Monday, 28 July 2014

Preparing for Tisha B'Av

I'm calling this blog post preparing for Tisha B'Av because the mourning customs we have leading up to the fast day are all designed to prepare us for the intensity of the day. Without preparation a person can struggle to really feel the significance and poignancy of the day.

In just over 3 weeks we will commemorate Tisha B'av when we will mourn the destruction of our two holy temples and every Jewish tragedy that has befallen our people from the sin of the spies to the holocaust. There is no other day like Tisha B'Av. At the same time it is hard to feel a personal tragedy for the destruction of the 2nd temple that happened almost 2000 years ago. This is something our rabbis understood very well and as such they instituted a number of mourning customs to lead up to this sobering day.

The customs of different Jewish communities vary, I will try and concentrate on the main ones and explain them a little bit. 

There are four stages of mourning. The first stage is the 17th of Tammuz till Rosh Hodesh. In this period Sephardim don't listen to music or wear new clothes or say the blessing of Shehecheyanu on a new fruit except on Shabbat. When it comes to buying new things the general rule is it is forbidden unless the sale is an unusually great sale. Then the purchase can be bought and used after Tisha B'Av. Likewise for major purchases like a car or a house, one should avoid the purchase unless the availability will vanish if delayed. Such purchases should not be used till after Tisha B'Av

The next period of mourning intensity is from Rosh Hodesh Av till Shabbat. The third period is called Shevua Shechal Bo - the week that Tisha B'Av falls. (E.g. if Tisha B'Av falls on a Monday night/Tuesday then Shevua Shechal Bo is from Saturday night until midday the day after the fast.) Finally we have the most severe mourning customs on Tisha B'Av itself. Generally speaking the Sephardic customs are more lenient than for Ashkenazim. 

Starting on Rosh Hodesh and including Rosh Hodesh Jews from Turkey, as well as Ashkenazim have the custom to abstain from meat (including chicken) and wine until the 10th of Av. The exception being on Shabbat when we eat meat to the same level that we would on a regular Shabbat. Other Sephardic communities including many from Rhodes refrain from meat from the 2nd of Av till the 10th. When it comes to drinking the wine/grape juice after havdallah, Ashkenazim give the cup to a child whereas for us we follow Rabbi Yosef Caro and drink it ourselves.

Shevuah Shechal Bo
Starting from Saturday night, Sephardic men refrain from haircuts and shaving. (Some follow the custom of our Ashkenazic brothers and do not have haircuts for the entire three week period from the 17th of Tammuz.) We do not do any laundry, we only take cold showers, we only change our undergarments or any clothes that are soiled. We also aren't allowed to go swimming for pleasure (and most people don't have swimming lessons either since they can be fun too).

This year since Tisha B'Av is nidche (pushed off) to Sunday. Many halachic authorities do not consider there a need to have a Shevuah Shechal Bo at all. As such it is permitted to do laundry and shower and even to swim. Most people are strict and avoid having haircuts. 

Erev Tisha B'Av
The day before Tisha B'Av we continue to learn Torah until sunset. (Ashkenazim stop learning regular Torah portions at midday.) After this time we are only allowed to learn Torah that is upsetting such as reading Eicha - The book of Lamentations describing the destruction of the First Temple, Sefe Iyov - The Book of Job, Sections from the prophet Jeremiah, Sections from the Talmud dealing with the destruction of the First and Second Temples and Kinot - poems about Jewish tragedies throughout the ages.

On Erev Tisha B'Av we have a Seudah Hamafseket. This is the last meal before the fast. The meal should consist of only one cooked dish. Two foods that are normally cooked together are considered one dish. So for example a dish of egg and lentils would be ok to eat. One can also eat bread with this meal too. My practice, has been to have a normal pre fast meal a few hours before the fast. Then just before the fast I have a piece of toast and I sit on the floor and think of the destruction. 

This year (2016) since erev Tisha B'Av is on Shabbat none of these laws apply and we treat the day like a regular Shabbat just. However, one must be careful to finish Seudah Shelishit before the fast starts. Please note that the fast begins before Shabbat ends. 

