authentic. If we do not stop giving them our tacit consent and passive allegiance, then they may well destroy and obscure the message and purpose of the Torah and the Jewish people, delaying the redemption indefinitely (haliylah). If we want our sane, rational, reasonable, vibrant, compelling, and practically useful Judaism back, then we need to take it back through a consistent call for authenticity and realism.

Lastly, we need to stop giving them our money; stop giving charity to Haredi-Hasidic organizations, stop sending our young men to their yeshivoth to be ruined by the roshey yeshivah and brainwashed into submission to their agenda, stop sending our young women to their seminaries to be equally brainwashed into obsessive worry about their appearance and thinking that marital servitude is religiously noble, stop purchasing their books and materials, and stop supporting the members of any kollel. We do not need their system to spread Torah and uphold its values. Basically, we need to stop seeking their approval. We have our own non-Haredi, non-Hasidic yeshivoth, printing presses, seminaries, and rabbinical programs that are beautiful and produce wonderful young Jewish men and women committed to Torah. Haredi-Hasidic groups are part of a system that subsists almost entirely on welfare and public charity – remove your support and you remove their ability to intimidate and perpetuate their ideology.

 What I am NOT calling for is violence, disrespect, or rudeness. Not at all. Instead, the most effective way to assert your resistance is to simply stop participating and to become educated enough to argue for the meqori position. The goal is not to offend, but to convince; not to hurt, but to help. Anyone who makes it their business to openly and loudly say confrontational and controversial things – especially within the communal setting of a shul – is not a part of the solution, but is a [truly embarrassing] part of the problem. Such people are egotistically looking for a fight.

Our true desire should be for positive and lasting change.

May HaShem give us the wisdom that grants us success.

Happy 22nd day of the omer,

Kol tuv,

YB

Haircuts, Shaving, and Music During the Omer – A Meqori Perspective

No haircuts, no trimming, no shaving, no music, no engagements, no marriages – at least not until “Lag Ba-Omer.” Right? …Not exactly.

We have all heard the story about Rabbi Aqiva’s 12,000 (some say 24,000) students who, because they were not polite enough to one another, were wiped out in some sort of a plague. Because of these incredibly sad events – so the traditional story goes – we need to nationally mourn during these days. But when did this begin? Where is it written in Hazal that we need to abstain from such things? The fact is – it doesn’t.

The section of the Gemara that discusses this incident is found in b.Yevamoth 62b, which says:

TEXT

אמרו שנים עשר אלף זוגים תלמידים היו לו לרבי עקיבא מגבת עד אנטיפרס וכולן מתו בפרק אחד מפני שלא נהגו כבוד זה לזה והיה העולם שמם עד שבא ר”ע אצל רבותינו שבדרום ושנאה להם ר”מ ור’ יהודה ור’ יוסי ורבי שמעון ורבי אלעזר בן שמוע והם הם העמידו תורה אותה שעה תנא כולם מתו מפסח ועד עצרת אמר רב חמא בר אבא ואיתימא ר’ חייא בר אבין כולם מתו מיתה רעה מאי היא א”ר נחמן אסכרה

TRANSLATION

“They said, ‘Rebbi Aqiva had twelve thousand pairs of students from Givath to Antifras and all of them died at once because they did not conduct themselves with honor one to another, and the world was desolate until Rebbi Aqiva came to our teachers in the South and taught them [Torah]. Those masters were Rebbi Me’iyr, Rebbi Yehudhah, Rebbi Yosiy, Rebbi Shim’on, and Rebbi Eli’ezer ben Shammua. And they upheld the Torah in that [difficult] hour. It was taught by a Tanna that all of them died between Pesah and Shavu’oth. Rav Hama bar Abba, or possibly Rav Hiyya bar Abiyn, All of them died an evil death. What was it? Rav Nahman says, Asphyxiation.”

Despite the fact that Rav Sherira Gaon (in his well-known Iggereth) describes the cause of death as being shemada (i.e. the Aramaic form of “shmad,” or government murder of Jews), and not askarah (“asphyxiation”) – which lends itself more plausibly, in the view of some scholars, that the original reference is to the death of Rebbi Aqiva’s students who fought during the Second Jewish Revolt under Bar Kokhvah and perished at the hands of the Romans – this passage leaves us with several questions.

