Of Rosh HaShanah And Monkeys

Of humans and animals

One of the most meaningful things we can do on Rosh HaShanah is to review what we are trying to achieve with our lives and whether we have met our goals in the past year. Perhaps we should also review those aims and perform a reality check. If we don’t do this on Rosh HaShanah, I think it’s safe to say that we will probably never will. There are many ways of achieving this, but my suggestion for this year is to consider the following.

It is clear that before the great flood, Man was intended to be vegetarian - he was not allowed to kill animals for food until afterwards. It seems that human nature was somewhat different before the deluge; perhaps more passive and contemplative than today. Actually, it was the act of killing animals that was prohibited – there are sources that suggest that Adam was allowed to eat carrion. Only after the flood were Noah and his family permitted to slaughter animals for food. The Torah strongly contrasts its authorisation to kill animals with the prohibition of killing people, which remains strictly forbidden. Man must not make the mistake of cheapening human life, although he may kill animals.

This is a rather interesting point, as these days, it is not uncommon for people to equate the value of animals and humans. A while ago, I heard a radio broadcast in which a Californian academic with quite impressive credentials noted that as monkeys have over 90% of the genes of humans, they should be accorded rights in the same proportion. By this he meant 90% of the healthcare facilities, social services etc. We may assume that in response, our simian friends will have to bear 90% of the responsibility of humans – i.e. taxation and service in the armed. Presumably, in the future, we can expect to share hospitals wards, army barracks and dole queues with monkeys. Criminal monkeys will serve 90% of the prison sentences of their human counterparts and will be required to attend 90% of their quota of schooling. It may also means that a human who steals a banana from a monkey will be condemned to 90% of the consequences of robbing a fellow human. An old joke comes to mind – a monkey that has escaped from its cage is eventually found in a library holding a Bible in one hand and Darwin’s ‘The Origin of Species’ in the other. When questioned about its behaviour it responds, ‘I am wondering if I am my brother’s keeper or my keeper’s brother.’

A thought occurred to me on this theme – since bananas share some genes with humans, would it not be logical to accord them say 30% of the rights of people? Where is the line? Some people might even prefer sharing a prison cell with a banana than a monkey, although I think we can assume that the monkey would prefer to share with the banana! I recall a conversation a number of years ago with a prominent academic who asked me if I would eat a monkey, were it kosher. I answered in the affirmative. (I don’t know if monkeys taste good, and many Hollywood adventure films feature the apocryphal monkey-brain feast, but that wasn’t the point). He said that the higher functions of monkeys are so sophisticated that it seems morally wrong to eat them. They are just too human. When challenged about chicken and fish, which he seemed comfortable eating, even though they express certain humanoid faculties (such as thought and pain), he acknowledged that drawing the line can be very difficult.

The Torah is unequivocal about this – the line is drawn between humans and animals. Of course, we are obliged to respect animals and be sensitive to their needs and pain, but there is a dimensional gulf between us and them. It lies in something I mentioned above – the notion of responsibility. What divides us from the animals (and thereby makes us human) is that unlike them, we can be altruistic, focus on the needs of others and if, necessary, delay our need for immediate gratification to achieve higher goals. Animals live deterministic lives; they feed, reproduce, run from danger and migrate in instinctively. We, in contrast, have the freedom of choice that allows every moment and experience to be invested with meaning. Monkeys may share 90% or more of our genes, but they share none of our potential and or capacity to change ourselves and our world. In this regard, there is no distinction between a monkey and the banana he eats. The only cogent place to draw a line is between the free-choosing and the deterministic; between we humans and everything else in God’s creation.

This notion helps us to formulate our life-goals at Rosh HaShanah. What makes us truly human is our capacity to live life in the presence of God, constantly aware that every action counts, that each thought and feeling is significant and can, quite literally, change the world. Regrettably, during the year we often lose this sensitivity, forgetting that we can dedicate ourselves to lives of altruism, focused on the needs of other human beings, tuned in to higher, spiritual concerns. Instead of a life in the spiritual fast lane, in which we transform ourselves and our world, we may favour the lazy and banal, relegating personal growth and the elevation of every experience to the bottom of our agenda.

Rosh HaShanah is the birthday of the world; as such it the annual chance to ensure that we are living up to God’s expectations for us and His creation. Do we deemphasise our needs in preference to those of God? Do we grab every opportunity to set aside our own desires to bring happiness other human beings? Does our behaviour in private reflect the same high standards as those we exhibit in public? These things define who we are; they not only distinguish us from the animals, but validate God’s decision to create the world in the first place. This is the theme of Rosh HaShanah – reawakening the God awareness in all of us that so fundamentally expresses the purpose of creation. So on Rosh HaShanah we crown God, paying homage to His majesty and limitless might through our renewed commitment to implementing His will with every act.

