Sunday, 26 January 2014

What's an Eruv and do Sephardim use them?

Last Friday, an hour before Shabbat, the Seward Park Eruv went down. I suddenly received many calls asking for clarification of what Shabbat would be like. Throughout Shabbat many congregants were asking me questions so it made sense to me that this week's blog would be all about the Eruv.

What is it? How does it work? Who does it help? How does it go down? And most importantly can Sephardim use it?

The Talmud identifies 39 types of "work" that are forbidden on Shabbat. One of those is hoza'ah - transferring things from one domain type to another. E.g. from a public area into a private area - this is commonly known as carrying. There are certain things people wish to carry. People also want to get together with their friends after synagogue and take things with them,including their babies. They want to get together to learn, to socialize and to be a community. So our Rabbis came up with the concept of the eruv. 

The eruv literally means blending or intermingling but it refers to making public domains into private domains. A technical enclosure which surrounds both private and public domains creating a large private domain in which carrying is permitted on Shabbat. Colloquially this is known as an eruv. The eruv is usually large enough to include entire neighborhoods with homes, apartments and synagogues, making it possible to carry on Shabbat, since one is never leaving one's domain.

Ideally the eruv should be a proper walled enclosure. However, a wall can be a wall even if it has many doorways creating large open spaces. This means that a wall does not have to be solid. Therefore, the eruv enclosure may be created by telephone poles, for example, which act as the vertical part of a door post in a wall, with the existing cables strung between the poles acting as the lintel of the doorframe. As such, the entire "wall" is actually a series of "doorways." Added to that there may be existing natural boundaries and fences. 

How does an eruv go down? Most modern eruvs use cables and not walls. So sometimes if there is a storm a wire can break or sometimes work can be done by the power company or telephone company on one wire and this will cause the entire eruv to go down. So very occasionally like this past Friday we can have a situation where there is no eruv for Shabbat. This causes a small inconvenience for most people. All they need to do is to remember not to carry their keys and there is no problem. But for families with babies and for the elderly with canes and wheelchairs suddenly Shabbat is turned upside down. This past Shabbat Sharona and Tova had to stay at home.

Now is there a problem for Sephardim? 
This is a complicated area of halakha but I will try and write as short and as clear as possible.

Rav Yosef Caro (Shulkhan Arukh O.H. 345:7) wrote that the definition of a public domain is a street that is 16 amot wide (32 feet) or more that are not enclosed. Some say that if there are not 600,000 people passing through the street every day it is not considered a public domain.

There is a general rule that whenever Rav Caro writes two laws and begins one plainly and begins the other with the words “some say” we always rule according to the plain law rather than the one introduced with “some say”. However he wrote elsewhere (O.H. 303.18) that We don’t have actual halachic public domains today, all our public domains are halachically considered as a carmelit - another domain which does not have the strict laws of a public domain. 

Some Sephardic halachic decisors such as the Hida and Ben Ish Hai, rule that our main roads are considered a public domain and therefore we cannot use poles and wires to make an eruv and we need proper walls to enclose the area which would be impossible to do today. However, Hacham Ovadiah rules that Sephardim can use an eruv made of wires and poles for those who need and he is the basis for my practice of using the eruv. 

Hacham Ovadiah Yosef zt"l wrote (Yabia Omer O.H. 9:33) "Those that carry on Shabbat in a public domain by an eruv made with door frames (which means wires and poles), have basis to do so, and according to many authorities it is allowed even according to Maran. The sages of Jerusalem also wrote that we have no true public domain today and an eruv of doorways therefore is sufficient to carry in these days. Nevertheless he who trembles at the word of God and completely refrains from carrying will be blessed...

What’s more is that those who are stringent not to make an eruv are actually being exceedingly lenient, for they allow the desecration of Shabbat to continue by people carrying in a public domain"

Today, I know very few people with young families that do not use the eruv. An eruv is a blessing for a community and indeed is something that more observant families look for when moving to a new community. One should be careful to note where exactly the eruv extends to as it does not for example include "the Seward Park loop".

If you are interested in reading more on Hacham Ovadiah Yosef's thorough responsum on this subject it is available in English here.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Wearing Tzitzit

What are the origins of the mitzvah of Tzitzit? Why do men wear Tzitzit? Do they always need to be worn? Should they be seen? Why are there differences for Ashkenazim and Sephardim?