[1] Where does it say that Kelal Yisra’el needs to nationally enter a state of mourning due to this?

[2] Which students died between Pesah and Shavu’oth, the twelve thousand pairs or the rabbaniym from the South who arose after them?

[3] Is the story – as told in the Bavli (and the parallel passage in Bereshiyth Rabbah) – midrashic, and therefore metaphoric, in nature or are we to take it literally? It doesn’t seem likely that Rebbi Aqiva would have produced students who were so terrible that they deserved Divine destruction to the point of endangering the Torah.

[4] If it is obvious that the import of this passage is to cause Kelal Yisra’el to actively mourn during sefiyrath ha-omer, then why does the passage not just say so? And, further, why do neither Rashi nor Tosafoth discuss it there on the daf? In fact, the Mahzor Vitry does not mention this practice [i.e. to mourn] at all.

[5] The Rambam never mentions such a thing as national [quasi] mourning for any event during the omer. When he mentions other later customs, why doesn’t he mention this one?

As far as being meqori is concerned, a few of the Geonim mentioned in their writings that due to the tragedy of Rebbi Aqiva’s students some did not contract marriages during the omer. And this is probably a good idea, although it is not a halakhah that was ever mentioned, or even a suggested practice, in the Mishneh Torah. Refraining from the contracting of marriages during the omer likely falls under being respectful to Jewish communal traditions. But refraining from music, haircuts, or shaving – things which are private – are certainly mutar according to halakhah.

According to the Rambam, there is no directive to mourn in this way except for actual halakhic mourning (such as during shiva and sheloshiym – Hilkhoth Evel 6:1-3) and the week in which Tisha Be-Av falls (Hilkhoth Ta’aniyoth 5:6). And so, that which is permissible throughout the year is halakhically permissible during sefiyrath ha-omer.

The entire timbre of the omer period seems to have been turned on its head; from a time of joy and celebration to a time of sadness and mourning. Shavu’oth is referred to as Assereth (עצרת) and as “the” assereth to Pesah. This designation means that Shavu’oth is meant to be the official end (read, culmination) of the Pesah celebration in the same way that Sheminiy Assereth is the capstone to Sukkoth in the Fall. This should strongly indicate to us that the omer is supposed to be a time of quasi-celebration for Kelal Yisra’el, not mourning and sadness at all.

This is yet another example of asceticism and kabbalah obscuring the true meaning of the Torah and the halakhah. In fact, it is a misswah to trim your beard and cut your hair bikhvodh shabbath, which is why Rav Soloveitchik z”l and others took a “lenient” position with regard to the custom of not shaving or taking haircuts during the omer. For those who are interested in his position on the matter, it is easily located in sources written about Rav Soloveitchik and his teshuvoth on various halakhic questions.

In the next post, I will talk about the fake holiday of “Lag Ba-Omer” that has led to some idolatrous practices (halilah) and should, in my opinion, be avoided as much as possible.

Enjoy your haircut and your tunes,

YB

[Note: The above is for information purposes only, as is everything on this site. The decision to act or not act upon any of it is the personal decision of the reader and any details regarding the observance of any halakhah – especially those which are intricate and/or are severe – should be discussed with a competent rav.]

Counting the Omer – A Meqori Perspective

Sefiyrath Ha`Omer – A Relatively Simple Misswah

The Torah, in Wayyiqra 23:15, commands us as follows:

TEXT –

וּסְפַרְתֶּם לָכֶם מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת מִיּוֹם הֲבִיאֲכֶם אֶת-עֹמֶר הַתְּנוּפָה שֶׁבַע שַׁבָּתוֹת תְּמִימֹת תִּהְיֶינָה

TRANSLATION –

“And you shall count for yourselves, [beginning] from the day after the [festival] sabbath, from the day that you bring the `omer-offering of waving – there shall be seven complete weeks.”

From this pasuq, Hazal taught – among other things – that each male of Kelal Yisra’el, beginning with the second night of Pesah, needs to begin counting (vocally, and with a berakhah) seven weeks (49 days), after which would be the festival of Shavu`oth. Although we cannot currently offer the `omer, we nevertheless count the days and weeks as was done in the days of the Beth HaMiqdash.