Let us celebrate our true human potential on Rosh HaShanah; may this be a year in which we take full advantage of every precious moment that God grants us.

A version of this article first appeared on Jewish World Review.

Repeating Chazzanim Chazzanim

Repeating words

‘Comfort you, comfort you, my people’, once quoted a rabbinical wag. ‘Why does Isaiah repeat himself? Was he a chazzan?’ The issue of repeating words in prayers has long been a source of conflict between some rabbis and chazzanim, for while rabbis claim that repeating words spoils the meaning of the ancient prayers, the chazzanim insist that reiterating certain phrases enhances the beauty of the music and hence their inspirational value.

It is noteworthy that there are Biblical texts used in our prayers that contain repeated words. The most well-known example is Exodus 34:6, in which God’s name appears twice – ‘Lord, Lord, merciful and graceful God….’ In the group of psalms known as Hallel, which are read on Yom Tov and other special occasions, tradition has determined that some of the verses are read twice. None of these repetitions need concern us, as they are absolutely integral to the prayers themselves. The debate arises over the repetition of words, phrases or even whole sentences by the chazzan during the course of leading the prayers.

The blessings that constitute most of the main prayers –Amidah, blessings surrounding the Shema and Hallel – were very carefully formulated by the prophets and early sages; each word is of significance, whether its choice, position; even the total number of words. The esoteric thinkers understand that every phrase expresses a lofty concept and quite literally moves worlds – as such, we interfere with the text at our peril. From a halachic perspective, since God’s name is invoked in every blessing, it must follow the correct form to ensure that the Divine name is not pronounced in vain. These restrictions will not apply to more informal parts of the service, such as the collection of verses read before the Torah is taken from the ark and liturgical poems added on special days.

Rabbi S.R. Hirsch, writing in 1870 Frankfort, viewed the repeating of words by chazzanim as a reformist tendency, and therefore adopted a very strict view on the matter. Referring to the repetition of God’s name (which is treated very seriously by the Mishnah, as it smacks of dualism), he said that the ‘repetition of words for the sake of the metre of the tune seems on many occasions to be like the most repellent example of rejection of the unity of God… Doing this mocks things of tremendous importance… Any community that regards prayer more seriously than a fools’ game must instruct the chazzan not to repeat words.’ He goes as far as suggesting that if the chazzan won’t comply, he must be sacked!

Moving to mid-20th century New York, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein took a more lenient approach. While acknowledging that repeating words is against the spirit of the prayers, he distinguished between repetitions that render the prayers meaningless (which he prohibits) and those which preserve the essential meaning (which he reluctantly permits).

Finally, from the perspective of the congregant, it has been suggested that the services are long enough without reading any of the words more than once!

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. It is republished with permission.

Unravelling Peyot

A Jewish hairstyle?

Whether you call them corkscrews or curly-wurlies, the strongest identifying feature of many Chassidim and Yemenite Jews is their long peyot (side curls).

The origin of this hairstyle is Leviticus 19:27: ‘do not round off the corners (peyot) of your head,’ which the Talmud understands to prohibit levelling the hair at the temples with the hair behind the ears so that a continuous line of hair encircles the whole head. As the verse also refers to shaving the beard, it is clear that it only applies to males. It is forbidden to shave the hair in front of the ears as well as a little above them.

While shaving the hair with a razor is clearly forbidden, the Talmud discusses the use of tweezers, scissors and depilatories. One is not required to leave the hair long, yet may not remove it completely. A common view allows the hair to be cut with scissors or electric clippers, but the peyot must be left long enough so that the remaining hair can be grasped between thumb and forefinger. For the aficionado, this equates to about a ‘number 2’, certainly no shorter.

There are numerous Minhagim (customs) and Hidurim (enhancements) associated with peyot. Some mystical sources attribute great significance to the hair and demand that the peyot (and beard) are left untrimmed. If the Torah forbids shaving the peyot, it may follow that growing them long would constitute a preferred observance of the Mitzvah. So the ‘short back and long sides’ haircut is distinctly Jewish! These ideas have resulted in many variations on the peyot theme. In some circles, peyot are grown no longer than the rest of the hair. In contrast, there are those who never cut their peyot and allow them to grow long (straight or curled), tie them up, wrap them around their ears or even twist them into small buns. Other variations include small, thin peyot behind the ears (Lithuanian Yeshivish), trimmed, very thick peyot (Brisker school) and simply growing slightly longer hair in front of the ears (German rabbinical).

