Monday, 31 March 2014

Selling Your Hametz Online

Why do I need to sell my hametz? Can I sell my  hametz online? Is it better to do it in person with the rabbi?

These questions and others in a similar vein have been asked of me every Pesah since I've been a rabbi. First of all, the origin of selling hametz at Pesah time only came about during the Middle Ages. It was done for Jewish merchants who had much produce and to avoid them financial ruin the rabbis arranged for them to sell their hametz to other non-Jewish merchants. Regular Jews never sold their hametz and made sure to consume all their hametz by Erev Pesah.

As times changed and non-merchant Jews began to have larger amounts of hametz, the rabbis allowed for more Jews to sell their hametz. As food production became more complicated rabbis began to recommend that all Jews should sell their hametz on the chance that some food they thought was hametz free was actually hametz.

Originally the Jew would sell it to a non-Jew directly but as these laws can be quite complicated it became the practice to appoint the local rabbi your agent to sell the hametz and he would sell the hametz to a non-Jew over the Pesah period and then have the hametz bought back after Pesah was over. To see a more detailed account on this please read this article by Rabbi Gil Student.

This sale is no mere ceremony. It is not enough to just put one's hametz in the garage and seal it for Pesah. The non-Jew must have the ability to have access to the sold food over Pesah. So much so that someone going away for Pesah must leave information for where keys to the home would be left. 

When meeting with the rabbi to sell your hametz a kinyan is normally done. The kinyan shows that you are appointing the rabbi your agent to sell your hametz. Some consider this to be so important they would consider it better to sell the hametz in person than to sell the hametz by mail or online.

Although it is good to do a kinyan with the rabbi, it is not in any way saying that selling online is inferior. Far from it the online selling can ensure that you have it done well before the deadline leaving you free to take care of the other things for Pesah. You can either fill the form out online or see me personally at the synagogue office. You can sell your hametz online by clicking here. Please remember to state your location city if you will be out of town for Pesah this year. 

Monday, 24 March 2014

Is Sherry Cask Whiskey Kosher?

In today's synagogues there are more and more choices of whiskies available at kiddushim. For many the mark of a good kiddush is the amount of varieties of single malt whiskey available. Many take for granted the kashrut status of these whiskies thinking all whiskies are kosher. 


Are all whiskies kosher? Well like most things it depends. Some are fully under rabbinic supervision, some are recommended and some are not recommended. The cRc - Chicago Rabbinical Council does not recommend all whiskies, including many whiskies that a lot of us have in our liquor cabinets. The cRc writes "many scotches are aged in casks that previously held sherry, sauterne, port or other wines. Others have special 'finishes' or multiple 'maturations' that include wine. All of these raise kashrut concerns. The cRc policy is that scotch is permitted unless the label states that it is aged in a wine cask, has a special finish or an extra maturation." To see the cRc stance in more detail please click here.

The OU - the Orthodox Union, has a very different policy based on the halakhic ruling of Rav Moshe Feinstein. 

"There is a well-known dispute among the posekim concerning the exact point at which non-kosher wine is batul (nullified). Some contend that in order for the non-kosher wine to be nullified, the non-kosher to kosher ratio must be one to six; others contend that it must be one to sixty. In Iggerot Moshe, Rav Moshe Feinstein takes the lenient position and rules that non-kosher wine is batul when the proportion is one to six. There is an additional halachic dispute whether the one to six ratio of nullification applies to water or to other liquids such as fruit juice and whiskey. In other words, does the principle of bitul (nullification) apply only when the non-kosher item is mixed with water or does it apply when mixed with other substances as well? 

Rav Moshe takes the lenient position there too and rules that it applies to all liquids. However, in his responsa concerning both disputes, he adds that even though he rules leniently on these issues, it is worthwhile to be stringent. Rav Moshe felt that since in alcoholic beverages the ratio of non-kosher wine or other products to liquid is usually more than one to sixty, it is worthwhile to refrain from drinking alcoholic beverages that contain wine, glycerin or other non-kosher ingredients (YD, siman 62). He writes that he only drank such beverages if someone was making a lechaim and would have been insulted if he did not partake." To see the OU position in more detail click here.

I found a great website which lists kosher certified whiskies, whiskies which are permitted to drink but not certified and non-kosher whiskies. Click here for the link. It was interesting to see that some whiskies have kosher certification from the kashrut agencies but they are not listed on the bottles. 