(This article is written with the understanding that wearing Tzitzit is a mitzvah only for men)

A few people have asked me to go into the commandment of tzitzit. So I thought I would write something although I must admit that there is far more to be written about them than I will be putting in this blog. Tzitzit are the tassels or strings that are tied to the corners of four cornered garments. Although when someone is talking about Tzitzit they normally are referring to an item of clothing called a Talet Katan which is worn under a man's clothing. 

There are two sources for wearing Tzitzit the first is Bemidbar at the end of Parashat Shelach:

דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם, וְעָשׂוּ לָהֶם צִיצִת עַל-כַּנְפֵי בִגְדֵיהֶם, לְדֹרֹתָם; וְנָתְנו עַל-צִיצִת הַכָּנָף, פְּתִיל תְּכֵלֶת.

וְהָיָה לָכֶם, לְצִיצִת, וּרְאִיתֶם אֹתוֹ וּזְכַרְתֶּם אֶת-כָּל-מִצְוֹת ה', וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֹתָם; וְלֹא- תָתוּרוּ אַחֲרֵי לְבַבְכֶם, וְאַחֲרֵי עֵינֵיכֶם, אֲשֶׁר-אַתֶּם זֹנִים, אַחֲרֵיהֶם.

Speak to the children of Israel and say to them: They shall make for themselves throughout their generations fringes on the corners of their garments; and that they put with the fringe of each corner a thread of blue. This shall be fringes for you, and when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of the Lord to perform them. And you will not turn after your heart and after your eyes, after which you tend to stray.

In Devarim 22:12 it says גְּדִלִים, תַּעֲשֶׂה-לָּךְ, עַל-אַרְבַּע כַּנְפוֹת כְּסוּתְךָ, אֲשֶׁר תְּכַסֶּה-בָּהּ
You shall make for yourself twisted cords upon the four corners of your covering, with which you cover yourself.

On the question of should the tzitzit be seen or not this is one of the few time where Sephardic practice goes against Rav Yosef Caro (Maran). Maran writes in Shulkhan Arukh (O.H. 8:11) that one should wear the tzitzit over his other garments so that he can constantly see them and be reminded of the mitzvot.

On the other hand, the great Kabbalist, the Arizal, would wear his tzitzit under his other garments. His student, Rabbi Chaim Vital explained that this was because the tallit kattan and the tallit gadol relate to two kinds of reality: the internal reality and the external reality. The tallit kattan represents the internal level and is therefore worn within other garments, while the tallit gadol represents the external and is therefore worn over the other garments. 

Sephardim follow the Arizal and Ashkenazim follow Maran. 

There are number of different ways for tying the Tzitzit. Most Sephardim tie10,5,6,5 which is Yud, hey, vav, hey, which spells God's name on the talet katan and they tie 7,8,11,13 on the Talet Gadol. Ashkenazim tie 7,8,11,13 for both. Rav Messas notes (Shut Mekor Hayim Chelek Bet Chapters 69 and 120) that there are many different customs for tying and they are all valid.

Are men obligated to wear Tzitzit or only when they are wearing a four cornered garment? The Rambam writes (Laws of Tzitzit 3:11) "Even though a person is not obligated to purchase a tallit and wrap himself in it so that he must attach tzitzit to it, it is not proper for a person to release himself from this commandment. Instead, he should always try to be wrapped in a garment which requires tzitzit so that he will fulfill this mitzvah. In particular, care should be taken regarding this matter during prayer. It is very shameful for a Torah scholar to pray without being wrapped in a talet."

Sephardic custom has been that only Torah Scholars  wear a Talet Katan. Rav Yosef Messas(1892-1974, Algeria, Morocco and Israel) wrote in Hod Yosef Hai (p.43) that since it is only worn out of piety since strictly one only needs to wear tzitzit if one has a four cornered garment, one should abstain from wearing them because:

1. They may become soiled in the bathroom
2. The strings could become pasul/invalid (because some of the knots became untied or strings were cut off) in that case one would be in breach of the mitzvah of having tzitzit on a four cornered garment. 

However, Ashkenazic custom is somewhat different boys are taught to wear tzitzit from as young as three. Indeed in some schools boys can be reprimanded for not wearing tzitzit even though there is no obligation to wear them. (Although, my dad told me that in Gibraltar the Hebrew school did enforce tzitzit wearing).