The Torah does not give a reason for the prohibition of cutting the peyot, although Maimonides, in common with other mediaeval thinkers, suggests that it is a law associated with idolatry. As idolatrous priests would cut their hair above the ears in a kind of ritual tonsure, Jews are exhorted to do the opposite to eliminate any memory of their practices. The great 19th century German leader, Rabbi S.R. Hirsch offers a novel alternative. He notes that the growth of peyot removes the externally visible division between the front and back parts of the head, coinciding with the cerebrum and cerebellum respectively. This expresses the concept that the sanctification of life is based on the higher dignity of the moral intellectual life to which the animal drives and needs must be subordinated. Keeping the animal factor in the background is the defining human experience. As such, the hair at the temples reminds Man of his higher calling.

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. It is republished with permission.

What Is Permitted Inside The Eruv?

Carry on Shabbat

While the North-West London eruv was still a dream, a number of wildly inaccurate suggestions were made as to what would be allowed on Shabbat within it boundaries. Some claimed that the laws of Shabbat wouldn’t apply within the eruv, allowing a Shabbat trip to the shops, while others suggested that Jewish law would be suspended completely, presumably enabling the eruv-dweller to eat non-kosher food or even rob banks! What does Jewish law actually allow inside an eruv?

In fact, the existence of an eruv around an area impacts on only one aspect of Jewish law within it – what one may carry on Shabbat. In the absence of an eruv, on Shabbat one may not transport objects through the street, whether by hand, in a container, pocket or by any other means; this includes pushing a pram. An eruv (when used in this sense) is a boundary constructed around a Jewish district, utilising existing buildings and, when necessary, poles and wires, to turn the whole area into a single ‘private’ domain. The eruv thus encloses an entire neighbourhood, within which one may carry outside one’s house in the same way as in one’s own home or garden.

This means that within the eruv, one may carry objects that are needed for use on Shabbat. These include house keys, glasses, food and Shul-items, such as a Siddur or Tallit. It is permissible to take a book and a drink to the park, carry clothes, such as a coat, which will be worn later on Shabbat and transport essential medicines. One may also push a pram or wheelchair.

There are, however, some objects which may not be transported, even within an eruv. On Shabbat, one may not prepare for another day; therefore, it is not permitted to carry anything that is not needed on Shabbat itself. For example, this means that it is problematic carrying a house key to Shul when one will not return home before Shabbat ends. Another type of prohibited act is one that Jewish law considers a ‘weekday activity’, and thus damaging to the atmosphere and contrary to the spirit of Shabbat. Examples of this are riding a bicycle or kicking a ball in the street. As an umbrella may not be opened or closed on Shabbat, it is not permissible to carry one, even within an eruv.

Finally, many objects are designated as ‘muktzeh’ by Jewish law. This means that they may not be moved at all on Shabbat, as their nature or purpose is incompatible with Shabbat. Relevant examples are money and credit cards, mobile phones, cigarettes, matches, electronic games, cameras.

If unsure about a specific action or whether it is permitted to carry a certain item, ask your rabbi!

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. It is republished with permission.

It Looks Like Bread And Tastes Like Bread, But....

Bread that isn't bread

So you’re buying a loaf at the local kosher bakery and the woman behind the counter looks you in the eye and inquires, ‘mezonot?’ You just nod knowingly and take whatever she gives you, unwilling to confess ignorance.

Jewish law ascribes special significance to bread, the ‘staff of life’, viewing it as the key food in any meal of which it is a part. Due to this extraordinary status, one is required by Rabbinical law to ritually wash one’s hands and recite the hamotzi blessing before eating a bread-based meal and by Biblical law to recite birkat hamazon – full grace – afterwards

These stipulations often create practical difficulties for travellers and business-people, who may find themselves in situations where reciting the grace is awkward and finding an opportunity to wash one’s hands presents insurmountable complications. Sometimes it simply isn’t feasible to ‘wash and bentsch.’

At this stage, the reader is thinking, ‘then don’t eat bread,’ but the halachah has an alternative solution. In common with other legal systems, Jewish law rigorously classifies the entities with which it deals; accordingly it presents a careful definition of bread. It is a baked product, made from dough that consists of flour ground from wheat (or one of four similar grains) kneaded with water. Of course, small quantities of other ingredients, such as yeast and sugar, may be added, but these are incidental. If the dough is boiled (e.g. pasta), made from other grains (e.g. rice) or liquids (e.g. fruit juice), even if it is later baked, the halachah does not recognise the result as bread; hence the rules governing it do not apply. While the precise parameters involved are very complicated and subject to lively discussion amongst halachic authorities, suffice it to say that when pure fruit juice is used as the liquid component of dough, the halachah views the final product as cake, rather than bread.

