Monday, 20 October 2014

How Does Conversion Work and How Should We Treat Potential Converts?

How does a person convert to Orthodox Judaism and how should we treat people in our community who wish to convert to Judaism? To what extent should we welcome them/discourage them? 

These are not easy questions and I don't believe that there is only one way to address them. However, I do understand that they are questions that members in our community talk about and would like direction on. First and foremost, we should treat every human being with total respect and kindness as each person whether they choose to convert to Judaism or not are created in God's image and we are morally obligated to treat them with sensitivity and kindness. 

To what extent should we welcome people in to our community who wish to convert? That is a hard one to answer. We have a tradition of discouraging potential converts at the early stages. We need to point out to them (not that it isn't obvious) that being Jewish isn't easy. Apart from the myriad of laws to keep, throughout history Antisemitism has been the hardest thing for us Jews to live with. Whether that Antisemitism is openly displayed or whether it is done in a more veiled manner. 

Secondly, we should try and turn them down when they show a desire or interest in conversion. My style has always been to be polite but at the same time not too engaging until the individual, couple or family has proven themselves that they are in this for the long haul. Once that has been established I will decide whether I will take on a candidate for sponsoring. I will do thorough background checks on individuals as it is important to know who you are about to invest so much time in to. Then I will review with them just how difficult it is to convert and how much will be expected of them. Converting to Judaism is not just passing a few courses in college, rather it is a complete transformation of the individual which requires great dedication and commitment. 

When I have accepted candidates, I will invite them to my house for Shabbat meals. Once I have decided that they are ready, I ask a few other community members to invite them for Shabbat meals. When I get a sense that a candidate is ready, I will bring them to the Vaad for the first time. Being ready is a loose term but basically the fundamental prerequisites would be living in the community, keeping Shabbat (while breaking Shabbat once) and keeping kosher. Then the Rabbis will ask questions of the candidate. If they are satisfied the candidate will be accepted as an official candidate of the Vaad. 

Once a candidate is accepted by the Vaad, the candidates can send their children to the Jewish schools, at that stage I will let the hospitality committee know that such candidates can be invited by the broader community for Shabbat and Yom Tov meals.

I remember last Pesach, being surprised when I was trying to organize meals for people in the conversion program that certain families would not entertain such candidates because they had not converted yet. The families were referring to a halacha that only Jews can be invited for Yom Tov meals. While it is true that a convert only becomes halachically Jewish at the end of the process, they require firsthand knowledge of Jewish practice. One cannot read about a Seder rather one must experience it to know what it really feels like. This position is supported by many Rabbis today, although it should be noted that other Rabbis hold a more strict application of the halakha. 

I noted above that a potential convert is not allowed to keep Shabbat 100%. They must break Shabbat once. That is because Shabbat is a special mitzvah just for the Jewish People. It is a special sign between God and us. However, since candidates will one day keep Shabbat fully, we do not wish them to be accustomed to breaking Shabbat many times. So they do something to break Shabbat just once. In the case where Shabbat needs to broken and there is a potential candidate available, they can be asked to assist. However, we cannot and must not treat potential gerim as non-Jews who are there to be Shabbat Goyim. Known colloquially as a Shabbas goy. If one knows that they need assistance on Shabbat to do prohibited work, they must make arrangements before Shabbat with a non-Jew and not someone who is in the process of converting.

There are many books and subjects that a potential convert needs to study. They need to know the fundamentals of keeping a kosher home, the laws of Shabbat and Yom Tov, Family purity laws, knowledge of the Holidays and a degree of fluency of Hebrew reading. However, as I have said earlier, it isn't just about passing courses. There needs to be understanding of the sponsoring rabbi and the other Rabbis of the Vaad that such a candidate is ready. As such conversion times vary from case to case. But roughly it should take around two years for most candidates to complete an Orthodox conversion.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Laws of Mourning when someone passes away during Sukkot

The mourning practices we follow can be very comforting for a family at the very difficult time of the loss of a relative. However, there are times in the Jewish calendar where mourning practices are abridged or delayed. For example if a person passes away the day before one of the Jewish Festivals, the seven day mourning period known as shiva is cut short by the Yom Tov. This is because the collective joy of the holiday cannot coexist with any type of mourning. This unique halakha makes sense logically but can be very difficult for the mourners as they can feel cheated by not having the ability to sit shiva properly.

The following laws I am about to explain are for the situation when a person passes away either on Yom Tov or during Hol HaMoed (the intermediate days of the holiday). The following laws have been compiled for the Babani family and are written L'ilui Nishmat Sara Bat Esther Babani who passed away Shabbat Hol HaMoed Sukkot.