The vast majority of rabbis rely on the lenient position of Rav Moshe Feinstein for the drinking of sherry cask whiskey and I permit the drinking of these whiskies both at private homes and at synagogues. Obviously if one prefers to be more stringent and only drink kosher certified that is praiseworthy. 

It goes without saying but I will state it anyway, drinking should be done responsibly and only over the legal age to drink. I do not endorse underage drinking or the promotion of alcohol to minors or a binge drinking culture.

As we are coming up to Pesah it is important to note that whiskey as well as beer and vodka are hametz and need to be part of your items that are sold before Pesah or consumed in the next few weeks. 

P.S. A good friend sent me a link on a related issue. It is based on the idea that somethings may only be kosher if they don't have a hechsher . The reason being that the hechsher is done for the Jewish market and therefore everything in it must be 100% kosher even if it is less than 1/60th as we have a principle that we don't nullify something lechatchila - as best practice. Only after the fact can we nullify something. Anyway please read the link on modern Torah leadership.

Monday, 17 March 2014

What's Early Shabbat?

Question: Now that we are on Daylight Saving Time, how can we pray the evening prayer while it is still light outside?

Answer: Many communities choose to begin Shabbat early in the summer months. This is usually done in order to allow for the Shabbat meal to begin at an earlier hour and for the younger children to experience the Shabbat meal and atmosphere, as well.

By praying the Minha (afternoon prayer) before "Pelag Haminha," (a time which is 1¼ halakhic hours before sunset), it is permitted to pray arvit and accept the Shabbat any time after it. (A halakhic hour is the total number of daylight hours x5. E.g. if sunrise is 7am and sunset is 8pm there are 13 daylight hours. Each halakhic hour would be 13x5 = 65 minutes). This is especially convenient for us where nightfall in the summer months is quite late; and without this convenience, Friday night dinner wouldn't start before 10:00 pm.

What’s the source for praying early?

The exact times when the Minha and Arvit services are to be prayed is a subject of disagreement between the Mishnaic sages and is mentioned in the talmud (Masekhet Berakhot 27a). Rabbi Yehuda maintained that Minha can be prayed (from one half hour after midday) until 1¼ hours before sunset. His rabbinic colleagues argued that one may say the Minha prayers until the end of the day i.e. until shekiah (sunset).

According to the rabbis, the Minha prayer was instituted in correspondence with the afternoon communal sacrifice, which technically may be offered as long as it was day. Rabbi Yehuda contended that Minha corresponds to the offering of the incense, which was offered at least 1¼ hours before sunset.

The Arvit prayer directly follows Minha. So according to the rabbis Arvit must wait until nightfall, while Rabbi Yehuda holds that Arvit may be prayed any time after the Pelag Haminha. 

Care should be taken to ensure that minha is said before pelag. However, in a case where a minyan can only be arranged by having minha after pelag and arvit before sunset it is still nonetheless valid but far from ideal see Mishna Berura (O.H 233:11). However, the Kaf Hahaim (O.H. 233:12) writes that nowadays we are lenient with this matter and pray minha after pelag haminha and arvit at the same time and even though it relies on two lenient opinions that contradict each other it is ok as the great Rishonim the Rosh and Rabbeinu Tam allowed it.

Although we pray arvit before nightfall, the Shema must be repeated after the stars come out. For a more detailed halakhic analysis see Rabbi Mansour's piece here.

A couple Dos and Don'ts

Do pray minha before pelag haminha
Do pray arvit after pelag. 

Don't light candles before pelag - It is too early and would constitute a berakha levatala - a berakha in vain. (There are some communities who live in the far north who can bring it in earlier but that is not the minhag for the vast majority of the world) 

Don't say arvit before pelag - The absolute earliest time to bring in Shabbat is pelag.

Monday, 10 March 2014

Is Purim just Jewish Halloween?

Is Purim just the Jewish version of Halloween? It has costumes and treats after all. We know that there is a mitzvah to give mishloach manot - at least 2 types of food to one friend. Which for many means giving lots of candy to everyone you know. But where did the idea to wear costumes come from and is it a Sephardic custom?

Until 150 years ago Sephardim never even thought of wearing costumes on Purim. The custom of dressing up is brought by Rav Moshe Isserles in his glosses to the Shulkhan Arukh he bases his position on a responsum by Mahari Minz a 15th Century German rabbi who lived his last years in Padua, Italy. 