This provides us with a curious variety of food – one that looks and tastes like bread, yet requires no prior hand washing, nor subsequent lengthy grace. The hamotzi reserved for bread is replaced with the mezonot blessing, normally said before eating cakes, crackers and pasta, while a short blessing is recited afterwards. Hence the mysterious term ‘mezonot bread.’

This seems like a marvellous solution for the hungry air-traveller or pizza-starved teenager, but there is a major snag. The halachah is well aware that the diner adopts a tactic enabling him to eat a proper meal without the usual attendant responsibilities. But as our diner treats the so-called mezonot bread as real bread, the halachah does the decent thing, and ‘upgrades’ its status to bread! Thus a meal at which mezonot bread is the mainstay requires the full gamut of pre and post-prandial rituals, and we are back to square one. This is known as keviat se’udah, the act of dining on significant quantities of mezonot foods; in the eyes of the halachah this transforms them into bread. It applies to any baked goods, whether crackers, cakes or biscuits, but is most germane to mezonot bread, which is commonly used for sandwiches and as rolls for burgers and hotdogs, foods generally consumed as full meals. It is interesting to note, however, that Rabbi Padwa assumed that meals eaten on a plane are never considered fixed, due to their inconvenient nature.

The upshot is that the convenience of mezonot bread has limited applicability – to smallish snacks eaten in an ad hoc manner, rather than ‘meals’. But provided that the manufacturing criteria are met, it will work for the odd slice of pizza consumed on the hoof and those little sandwiches served at Kiddushim. Enjoy!

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. It is republished with permission.

A Daf A Day

Celebrating the conclusion of the Talmud

‘Why does our rabbi study Talmud?’ a perplexed congregant asked his synagogue’s chairman. ‘I thought he was already qualified!’ Traditional Judaism has always seen lifelong Torah study as absolutely indispensable to its vision of the world. The Shema itself requires us to strongly impress the Torah upon our children and to speak of it in every possible circumstance. The Mishnah describes Torah study as ‘equivalent to all of the Mitzvot’ and the Talmud prefers one who learns to one who observes, as ‘study leads to action.’

People are often surprised to discover that my greatest passion, and that of many of my colleagues, is studying and teaching Torah. Perhaps the greatest challenge of a rabbi’s professional life is finding enough time to learn and thereby continue one’s life-goal of plumbing the depths of the Torah and deepening one’s connection with the divine.

While there are many areas of Torah study, including Bible, Jewish philosophy, Jewish law and ethics, high-level learning most commonly centres on the Talmud. Judaism teaches that the revelation at Sinai was largely comprised of ‘the Oral Law’, a dynamic, all-encompassing repository of law, ethics, theological principles and esoteric ideas. This was meant to remain unwritten, scrupulously handed down by successive generations of teachers to their disciples. A century after the destruction of the second Temple, Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi realised that this transmission was threatened by dispersal and persecution. So he wrote a terse form of the Oral Law, known as the Mishnah. Its analysis, discussion and clarification in the Torah academies of Israel and Babylon over the following centuries were codified as the Talmud by the sages of the early 6th century. Scrutinising, interpreting and most of all, absorbing oneself in the sea of the Talmud forms the basis for most Jewish learning today. Yeshivah students may devote as much as eight hours a day to its study. But it’s not easy; it can take years to master its complexities.

One way in which I further my own learning is through ‘daf yomi’. One of the most remarkable study projects ever devised, it unites people around the world in studying a daily folio-page of Talmud. As it contains close to 3000 pages, the entire cycle takes seven and a half years. Hundreds of daily shiurim worldwide teach the ‘daf’, as it is affectionately known. Wherever you are, the shiur will be studying the same page on the same day. As well as the shiur-goers, thousands (like me) study privately, in small groups, at lunchtime, while travelling, by listening to a recorded shiur, or even over the Internet.

The daily ‘daf’ is not a substitute for deeper study – there are pages that I should have learned better and others, I will admit, barely recall. Yet it has allowed me to maintain daily study despite a hectic schedule. It has also enabled me to acquaint myself with areas of Jewish thought that I would otherwise never have seen. And it has become part of my life – at the top of every day’s schedule is the ‘daf’; when I travel, my miniature tractate accompanies me, and my congregants would be surprised not to see me peering into a text whenever I get the chance. The famous author Herman Wouk, a ‘daf yomi’ aficionado, remarked that the Talmud was in his bones, ‘elegant and arcane ethical algebra,’ quintessentially Jewish, fun and holy besides.