Tisha B'Av
Apart from learning Torah that makes us happy there are five things which are prohibited on Tisha B’av. Eating and drinking, washing, rubbing one’s body with oils or lotions, wearing leather shoes, and marital relations. Although not strictly forbidden, it is strongly recommended to take the day off on Tisha B'Av or at least not to work until halachic midday (1:15pm). Since we are all considered mourners on this day, we do not greet each other.

Ladies who have given birth within 30 days are exempt from the fast. Similarly, anyone who has a serious illness or would become ill from fasting is exempt.

The liturgy on Tisha B'Av is very powerful and the tunes are very moving. Although one isn't supposed to enjoy the tunes on Tisha B'Av, my grandfather of blessed memory would love to hum the melodies of Tisha B'Av throughout the year. One of the powerful kinot contrasts the festival of Pesach with Tisha B'Av using the famous "Ma Nishtana - Why is this night different from all other nights?"

On Tisha B'Av night the lights are dimmed low, or tea lights are used. We sit on the floor and read Eicha - The book of lamentations. On Tisha B'Av day we don't wear talet and tefillin in the synagogue and we continue to sit on the floor. (Some Sephardim have the custom to wear them privately at home before coming to services but that is not the SBH minhag). We again read Eicha and more sad kinot. After midday we are allowed to sit on regular seats and at minha we wear talet and tefillin. Since we are forbidden to learn Torah on Tisha B'Av, if one learns daily, that learning should be done either the day before or the day after Tisha B'Av. Tehillim may be recited on Tisha B'Av itself but only after halachic midday (1:15pm).

The mourning practices are in reverse to those of a loved one. Instead of most intense to least intense, we go from least to most. The idea being that we must prepare ourselves for it. If we were to go straight into the strict mourning of Tisha B'Av without the three weeks of preparations we would struggle to find meaning. Instead we build up gradually. As we do that this year let us work on our mitzvah observance and the way we interact with others. May Hashem grant peace in Israel.

When the fast finishes, one should still not eat meat or drink wine until Midday the following day. The reason being that when the Second Temple was destroyed it continued burning for much of the 10th of Av. Other restrictions such as showering and shaving etc. are permitted from the end of the fast. (Ashkenazim wait until midday for those too).

This year (2016) since we commemorate Tisha B'Av on the 10th, one does not need to wait until midday of the next day.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

What's the 17th of Tammuz?

This Sunday (July 24th, 2016) is the 17th of Tammuz. It is a fast day that commemorates five tragedies as described in the Talmud (Tractate Ta’anit 26b). The Talmud states that the first tragedy was the Sin of the Golden Calf. After the Children of Israel miscalculated the time/date for Moshe’s return they built a Golden Calf. Meanwhile, Moshe was receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai. He came down carrying the Ten Commandments, crafted and written by the Finger of God. As Moshe saw the Golden calf he smashed the tablets. That date was the 17th of Tammuz.

Also on this day the Korban Tamid was stopped - the daily offering of two sacrifices one in the morning and one in the afternoon. This was because the siege of Jerusalem was so severe that they had ran out of lambs to offer for the Korban Tamid. 

The third catastrophe was the walls of Jerusalem were breached during the Second Temple under the Romans led by Titus who later became Emperor Titus. Jerusalem was breached on the 9th of Tammuz when the First Temple was destroyed by The Babylonians.

During the Greek oppression before the Hasmonean Victory and the Miracles of Hanukah, a Greek General called Apostomus burned a Sefer Torah. This was the first recorded instance of book burning and led the way for all the book burnings throughout our history. There is a debate if Apostomus was actually a Roman in a later time period. Have a look here.

And finally an Idol was placed in the Temple. There is a dispute whether this was done by the evil Jewish King Menashe during the First Temple Period or whether it was done by Apostomus during the Greek persecutions during the Second Temple period.

These five reasons each in their own right would make for a day of fasting for the Jewish People but together they make this day the second saddest day in our calendar. This day is also three weeks before the 9th of Av which is the saddest day of our calendar. I will write more about that day in the coming weeks.