The Rema writes  (O.H. 696:8) "and regarding the customs of people wearing masks on Purim as well as a man wearing a woman’s garments, and a woman a man’s garment – there is no prohibition in the matter since their intentions are for mere rejoicing. This is also true regarding the wearing of garments  containing Rabbinically prohibited mixtures of wool and linen.There are some authorities who forbid this, but the practice is according to the  first theory. Similarly, people who snatch items from one another while rejoicing do not transgress the prohibition of “Thou shall not steal.” This is what has become the custom – providing that one does nothing which has been deemed improper according to the community’s leader".

Since the Rema's lenient ruling many Ashkenazic rabbis (The Bach, The Taz, and The Be'er Hei'tev) came out against wearing sha'atnez - forbidden mixtures of linen and wool as well as men wearing women's clothing and vice versa. However the prominent custom of Ashkenazim is still to wear masks and costumes. For those interested to learn more see this article by Rabbi Moshe Sharbat.

So can Sephardim wear costumes on Purim? Rav Yosef Messas has a responsum to this question (Mayim Hayim Helek O.H. 298). He writes that the custom of wearing masks and costumes comes from a Christian custom and therefore Sephardim should abstain from the custom. He was referring to Mardi Gras.

Wikipedia has the following to say about Mardi Gras: "Popular practices include wearing masks and costumes, overturning social conventions, dancing, sports competitions, parades, etc. Similar expressions to Mardi Gras appear in other European languages sharing the Christian tradition, as it is associated with the religious requirement for confession before Lent begins. In many areas, the term "Mardi Gras" has come to mean the whole period of activity related to the celebratory events, beyond just the single day. In some American cities, it is now called "Mardi Gras Day"

The Ben Ish Hai notes (Parashat Tezaveh Ot 22) that the Sephardic custom has always been to wear Shabbat clothes on Purim. Haham Ovadiah writes that Shabbat clothes should be worn for the readings of the megillah and that Purim costumes are permitted and he sees no reason to forbid them. The only costumes he forbids are wearing wool and linen together or clothes of the opposite gender. 

My personal practice is to wear Shabbat clothes for the megillah reading and to change into costume for the Purim Party. 

Wishing everyone a Buen Purim and Purim Sameah!

Monday, 3 March 2014

Is Tobacco Smoking Kosher?

In 1976, in light of Medical findings that cigarette smoking cause harm, the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, Rabbi Hayim David Halevy, declared tobacco smoking to be a violation of Jewish law. His prohibition on smoking was widely publicized in newspapers in Israel and the United States. He then wrote a formal responsum on the topic in his Aseh lecha Rav (vol. 2 pp9-13).

In short his reasons for forbidding smoking are:


  • The Torah mentions (Devarim 4:9 and 4:15) "Just beware and watch yourself very well" and "you shall watch yourselves very well". Which the gemara (Berachot 32b) learns that we have a responsibility to look after our physical health.
  • The Rambam writes (Hilchot Rotzeach 11:4) "It is a positive mitzvah to remove any obstacle that could pose a danger to life, and to be very careful regarding these matters, as Devarim 4:9 states: "Beware for yourself; and guard your soul." If a person leaves a dangerous obstacle and does not remove it, he negates the observance of a positive commandment, and violates the negative commandment: "Do not cause blood to be spilled."
  • The Rambam also adds (Hilchot De'ot 4:1) "Since maintaining a healthy and sound body is among the ways of God - for one cannot understand or have any knowledge of the Creator, if he is ill - therefore, he must avoid that which harms the body and accustom himself to that which is healthful and helps the body become stronger."
Rabbi Halevy then concludes based on the medical knowledge at hand and the words of the Torah and Rambam (who was a doctor himself) it is clear that it is forbidden to smoke and it is an obligation of every person to guard their physical health in order to serve his God with all his abilities and therefore everyone must withhold from smoking.

It should be noted that at the time of Rabbi Halevy's writing his responsum other rabbis permitted smoking included among these were Rav Moshe Feinstein although he did write it was                                                           not recommended! 

The Hafetz Haim (1838-1933) sought to dissuade smokers for another reason. He considered it a waste of time, and saw the practice of people borrowing cigarettes from each other as morally questionable!

Today, all of the great rabbis have come to a consensus that universally smoking is bad for one's health and so would therefore be forbidden in Jewish law. Indeed in June 30, 2006, the Vaad Halacha (Jewish law committee), sponsored by the Rabbinical Council of America, ruled that the use of tobacco is forbidden to Jews, and the committee specifically cited and reversed precedents that permitted smoking.