The 11th cycle of daf yomi will end on 1st March. Huge celebrations are planned in the UK, Israel and around the world, wherever the daf is learned. There will even be one in Lublin, where it all started. The biggest event will be in the USA, where an expected 120,000 people (of whom I will be one) will gather for a mega-siyum (concluding celebration). I am very excited – proud that I have actually seen it through, thrilled to have shared an experience with countless Jews around the world and overjoyed to attend the biggest siyum in history. But most of all, I can’t wait to start again.


Daf Yomi was the brainchild of Rabbi Meir Shapiro, the pre-war head of the Yeshivah in Lublin. In 1923, at the first congress of Agudath Israel in Vienna, he proposed a daily page-a-day Talmud study programme, known as daf yomi. Scholars and laymen alike study the daf and finish the entire Talmud in seven and a half years. Daf yomi has grown into a worldwide movement, with shiurim and followers in every major Jewish community in the world. Many Jewish calendars now include the daf schedule and the current cycle has seen significant growth in the number of devotees.

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle; it is reprinted with permission.


Children In Shul

A child's haven?

One of the curiosities of Anglo-Jewish synagogues is their members’ ambivalent attitude towards children. It is common for synagogue regulars to bemoan the dearth of small children in the Shul, worried that their absence indicates the imminent demise of their community. Yet when they attend, and worse still, behave as normal children, the regulars tut and grumble that they are too noisy! This is partially a British phenomenon: many restaurants in this country are unwelcoming to children, family tickets at attractions are absurdly expensive and baby-buggies often won’t fit through shop entrances. Yet since it is obvious that the presence of children is a sine qua non for a healthy community, the issue of children’s involvement in Shul life is worth exploring.

The United Synagogue in which I grew up, in common with most similar Shuls, ran a children’s service, which I thought was rather good. Almost none of the children who attended went to Jewish schools, so learning the prayers and songs in a structured atmosphere was the thing to do. In retrospect, there was another reason for this format – the main goal of the children’s service was to train the young participants for a life of adult Shul attendance. We dare not trivialise the need to raise children who will be comfortable with synagogue services and possibly even able to run them, yet it seems to me that times have changed, but in many places, children’s services have not.

It is to our collective credit that a much higher proportion of children from the mainstream community now attend Jewish primary schools, where they receive a daily dose of tefillah in some kind of structured atmosphere. Since davening and school go hand-in-hand, attending a regular Shabbat children’s service smells suspiciously like school on a Saturday, a major disincentive to attendance. Add to this the hardly controversial observation that while some (like me) were drawn in to synagogue life by the formal children’s service, the proportion of those who have scarcely attended Shul since childhood is alarmingly high. Put another way, the old-model children’s service did not produce a generation of Shul-able (or even Shul-going) adults. Were that the case, today our Shuls would be overrun; sadly, bar a few notable exceptions, they are not.

It is clearly necessary for children to be occupied with some age-appropriate activity, for while some will want to sit with their parents, many will quickly become bored in the Shul, and others may come without adults at all. Yet I don’t think that the Shul should be a childfree zone – some kind of balance between attending the adult service and a junior programme seems appropriate.

To my mind, the purpose of children’s programming is to enable the kids to have a really great time while on the Shul premises, while to some degree expanding their knowledge and love of Judaism. I feel that the formal service should be abandoned in favour of fun learning, including quizzes, drama and games, all with an educational bent, focused on the weekly portion, the season or a challenging issue from a Jewish perspective. There will, of course, be some Shabbat tefillah, but the overall content and style of the event should be as different as possible from that of the children’s regular school day. If at all possible, several smaller, age-appropriate groups should replace a single service – how can one provide an engaging experience for an eleven-year-old and a four-year-old together? And to give it the right feel, I think that the term ‘service’ should be abandoned in favour of ‘programme’ or similar.

I want the children to leave Shul happy and exhilarated, having had a chance to spend time with their friends, run about to release some energy, learn something new and have a great time. Let them be sorry that the programme has finished for that week and full of anticipation for the next one – in short, Shul needs to be turned into a place that children see as fun and cool, to which they will want to bring their friends. It’s true that they will make lots of noise and won’t spend more than a short while davening, but does that really matter? Give them positive experiences as children and they are much more likely to come back as adults. Childhood moments are formative – a good experience now will probably lead to proper involvement later.

It goes without saying that these programmes must be run professionally – modern children are experts at complaining if things aren’t quite up to scratch! There should be prizes and attendance incentives, as well as that old Jewish favourite, food.