As we enter this period of the three weeks our Ashkenazic brothers and sisters take on a number of mourning practices. The vast majority of Sephardim (except Moroccans) don’t have mourning practices until the week of Tisha B’Av.

Nevertheless this is a sad period in our calendar and it is time when mitzvah observance specifically better relationships between man and his fellow are emphasized. Wishing you all a meaningful Fast of Tammuz. May our fasting, sincere repentance and improved mitzvah observance see an improvement in the situation in Israel.

Monday, 7 July 2014

Tattoos, Cremations and Jewish Funerals

As always, I like to sneak football (soccer) into my conversations and the occasional sermon so this time I thought I would mention it in one of my blogs. I've never been a fan of tattoos but I really don't like all the players at the World Cup completely covered with tattoos. I've always found them off putting and I think our young can be easily influenced into wanting to have them. I would say 25 years ago tattoos were not a common site but today 40% of Americans aged 25 to 40 have tattoos (according to a Pew Research Study). 

So is there a problem with tattoos? The Torah (Vayikra 19:28) states "You shall not etch a tattoo on yourselves. I am the Lord." Rashi (ibid) notes that a tattoo is defined as "sunken never to be erased, for one etches it with a needle, and it remains permanently black." Therefore temporary tattoos or henna tattoos do not form any prohibition as the paint erases after a period of time. 

All that being said there is perhaps one of the biggest babajadas (Ladino for old wives' tale or in the Yiddish bubba meise) out there is that a person with a tattoo cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery. Although as I have outlined it is a Torah prohibition, nevertheless a Jewish person will still be buried in the Jewish cemetery. Now that doesn't mean everyone should go out and get tattoos!

What isn't well known is the huge problem of Jewish people opting for cremations. Cremations are becoming more popular as the cost of burial is driving people to seek cheaper alternatives. However, halachically speaking it is probably up their as one of the biggest transgressions. Just as we are forbidden from taking our own lives or hastening our end so too we are forbidden to desecrate our bodies by having them cremated.

Hashem tells  Adam (Bereshit 3:19) "You will return to the ground, for it was from the ground that you were taken". 

Rabbi Maurice Lamm writes (The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning pp 56-57) "cremation is never permitted. The deceased must be interred, bodily, in the earth. It is forbidden - in every and any circumstance - to reduce the dead to ash in a crematorium. It is an offensive act, for it does violence to the spirit and letter of the Jewish Law...
1.Even if the deceased willed cremation, his wishes must be ignored in order to observe the will of our Father in Heaven. Biblical law takes precedence over the instructions of the deceased. 
2.Cremated ashes may not be buried in a Jewish cemetery...
3. Jewish law requires no mourning for the cremated. Shiva is not observed and kaddish is not recited for them. Those who are cremated are considered by tradition to have abandoned, unalterably, all of Jewish law and, therefore, to have surrendered their rights to posthumous honor."

Why does Rabbi Lamm write so sternly that one cannot even say kaddish for them? That they have abandoned Jewish Law? The answer I think lies with the fact that the act of willful cremation is a denial of one of our cornerstone beliefs of Techiyat HaMetim - The Resurrection of the Dead at the coming of Mashiach. By cremating oneself one is stating that they deny this belief and therefore they are set aside to not be included.

All that I have written so far is with willful cremation. This does not include the 6 million Jews who were murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust. They did not choose their fate and they are obviously not held accountable for that. Far from it they are on the highest spiritual level of anyone who has lived. For those who aren't interested in halachic concerns some use the Holocaust to not disgrace the memory of our people who were killed through the crematoriums. 

There are many more details on this topic and I have merely touched the surface. For further information online please visit the following Chabad Article. This situation is becoming so severe it was mentioned at the recent Rabbinic Council of America Convention. There it was mentioned that at least 1 in 3 Jews are choosing cremation. Please use the information in this blog to encourage people to plan for a traditional Jewish funeral.