Although technically one does not need to wear tzitzit and historically in some Sephardic countries the practice was not to do so times have changed. In today's world we look to be able to do mitzvot whenever we can and Tzitzit is such an easy one to do especially if it is one of the T-shirt varieties. I encourage men of all ages to wear tzitzit as much as possible.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Tu Bishvat and Fruticas: What's it all about?

I've always enjoyed Tu Bishvat and everything that it represents. Tu Bishvat is probably the lowest ranked Jewish Holiday and certainly one of the least well known. Tu Bishvat is the New Year for the Trees. This is the season in which the earliest-blooming trees in the Land of Israel emerge from their winter sleep and begin a new fruit-bearing cycle.

Legally, the new year for trees relates to the various tithes that are separated from produce grown in the Holy Land. These tithes differ from year to year in the seven-year shemittah cycle, the point at which a budding fruit is considered to belong to the next year of the cycle is the 15th of Shevat. 

As a child my primary memory of Tu Bishvat was eating the Shivat HaMinim - the 7 species special to the land of Israel - wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates. I loved singing the words from Devarim Chapter 8 Verse 8. 

אֶרֶץ חִטָּה וּשְׂעֹרָה, וְגֶפֶן וּתְאֵנָה וְרִמּוֹן; אֶרֶץ-זֵית שֶׁמֶן, וּדְבָשׁ
A land of wheat and barley, and grapes  and figs  and pomegranates; a land of olive oil and honey (dates).

If you ask me very nicely I won't sing it! The other memory I had was planting trees and sending money to JNF to plant trees in Israel. In the last 100 years Tu Bishvat has been used as both a Zionist day with support for Israel and a day for furthering environmental issues and concerns.

Sephardim, have a much older custom which is to have a Seder Tu Bishvat The custom goes back to the Kabbalists in the 16th Century who worked on a Seder with 4 cups of wine and all the fruits and nuts and highlighting the 7 special fruits of the land of Israel. 

In Seattle, we have a slightly different Tu Bishvat seder called Fruticas. Here's the text of the service. The entire community is invited to join Ezra Bessaroth and Sephardic Bikur Holim for dinner and celebration of Tu Bishvat/Fruticas on Tuesday, February 3rd at 5:30 p.m. at Ezra Bessaroth. Come enjoy an evening of  great food and words of Torah with friends. A delicious chicken dinner with fruits and grains of the Holy Land will be served. 

Our children will recite the  special Fruticas songs and berachot in Hebrew, Ladino, and English. For the Best Price, RSVP and pay today! With RSVP & Prepayment: $20 per person, and special family rate for SBH and EB members of $60. At the door price: $30 per person. Kids 3 and under free. RSVP to Susan in the EB office 206 722-5500 or click here

Monday, 6 January 2014

Seattle Seahawks and Shabbat

After spending 10 years outside of England, I no longer speak English with the accent I grew up with instead it's morphed into an English which is clearly from England but with American and Australian twangs reflecting the different places I've lived over the years but it plays havoc on dialect tests. But one of the things which still makes me very English is my love of all English sports - football (soccer), cricket and rugby. I'm still crazy about Manchester United and I've been watching the Ashes all Winter although maybe it's time to give up on that after losing so badly in Australia. 

I never really got very into Aussie Rules Football when I lived in Melbourne but I've slowly got quite keenly interested in (American) football watching the Seattle Seahawks. Now it may have to do with them playing really well but I find myself compelled to know the results and watch the games which brings me to the purpose of this blog.

This coming Shabbat at 1:35pm the Seahawks are playing the Saints in the playoffs. It's the ultimate test for someone who keeps Shabbat and is a crazy sports fan. It's the time when all types of questions get asked to the rabbi like is it ok to turn on the television before Shabbat and keep it on? Is it ok to record the game on Shabbat and watch it straight after Shabbat? In Melbourne the perennial question always surrounded walking to the AFL Grand Final with a ticket around your neck! 

Shabbat is all about stopping one's normal workday routine and getting in touch with our spirituality. It's about a cessation of work rather than a day for sleeping in. I love the moment on on Friday afternoon when I turn my phone off and all of the week's troubles are left behind for 25 hours. I'm never more at peace than at that moment. Shabbat isn't a list of things you can't do it's all about connecting to the more spiritual things in this world. As such we have to take great pains to make sure that our Shabbatot are reserved for activities that will enhance our Shabbat experience such as synagogue attendance and delicious meals with friends and families. 