I appreciate that this model won’t suit all communities – in some, a lower proportion of children attend Jewish primary schools, and so a more tefillah-focused content may be appropriate. In others, it may be very hard to identify suitable madrichim who are young, dynamic and capable of imparting a love of Judaism to their charges. In still others, the small number of children may not allow the division of the programme into several groups.

Yet in principal, the central need is to change focus– by giving children a true children’s experience, they will want to keep coming back to Shul – as children, youth and then later as excited adults.

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. It is republished with permission.

A First Response To The Tsunami Disaster

Responding to catastrophe

The unfolding cataclysm in Asia brought to mind a very brief Biblical quote – the words of sheer despair uttered by Judah to his disguised brother, Joseph. ‘What can we say?’

What indeed can we say about a tragedy of such unprecedented span? What words of philosophy or theology could even scratch the surface of the issues raised by such large-scale devastation and human suffering? Is this not disappointing? Would we not expect there to be an immediate and succinct Jewish explanation of the recent phenomenon?

Not at all. Actually, our inability or unwillingness to offer a response is, perhaps, the most Jewish response of all. Any justification would be trite, foolish and an affront to the victims. While the suffering goes on, we cannot and will not offer an explanation. As we would expect, the Jewish sages tackled this reality millennia ago. The great Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar warned us not to comfort the bereaved when ‘his dead lies yet before him,’ meaning that while the calamity is still in progress, consolation and explanations are inappropriate. That’s not to say that Judaism does not have profound answers to the greatest existential questions; it’s just that they are reserved for the dispassionate arena of philosophy, one far-removed from real tragedy.

Psalm 124 adopts the metaphor of ‘raging waters’ to describe an enemy attack. ‘If it were not for God when Man rose against us,’ sings King David, then ‘the water would have swamped us.’ The bitter irony of the tsunami disaster is that if it were not for Man when God rose against us, many thousands more would have died. The relief effort, while too late for uncountable numbers, is saving thousands who would otherwise have certainly perished. In this lies the beginning of a Jewish response to current events, in which ‘explanation’ is set aside in favour of the two classic alternatives of action and introspection.

Upheaval on any scale, from personal difficulty to global catastrophe, is greeted by the Jew as an opportunity for self-examination. It is important to realise that this does not make a judgement about the cause of the tragedy – it simply insists that a correct response will include introspection. We may never know the ‘reason’ such events occur within God’s plan for humanity, but can always identify much wrong with ourselves and our planet and then attempt to rectify it. At one end of the scale, it may be failures in our interpersonal relationships, at the other, the appalling imbalance between the haves and the have-nots of our world. Judaism expects us, at the very least, to be jolted from our complacency by events around the globe, to take notice and to recognise that all is not well with our lives and our society.

There is another aspect to this introspection, however. Very often we forget how incredibly fortunate many of us are. Whether in terms of health, security, wealth or opportunity, most in the West are living lives of comfort and affluence undreamt of just a few years ago. That much is obvious. But how many of us realise that the tsunami could just have easily struck the United States? Scientists are carefully watching the volcanic activity on La Palma in the Canary Islands. They believe that at some time in the next few thousand years (it could happen next week, although this is extremely unlikely), a section of the island, weighing 450 thousand million tons, will fall into the Atlantic ocean. This would trigger a mega-tsunami that would engulf the whole Eastern coast of the USA within a few hours. But it didn’t happen in the West – we were mercifully spared. The words of the important thinker Rabbi Yitzhak Arama are apposite. ‘The nature of water is to cover the land, and it remains in place only by God’s instruction.’ It may be a cliché, but events in Asia should be challenging us to value each moment of our comfortable lives. Together with our sympathy for the victims and our disbelief at their plight, we should experience a profound sense of gratitude for our own circumstances.

The natural consequence of these feelings and the flip side of Rabbi Shimon’s exhortation is that action and action alone is the correct response. For most of us, there is little we can do directly, yet we can contribute generously to the relief agencies trying desperately to help the survivors and the families of the victims. We should applaud their efforts and encourage others to help to the best of their abilities. This is a proper Jewish response. The signs in this direction are encouraging – many nations have pledged vast aid packages. And cooperation is in evidence, transcending political divisions and religious prejudices. Even the BBC reported Israel’s offer of a field hospital to Sri Lanka with guarded favour!

And we need to think and act before the pop-stars return from their holidays and the sportsmen resume their vulgar antics – for when they do, they will inevitably supplant the tsunami tragedy from the front pages of the newspapers and from the minds of their readers. If we do, perhaps a small ray of light will emerge from a horrendous calamity.