When a person passes away on the holiday the mourning laws are very different. The normal breakdown are the laws of the onen - for family members before their loved one is buried, the shiva - the seven day period following the burial of their loved one, the sheloshim - the 30 day period following the funeral and finally the laws of the year following the burial of a loved one.

Sara's children and sisters fell into a category of mourning called aninut - which means being in a period of intense grief where they are exempt from tefillah or making berakhot. They are also forbidden to eat meat or wine. The reason they are exempt from tefillah is because the close family members are too busy making funeral arrangements. However, on Shabbat these laws do not apply because no arrangements can be made. The children remain in aninut until Sara is buried on Monday morning.

Since Sara is being buried on Hol HaMoed Sukkot, a time of great joy for the Jewish people, Jewish Law states that eulogies are forbidden. The reason given that the point of the eulogy is to make the extended family and friends sad and feel a part of the grief that Sara's children will be going through. Since this is not appropriate on Hol HaMoed no eulogies will be made. Instead a short sketch of her life and some comments of her good character traits will be made. (Some time later in the year, proper eulogies can be given.)

The burial takes place as for any other burial and the children begin to say kaddish from the funeral. Where the big changes start is after burial. The family cannot sit shiva until after the Shabbat after Simchat Torah. Keriah - the tearing of the clothes still takes place after the funeral and is done at home. But the shirt that is torn is taken off immediately and is put away until the mourning can take place at the conclusion of Simchat Torah. The mourners still have the seudat havra'ah but instead of eggs, olives, raisins and rolls they are given cookies. Instead of eating the meal on the floor or on low chairs they eat the meal at the table. 

Ashkenazim, follow the position of the Rama that states that no public displays of mourning can be done during Hol HaMoed. So their practice is to do keriah after Yom Tov followed by the meal for mourners. But they do say Barukh Dayan HaEmet following the burial.

Friends can come and visit the family members during the rest of Hol HaMoed and Yom Tov but they should also make sure to visit the family members during the actual shiva after the holiday.

Although publicly the shiva does not start until after Yom Tov concludes, the last day of Yom Tov, in our case Simhat Torah is considered the first day of the shiva. Throughout Hol HaMoed the family may eat festive food and wear nice clothes and sit on regular chairs. They may show no outward signs of mourning. However, private signs of mourning must be kept.

May God comfort the Babani Family and remove death from the world. 

Monday, 6 October 2014

Is a Pitomless Etrog Kosher?

Is a pitomless etrog kosher? If it is kosher is it better or worse than an etrog with a pitom? These are a couple of the questions I was asked yesterday. Other than the more normal Sukkot questions of do I need to cut those branches hanging over my sukkah, and is this lulav kosher?

So what is a pitomless etrog? Look at the diagram on the left. The pitom, is the tip of the etrog. The pitom is extremely fragile, if it were to break off during the first two days of Sukkot, the etrog is not fit to make the beracha over. It has been known for the pitom to break off especially families with small children! 

As such great efforts have been done to strengthen the pitom. Here is an extract from an article on wikipedia: "Many more pitoms are preserved today thanks to an auxin discovered by Dr. Eliezer E. Goldschmidt, formerly professor of horticulture at the Hebrew University. Working with the picloram hormone in a citrus orchard, he discovered, to his surprise, that some of the Valencia oranges found nearby had preserved perfect pitams. Citrus fruits, other than an etrog or citron hybrid like the bergamot, usually do not preserve their pitam. When they occasionally do, it would at least be dry, sunken and very fragile. In this case the pitams were all fresh and solid just like those of the Moroccan or Greek citron varieties. Experimenting with picloram in a laboratory, Goldschmidt eventually found the correct “dose” to achieve the desired effect: one droplet of the chemical in three million drops of water. This invention is highly appreciated by the religious Jewish community." See the full article at wikipedia.

Other than strengthening the pitom, it has been shown that some etrog species lose their pitom naturally while on the tree. Such etrogim are 100% kosher. The only issue is when the etrogim lose their pitom post harvest. Then the etrog would be not kosher. To read an interesting article on the history of pitomless etrogim click here and see page 20.

Now, both etrogim with pitom and those without are kosher, provided that the the pitom fell while on the tree. Which one is better? In halacha, we always look to try and do hidur mitzvah, to do the mitzvah in the best possible way. In this case choosing the best possible etrog. There is a disagreement among the poskim which is better but most hold that with a pitom is better. However, if you know that your young children or grandchildren will shake your lulav you may like I do, prefer an etrog without a pitom.

Wishing you all a very happy Sukkot, Moadim Lesimha!