What Does It All Mean?

Usually around the time of sefiyrath ha-`omer we begin hearing the kabbalistic buzz of latter-day interpretations of these 49 days, seven weeks. Everything from combining supposed “sefiros” to “tikkun ha-middos” is mentioned in Jewish books and religious newspapers. Some even relate it to the “49 levels of tumah” that are mentioned in the Tiqquney Zohar.

The truth, however, is that the Gemara merely states that it is “zekher le-miqdash – a remembrance of the Temple” (b.Menahoth 66a) and nothing further. The Rambam in the Moreh HaNavokhiym (III:43) expands on this idea and tells us that it is a “countdown” to the anniversary of the Matan Torah (“the Giving of the Torah”) and that, just as one counts the weeks, days, and hours before the arrival of a dear friend, so also does the Jewish nation build anticipation toward Shavu`oth by counting these seven weeks of days.

Traditionally, the anticipation of receiving the Torah “anew” – as it were – has generated a focus on teshuvah and the improvement of the miyddoth (character traits). This is an excellent idea, but unfortunately it has taken on a flaky mystical focus and any real personal growth is usually overshadowed if not forgotten. Le-`aniyuth da’ati (in my humble opinion), I think that the best and most productive tradition in this vein in that of learning a chapter a week of Pirqey Avoth. I also would HIGHLY recommend learning a chapter each day of Hilkhoth De`oth (laws of character development) from the Mishneh Torah, and I consider it no accident that it too contains exactly seven chapters.

Focusing on one’s miyddoth before receiving the Torah is completely appropriate since the halakhah states that Torah is only to be taught to a student whose character is refined and whose deeds are good (cf. Mishneh Torah, Hilkhoth Talmudh Torah 4:1).

The Rambam in the MT: Just Two Short Halakhoth

Did you forget to count at night? Did you forget to count an entire day? Did you forget more than one day? Do you make a berakhah during the day? Can you make a berakhah if you forgot a day? These and other considerations are the common discussion points of the obligation to count the `omer today. The entire conversation has become one infused with many doubts due to a lack of confidence to decide the actual halakhah and has also become subsumed – as have many areas of Jewish law – in kabbalistic sentiments and concerns.

For all of the questions, doubts, and supposed halakhoth that can be found related to sefiyrath ha-`omer – comprising a veritable mountain – the Rambam in the Mishneh Torah dedicates only two to the subject. Two short halakhoth, placed in Hilkhoth Tamiydhiyn Umusafiyn (7:19-20 in the Yemenite [i.e. Correct and Uncorrupted] Editions), give the definition of one’s obligation, and they are as follows:

TEXT –

יט מצות עשה לספור שבע שבתות תמימות מיום הבאת העומר שנאמר “וספרתם לכם ממוחרת השבת” ומצוה למנות הימים עם השבועות שנאמר “תספרו חמישים יום” ומתחילת היום מונין לפיכך מונה בלילה מליל שישה עשר בניסן שכח ולא מנה בלילה מונה ביום ואין מונין אלא מעומד ואם מנה מיושב יצא

כ מצוה זו על כל איש מישראל ובכל מקום ובכל זמן ונשים ועבדים פטורין מספירת העומר וצריך לברך בכל לילה אשר קידשנו במצוותיו וציוונו על ספירת העומר קודם שיספור מנה ולא בירך יצא ואינו חוזר ומברך

TRANSLATION –

19 “It is a positive commandment [of the Torah] to count seven complete weeks, from the day that the `omer is first brought, as it says, ‘And you shall count for yourselves [beginning] from the day after the [festival] sabbath.’ And the commandment includes the counting of the days along with the weeks, as it says, ‘You shall count fifty days.’ And we count at the very beginning of the day, therefore we count at night, from the night of the sixteenth of Nisan onward. One who forgot and did not count at night should count during the day.

And we do not count except when standing [le-khatehilah], but if one counted while sitting then [bedi`avadh] he fulfills his obligation.