Based on a sermon given at Golders Green Synagogue on 1st January 2005, a version of this article first appeared on Jewish World Review

A One Night Sit

The Anglo-Jewish Shiva

It can't have escaped anyone's attention, but the Anglo-Jewish Shiva is dying. The full-week observance has become less common, replaced with a briefer period of one or two days. While not long ago, a shorter 'Shiva' (this is odd – the word means ‘seven’) was frowned upon - perhaps considered disrespectful, those observing a full week are now in the minority and sometimes seen as unduly religious or old-fashioned. A 'one night sit' is common, giving all of those who want to offer their condolences just one evening to do so.

Many of my colleagues are highly critical of this phenomenon. They feel that standards are slipping and that steps should be taken to force people into a full-scale Shiva. Allow me to state that while I consider it a tragedy that many families do not avail themselves of the healing powers of Jewish mourning, I fully understand why few families wish to do so. In reality, the typical Anglo-Jewish Shiva is not beneficial to the mourners, rather an ordeal that any normal person would wish to avoid.

At the typical evening Shiva, the house becomes densely packed with visitors, who have come ‘for prayers’. On arrival, they offer a cursory nod to the mourners and then engage in noisy conversation about any issue that takes their fancy – holidays and television programmes are firm favourites. They will often meet people they haven’t seen since the last Shiva, whom they greet with a kiss, exclaiming loudly, ‘lovely to see you,’ or some similar inanity. When the officiant arrives, all goes quiet until he has conducted the brief evening service. This over, the visitors shuffle past the mourners, nod at them and wish them ‘long life.’ Immediately returning to their noisy conversation, their prodigious efforts are rewarded by the provision of tea and refreshments. Meanwhile, the mourners sit on their low chairs in the corner, bewildered by the noise and party atmosphere that engulfs them; often no-one is talking to them, if indeed, it is possible to speak above the cacophony.

This is no less than an ordeal for the mourners. At a time when people are emotionally confused, shocked and paralysed by their loss, and the slightest noise or sight could cause additional stress or pain, this experience can be unbearable. And I quite understand why many people choose not to put their families through it.
It is sad to see just how often we miss the mark. A guest at a real Jewish wedding knows that it is his privilege and honour to make the groom and bride rejoice, for no matter the quality of the food or the venue, he has come for them. Likewise, as visitors at a Shiva, we have come to share the grief of those who have lost a loved one. We are there for them. Yet for so many in Anglo-Jewry, these concepts have been lost - whether at a wedding, when we think that we are there to be entertained by the hosts, or at a Shiva, when we expect tea and cake, we have become the focus of the occasion. We have gone terribly wrong.

Real Shiva serves a dual purpose. Honour is accorded to the deceased by dedicating an entire week to thinking and talking about him or her; the mourners neglect their regular personal, family and business activities, instead remaining at home to concentrate entirely on the qualities and character of their loved one. By the end of the Shiva, they have crystallised a mature image of the deceased in their minds, which will accompany them for the rest of their lives. As well as this, the Shiva has a positive effect on the bereaved, cocooning them from regular activity when grief is at its strongest, allowing them to gradually emerge into normal life only when the immediate harshness of their loss has passed.

This requires great understanding on the part of the visitors to the Shiva-house. Let us note that Jewish law, the great master of human emotional need, regulates this to perfection. How many of us aware that one may not even speak to the mourner until he indicates that this is his wish? Maybe he does not want to speak. How can we, mere onlookers to a family tragedy, impose on the bereaved in any way at all? We must be exquisitely sensitive to the mourner’s emotional trauma. If he speaks, we will respond; if he cries, we will empathise; if he laughs, we will share the humorous recollection of his loved one. And if he remains silent, unable or unwilling to speak, we too will remain quiet. This is the real Jewish concept of comforting the mourner.

This is far cry from a momentary nod in the direction of the mourner, raucous conversation and gobbling of refreshments that so characterise the modern Shiva. Let us face the truth – these practices must stop, for they are counterproductive and selfish; indeed, far from alleviating the mourner’s distress, they actually add to it. For many, Shiva has become a nightmare after a tragedy – the precise opposite of its true intention and capacity. And unless we are prepared to change the way we do things, Jewish mourning will be completely lost, together with the immense benefit that it brings in the face of tragedy.

As a mourner, recognize that the visitors are present for your benefit. Have no qualms about resting when you feel tired, asking people to be considerate and, as Jewish law allows, asking them to leave when you no longer want to speak to them. Resist the party atmosphere by not offering food or drink. As a visitor, remember that you are present for the benefit of the mourners. Visit during the day, if possible. If food is offered, refuse it. Do nothing whatsoever which imposes on the mourners. When appropriate, enable the mourner to express himself in his own way. Leave when the time is right.