The question of leaving the television on Shabbat can be addressed as follows. There is a well known principle that if something is started before Shabbat it can continue into Shabbat. The Gemara in Masechet Shabbat (18a) addresses the case of a water-operated mill that one sets into motion before Shabbat so that it will operate and grind wheat throughout Shabbat. Bet Hillel permitted such an arrangement, since all the activity is performed before Shabbat. The mechanism operates on Shabbat without any involvement on the part of the individual, and thus no Shabbat violation is entailed.

The Talmud quotes Rava that it is prohibited to add wheat on Friday to a water mill that runs automatically on Shabbat, since the mill produces a large amount of noise and this noise denigrates Shabbat (zeluta deShabbat). Furthermore, people will say that the owner of the mill is running it on Shabbat. Rav Yosef is quoted in the Talmud as disagreeing with Rava and permitting any action done prior to Shabbat even if it creates large amount of noise.

This view is codified by the Shulhan Arukh (O.H 252:6), who adds that even if the mechanism makes a sound, it may nevertheless be allowed to operate on its own during Shabbat. The Rema notes that the Ashkenazi custom is not to allow it if it makes a sound. 

This Halacha is the basis for the widespread use of timers, or "Shabbat clocks," to turn on and off lights and appliances on Shabbat. Thus, for example, one may set a timer before Shabbat to turn on and off a light, an electric fan or heating system during Shabbat. Since the person's involvement occurs only before Shabbat, and not during Shabbat, the timer's operation on Shabbat does not entail any violation.

This Halacha does not extend to televisions. It is, of course, strictly forbidden to watch television on Shabbat, even if one sets the television on a timer before Shabbat, as watching television is not at all in the spirit of the day (and for Ashkenazim would also be not allowed for the noise). 

However, this does not apply to recording the game on Shabbat when the television is left off. Since you haven't been making your Shabbat like Sunday. It is so vital  that the essence of Shabbat be enhanced to the maximum of our ability. Whether we keep Shabbat 100% or whether we keep aspects of Shabbat we must try and remove things that have nothing to do with Shabbat whatsoever.

I will be watching the game after Shabbat and it will probably be better because we can skip the 2 hours of commercials! Wishing the Hawks all the best and wishing you a Shabbat that is full of spirituality.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Arms Sales and Gun Control in Halakha

This past Shabbat I gave a 20 minute presentation on arms sales and gun control in halakha. Here's the source sheet. Admittedly, I must stress that the 20 minute class was only scratching the surface of a very long discussion and I look forward to teaching about this topic in a lot more detail in the future. But in summary, I came to the following conclusions. 

The seller of weapons has a moral responsibility to ensure that the buyer is not likely to commit a crime. In fact the crime would be on them more than the person committing the crime. This fits into the rubric of the Torah law "Do not put a stumbling block before the blind". Rabbinic tradition maintains not just someone physically blind but anyone who would be morally blind to a particular issue it is an obligation to prevent them from from stumbling by providing them with weapons that they could cause harm to themselves or others. (Similarly a bartender has a responsibility not to serve drinks to someone who has had too much to drink.)

Secondly, there is a responsibility to make sure that one's gun is safe and looked after. This is learned from the Torah law to have a fence around a flat roof. Even if someone climbed on your roof without permission and fell, you would be liable for not having the fence. So too here, the owner of a gun would be liable if his/her weapon fell into the wrong hands. Similarly, having a fence around a pool.

We then moved on to the subject of selling weapons to non-Jews and general arm sales. In the times of the Talmud, during much persecution, the assumption was that a non-Jew with a weapon would/could kill a Jew. Therefore it was forbidden to sell to non-Jews any type of weapons. However, shields which are primarily used for defense would be permitted to sell to them. Obviously, Captain America is not your regular shield user! The Talmud continues that it is forbidden to sell to a Jewish robber since they too will be involved in murder. We can learn from the Talmud that one should avoid any arm sales to anyone who is likely to be involved in crime. The gemara concludes that if the non-Jews are protecting Jews then it is permissible to sell them weapons for example the king's army protecting the Jewish subjects in the town. 

Today, Israel sells weapons to other countries and in the past has even sold weapons which have been used against us. E.g. the Palestinian police using weapons given over after the Oslo Accords. Clearly all countries need to be careful with what will happen in the future. As it says in Pirkei Avot, who is wise? He who can see the outcome of his actions.

