Monday, 29 September 2014

Fasting on Yom Kippur and Medical Concerns

This coming Shabbat we have our holiest day of the year, the Shabbat of Shabbatot, Yom Kippur. This solemn day of atonement is a day when our sins of the past year are forgiven and we begin afresh with a blank slate. There are a number of things that we must be very careful of on Yom Kippur. The 5 no's of Yom Kippur are no eating and drinking, no leather shoes, no anointing, no bathing and no marital relations. The idea behind these restrictions are that all of those things represent our physical needs. On Kippur we are focusing on our spiritual side and almost trying to be like angels without any physical needs or desires whatsoever. 

Fasting has long been considered part of the atonement process and that this should never be taken lightly. Anyone with medical concerns should consult their doctor and rabbi before Yom Kippur to assess their situation. It is not appropriate to consider a person who eats because of medical necessity as a sinner.

It goes without saying that elderly men and women who have been told by their doctors that fasting on Kippur will cause adverse affects to their health are neither required nor permitted to fast (see Shulkhan Arukh O.H. 618). However, there are many of us who in different times of our lives have problems fasting. For example, pregnant women, nursing mothers and those with diabetes to name but a few. These people do not get a blanket exemption from fasting on Yom Kippur. Fasting isn't meant to be easy but at the same time we are not allowed to put our lives in danger (hence the exemption for extremely elderly and infirm people).

Many doctors recommend that pregnant women should never fast, but the studies as yet are inconclusive in providing proof that fasting causes any problems to the mother or child. Indeed, provided that the woman drinks plenty of water before the fast there should be no issues for a healthy woman. As such  a healthy pregnant woman must fast on Yom Kippur (See Shulkhan Arukh O.H. 617). However, a woman in a high risk pregnancy should consult with her doctor and discuss the situation with her rabbi. Nursing women are also obligated to fast and they should express extra milk before the fast to have available for their children. Staying well hydrated and being well prepared should ensure that the fast should pass without problems. Women who have recently given birth should consult a rabbi.

If a person takes a daily tablet(s) such as blood pressure medicine. It is permitted to take it on Yom Kippur but don't take it with water. Recently I was contacted about a person with diabetes, who assumed since he had been recently diagnosed as a type 2 diabetic he would have no choice but to eat on Yom kippur. The truth is that is simply not the case. Indeed there are many religious Jews who have diabetes and fast on Yom Kippur. For more information for those with diabetes about how to fast on Yom Kippur and those who just want to read the article please click here

There are situations where a person can be instructed by their rabbi to eat and drink very small amounts of food or drink with a timed space in between. What is known as eating in shiurim/measurements. If someone feels that they are in a situation where they cannot fast for health reasons please call or email me this week.

Tizku LeShanim Rabot and have a meaningful fast.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Why Are We Judged on Rosh Hashana

Rosh Hashana is the main name of the Jewish New Year. But why does our New Year need to have such serious themes like a day of judgment? Why can't it be a happy day? To answer this we must look at the other names of Rosh Hashana. They are Yom Teruah, Yom HaZikaron, Yom HaDin and Yom HaRat Olam. Each one of these days explains part of the many themes on this important day.

Rosh Hashana is the easy one to translate and explain it literally means head of the year. Yom Teruah is a day of Shofar blowing. (I will talk more about Shofar blowing next week). Yom HaZikaron means the day that we remember everything that God has done for us and he 'remembers' all of our actions. 

Yom HaDin means judgment day. Each year on Rosh Hashana, God judges us but why? To answer that we must translate and explain another of Rosh Hashana's names, Yom HaRat Olam. This name means the day that the world was birthed. This is not exactly accurate. According to Rabbinic tradition the world was created on the 25th Elul but it was on the first of Tishri, the 6th day of creation that Adam and Eve were created.

What happened on that first day? According to the Talmud (Masekhet Sanhedrin) all the events of Adam and Eve until their expulsion from the Garden of Eden took place on that first day. Lets talk through those steps. Adam was created. He is put in charge of the entire garden but God warned him not to eat from the tree of knowledge (Etz HaDa'at). Then Eve is created from Adam. Adam then tells Eve not even to touch the tree. The snake convinces Eve to eat from the Etz HaDa'at and she gives the fruit to Adam too. They both realize they are naked and they 'hide' from God. God calls out to them hoping that they will acknowledge what they did. Instead Adam blames Eve, and Eve blames the snake. God judges them and punishes the snake, Eve and Adam. From that day onward this day would always be the day that God judges the whole of mankind.

It isn't all doom and gloom because Hashem does not punish us completely. The punishment for eating from the tree should have been death. Instead God gave Adam and Eve a lesser punishment. To show to them that with sincere teshuva, we can return and attain the position we were at before we sinned. So therefore when God does judge us this year on Rosh Hashana our minds should be filled with thoughts that our beloved father and king is sitting in judgment like we do with our own children. We punish our children to help them correct a behavior. The judging itself brings no joy to God. He does it because he wants to bring us closer to him. Through this time of spiritual awakening, may we acknowledge that God is king and come closer to him.