20 “This commandment is an obligation for every man of [Kelal] Yisra’el, and it applies in every place and in every time. Women and servants are exempt from sefiyrath ha-`omer. It is necessary to make the berakhah each night, ‘who has sanctified us with his commandments and has commanded concerning the counting of the `omer‘ before one counts.

[Bedi`avadh] if one counted without making a berakhah, he [nevertheless] fulfills his obligation and he does not go back and make the berakhah.”

The Rambam seems to hold the following:

[1] Only men are obligated to count the `omer. Women may [and likely should] count, but without a berakhah. There are opinions that include women fully in the obligation and allow her to count with a berakhah, but this position is not that of the Rambam and I myself do not hold this way. Although, as an aside, I have daughters who hold like me and do not count with a berakhah, another who does not count at all, and another who counts with a berakhah. It is important to me that my children do not feel too separated from their religious Jewish peers as that can be psychologically damaging. If I make distinctions between our family and others in our community in terms of practice, it is only in very foundational issues and the vast majority of the time these distinctions consist of hashqafic tenets (e.g. monotheism, superstitions, `avodhah zarah, “rebbe” worship, “gadolatry,” etc.) – making a berakhah when their hearts are happy and full to do the will of God, especially when they have on whom to rely, is not something that I insert myself too strongly into. I give them a pleasant and non-threatening explanation of how I hold halakhically and leave it at that. (This is good advice for the many meqori parents out there who tend to be too exacting and harsh on their children – believe me this does critical damage to their little psyches!)

[2] Both weeks and days must be enumerated. This is normative halakhah today and needs no explanation.

[3] Counting begins the second night of Pesah. This is normative halakhah today and needs no explanation.

[4] Counting is [le-khatehilah] done at night. This means after complete nightfall (sseth ha-kokhaviym) and no earlier. If one forgot to count at night, then they should still count during the day – and apparently with a berakhah. Although the position of the majority of later rishoniym and poseqiym is to count during the day only without a berakhah, there were Geonic opinions (such as the Halakhoth Gedholoth) who did not object to making the berakhah even during the day. It seems that this was also the opinion of the Rambam. In the style of the Rambam, if he felt that making a berakhah during the day was prohibited, then he would have said so – and he does not. It is important to note that Mori Yusef Qafih z”l interprets the Rambam as being of the position that the berakhah is not said when counting during the day, and since we do have a general halakhic principle of safeq berakhoth le-haqel (“in a doubt of the obligation to make a berakhah we always refrain”), perhaps this is the best course of action. After all, the Rambam states explicitly that the berakhah does not prevent one from fulfilling his obligation.

[5] Counting should be done while standing. As is clearly stated above.

[6] The berakhah is – ברוך אתה ה’ אלהינו מלך העולם אשר קדשנו במצוותיו וצונו על ספירת העומר

Forgotten Days

Although the Rasa”g (Rav Sa`adyah Gaon) in his siddur rules that one may continue counting with a berakhah through the entire seven weeks of the `omer, he does note that if one forgets to count the very first night then he cannot continue counting at all with a berakhah. This is because of his diyyuq of the word “temiymoth – complete” from the pasuq in Waiyyiqra (p. 155 – קנה).

The position of the Rambam in his teshuvoth (as brought there by Mori Yusef Qafih z”l in his commentary on the MT) is that one who forgets on any night, even the first, even if he misses multiple days, may upon remembering (or simply doing teshuvah, whatever the case may be) continue to count throughout the entire seven weeks with a berakhah. The Rambam adds, however, that one who forgets a day may not say the word “temiymoth – complete” in the declaration made on the last night of the `omer. The word “temiymoth – complete” is not said in the nosah of the Baladi Yemenite tradition, but rather the Aramaic word “shalmey – complete,” and it too should be avoided by one who forgot to count for an entire day during the `omer.

Enjoy your countdown to Shavu`oth. I will be posting about the contrived “holiday” of “Lag BaOmer” in the next post.

Until then, berakhoth le-kulam.

YB

[Note: The above is for information purposes only, as is everything on this site. The decision to act or not act upon any of it is the personal decision of the reader and any details regarding the observance of any halakhah – especially those which are intricate and/or are severe – should be discussed with a competent rav.]