In discussions after the class some people suggested that Jews should be allowed to have guns in order to prevent what happened to the Jews in the Holocaust and in Communist Russia. I don't believe that a few guns in the hands of civilian Jews would have made a major impact on the result of those terrible atrocities committed against our people.

In conclusion, it is permitted to own a gun in Jewish law but one must make sure that it is properly secured maybe even with fingerprint identification and that one is in the right state of mind at all times. May we never need to use them and may all weapons be turned into plowshares.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Deceiving Pharaoh - Do the ends ever justify the means?

This blog post is a summary of a great shiur by Rabbi Elchanan Samet. Click here to read it. Throughout the process of taking the Jews out of Egypt there are several deceptions that Hashem commands Moshe to tell Pharaoh. The first is that Moshe asks that the Jewish people be allowed to serve God in the desert for three days. Moshe never directly asks for Bnei Yisrael to be freed. See the source sheet from today's class.

Shemot Chapter 5 verse 3
"The God of the Hebrews has happened upon us. Now let us go on a three day journey in the desert and sacrifice to the Lord our God, lest He strike us with a plague or with the sword."

This request is constantly repeated by Moshe and Aharon and is the discussion is the basis for Pharaoh allowing the Jews to leave. He lets them leave because he thinks they will be back three days later. 

The second deception is that Hashem commands Moshe to tell the Jewish people to borrow from the Egyptians all their gold, silver and clothes. How can they borrow these things if they have no intention of coming back to Egypt?!

Shemot Chapter 12 verses 34-35
"And the children of Israel did according to Moshe’s order, and they borrowed from the Egyptians silver objects, golden objects, and garments. The Lord gave the people favor in the eyes of the Egyptians, and they lent them, and they emptied out Egypt."

The final deception is that Hashem commands Moshe to turn around after leaving Egypt to give the impression that the Jewish people were lost and in disarray.

Shemot Chapter 14 verses 2-3
"Speak to the children of Israel, and let them turn back and encamp in front of Pi hahirot, between Migdol and the sea; in front of Bal Zefon, you shall encamp opposite it, by the sea. And Pharaoh will say about the children of Israel, They are trapped in the land. The desert has closed in upon them."

Hashem tells Moshe that the purpose of this final deception and presumably all three deceptions is in order that Hashem "will be glorified through Pharaoh and through his entire force, and the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord And they did so." I.e. without the Egyptians being drowned at the sea, God's greatness would not become known in the world.

The Ibn Ezra writes that "God's wisdom is beyond our understanding. It would appear to me, though, that this deception was performed for two reasons: firstly, in order that they would give them vessels of gold and silver for had they known that they would not return, they would not have given them. And secondly, in order that Pharaoh and his army would drown. For had they left with his permission, and had he not believed that they would return, he would not have pursued after them."

Rabbeinu Nissim writes a similar position. "He wished to bring about a situation where they themselves, of their own choice, would enter the water and die there. Had Moshe informed Pharaoh from the beginning that their time had come to be redeemed, he would certainly have agreed to their demand because of the plagues, and would not have pursued them thereafter, for why would he pursue them after having willingly let them go when they were still under his rule?

Therefore God did not want Moshe to tell Pharaoh exactly what was happening, but rather to say that they were going to offer sacrifices on a three-day journey, such that when they would tell Pharaoh thereafter 'that the nation had escaped,' he would think that everything Moshe had done had not come from God but rather had been done deceitfully and fraudulently. For had it not been thus, why would Moshe have fooled him by saying that they were going only to offer sacrifices? For this very reason He commanded, 'Let each man ask his neighbor for vessels of silver and gold' even though the money rightfully belonged to the Jews and they could have taken it openly, God nevertheless told them to dissemble so that when it was told to the king of Egypt and his nation that Bnei Yisrael were escaping, there is no doubt that they regarded them as bandits and swindlers and this, without doubt, brought them to pursue them."

I also saw someone suggest that in war anything is allowed including deceiving the enemy e.g. making ambushes. So it was ok to deceive Pharaoh since the goals were to take the Jews out of Egypt and to punish the Egyptians. The only way to achieve them was through deception.

However I find all of these verses and commentaries philosophically difficult. If God is all powerful then God should be able to make his greatness known throughout the world without human suffering (even if the people "deserve" it or not). Surely there must have been a way of bringing his greatness another way?! I'm left feeling do the ends ever justify the means?

I'm open to suggestions...