Tizku LeShanim Rabot Neimot VeTovot
May we all merit many pleasant and good years ahead.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

The Deeper Meaning Behind The Yehi Ratzones/Simanim

One of my favorite customs on Rosh Hashana are the special foods that we eat in the evening meals and the prayers/requests that we say when we eat them. This custom is universally called using the Hebrew word simanim but in Seattle we call it by the Ladino - Yehi Ratzones.

Although this is mainly a Sephardic custom the idea of these special foods goes back to the Talmud. In Masekhet Horayot it mentions that certain fruits and vegetables should be seen on our tables on Rosh Hashana whereas in Masekhet Keritut these special foods should be eaten. In a third version the yehi ratzones need only be brought to the table.

The foods mentioned in the Talmud are kara, rubia, karti, silka and temarim. Kara is identified as pumpkin, karti as leeks, silka as beets and temarim are dates. However, rubia is disputed. Some consider them to be black eyed peas others identify them as fenugreek. The medieval commentator Rashi explains that all these foods grow quickly so the idea is if we see/eat or bring these foods to the table we will have a productive year ahead.

Some questioned this practice because it looks like we believe by eating or seeing these foods automatically we will have a good year and this could be a form of divination or sorcery. However, many halakhic decisors come to the defense of this beautiful custom by stating these are merely omens and our sincere wish for a good year ahead. As a result it is the yehi ratzones – the prayers or requests that are said over these items which are far more significant. It is not the eating of them that we believe will cause a good year rather it is our hope that Hashem will grant us a good year.

There are other items we have for the yehi ratzones that are quintessentially considered to be Rosh Hashana. Apples and Honey, eating fish and having a fish or lamb’s head. On the 2nd night we have a pomegranate. All of these items have similar meanings to those identified in the Talmud. The fish or lamb’s head represents our hope that we be at the forefront of things and not in the background. Lambs' heads are very rarely seen these days, but my father recalls that his Grandfather always had a piece of meat from a lamb’s head at his Rosh Hashana and it was a great delicacy. Whether it is a fish head or a lamb’s head I’m very happy to fulfill the custom of just seeing it and not having to eat it!

These special supplications or bakashot are very poetic and are generally word plays on the fruits. Jerry Adatto brought to my attention the flowery language that Reverend David de Sola Pool used in the Spanish and Portuguese Rosh Hashana Prayer Book for these supplications. He doesn’t just translate the Hebrew supplication he uses beautiful artistic license too. For example on leeks he says “like as we eat this leek, may our luck never lack in the year to come”. Even though the Hebrew talks of our enemies being cut down from before us. On beets he writes “As we bite this beet, may those who in the past have beaten us or sought our harm beat to cover in the coming year”. On this occasion this is a paraphrase of the Hebrew but it shows you his literary style.

It has become a great game which I love to play using word plays in different languages not just in Hebrew. For example Rabbi Heinemann introduced a now famous custom throughout the Jewish world to take lettuce, half a raisin and celery as an indication to “let us have a raise in salary”. The Rubissa likes to put out cinnamon cookies and say “may our sins be kept to a minimum”. I am sure that you can all come up with your own funny puns for your own tables.

Wishing you and your families not only a good year ahead. But a year of finding the deeper meanings behind our beautiful customs. May we all grow together and invigorate our wonderful community.

Tizku LeShanim Rabbot Neimot VeTovot

Monday, 1 September 2014

Kosher Cheese - Why is it so Expensive?

I get many questions that come across my desk that never get blogged. Here's a question about how kosher cheese is made and why it costs more than vegetarian cheese. Here is the question in full.

"I always check the cheese section to see if we can buy non-certified kosher cheese which is almost half the price of kosher or more!  What makes cheese kosher?  Do you need a person “watching” the factory make cheese?  Does it cost the company a lot of money to be certified?  Who’s making all the money??? Are the kosher certification companies stealing/or deceiving the kosher consumer because of the cost? Does it have to do with supply and demand?

Nowadays the rennet they use in the cheese (which the company states on the package) is NOT made from animals, it’s made from vegetarian rennet.  How could kosher cheese be so much more? 

I understand a little more about the strict supervision of the meat process and wine.  Raising the animal and slaughtering it takes time and money for a person to do that work?  Wine is more clearly stated.  But cheese???

Thanks, your conscientious kosher shopper."

To answer simply, in order for cheese to be kosher not only do all the ingredients and utensils used be kosher, the process must be supervised by Jews. Not only that the vegetarian rennet that helps form the cheese must be added by the Jewish supervisor. 

The costs for all of this raises the price for kosher cheese. The limited number of consumers of kosher cheese and distribution costs increase the price too.

When we compare the price of kosher chicken with supermarket chicken we can get very upset by the price difference. However, if we were to compare prices with boutique organic chicken we would find the prices very comparable. It isn't just the cost of having a mashgiach, there are higher costs because there are fewer consumers. The kosher market cannot compete with the conveyer belt style of mass meat production.

If you would like to read more about how kosher cheese is made and why it must be more expensive than vegetarian cheese. Please read this article by Rabbi Gordimer. Click here for the link.