May we be blessed with long and happy lives, filled with sensitivity to each other.


This article originally appeared in the London Jewish News and is reprinted with permission. It was then adapted into a shorter piece for the Holocaust educational book '60 days for 60 years'.

Talking In Shul

Fancy a chat?

A wit once observed that asking Jews not to talk in Shul is like expecting diners not to eat in a restaurant – that’s the reason they came. The problem of talking in Shul has tormented rabbis for centuries. A number suffered their frustration in silence, some railed at their parishioners and yet others acquiesced and ‘went native’. Unsurprisingly, Jewish literature is replete with condemnation of this phenomenon. Examples of this include those who describe talking in Shul as hasagat g’vul – encroaching on another’s personal ‘prayer-space’ and the cutting observation of Rabbi Moshe Sofer (early 19th century) noting that only those synagogues used for prayer, rather than for conversation, will be rebuilt in Israel in Messianic times. The Code of Jewish Law even refers to the sin of someone who speaks during the chazzan’s prayer as ‘too great to bear.’

Yet despite universal denunciation, talking besets most Shuls. It has even attracted the interest of sociologists, and at least one rather humourless analysis of it has appeared in recent years. Apart from the Jewish angle, the informality and noise in some Shuls bewilders many gentile visitors, who are quite unable to reconcile their expectations of a prayer service with the chaotic reality.

All this, of course, highlights a clash of paradigms that is evident in numerous Anglo-Jewish Shuls. While prayer is the stated purpose of synagogue attendance, for many regulars, it is essentially an opportunity for social engagement. That’s not to say that they don’t read the prayers – it’s just not the focus of their visit. Actually, many hardly pray at all, yet choose to meet their friends and catch up on the latest gossip in the context of a Shul service. To some degree, sanction for this is drawn from the description of a Shul as a beit k’nesset – a house of meeting, although it seems far-fetched to suggest that the Sages intended the social activity to take place while the services are actually in progress.

Besides, I would consider it dishonest not to note that talking in Shul is often generated by boredom. Services can be lengthy, hard to understand and occasionally, tedious beyond endurance. Mind-numbing sermons and lacklustre chazzanut are still in fashion in some Shuls. Many congregants and not a few rabbis are unwilling to admit this, but I think it undeniable. And while the rabbi may choose to catch up on his learning or visit the children’s service, the obvious antidote for some congregants is to chat until it’s all over. Indeed, I fully acknowledge that in this all too common situation, remaining silent demands considerable self-control.

Appreciating prayer requires sensitivity to the structure of the ancient texts and an understanding of the sophisticated Man-God dynamic - advanced Jewish skills that are not widespread in our communities. In reality, most Anglo-Jews lack proficiency in even rudimentary Hebrew and as such, the nuances and beauty of the prayers are lost. That’s not to suggest that a chazzan will never succeed in rousing the congregants, but for many, this is essentially a musical, rather than a devotional experience. Chazzanut is also a matter of personal taste, a curious barometer of spiritual meaning.

One of the regrettable outcomes of this is that the inspirational content of the prayer-services is de-emphasised. Since for many attendees, spirituality is scarcely on the menu, the overall atmosphere and meaning of the service is low on the list of priorities. This has created a fascinating but rather worrying paradox. Those who view the Shul primarily as a meeting place are served well by the existing model, but those who want to pray are not. That’s not to say that those who come to pray don’t talk in Shul – they very often are among the worst culprits – but their focus and expectation is different. This divergence is frequently generational – to be sure, younger people also wish to meet to chat and socialise, but they do so elsewhere, not in Shul, a place that they identify with prayer. Perhaps the Kiddush or another communal event will meet this need, but not the services themselves.

The current social and religious milieu is such that Shul services that are essentially social clubs do not succeed in attracting those newly interested in Judaism. While many older people have been conditioned to identify Judaism with Shul attendance, younger enthusiasts may become involved with Jewish learning, Shabbat observance or learning Hebrew long before they consider entering a Shul. By that stage, they feel a need to pray and come largely for that purpose. Bizarrely, our Shuls often turn them off. In fact, many a conflict has arisen in Shul between a regular who is talking through the Torah reading and a neophyte who would actually like to listen! In fact, newcomers are commonly lost to both the right and the left, where they find that the content and purpose of their visit is taken seriously.

I believe that the map of the United Synagogue-style communities will be drawn as a function of the extent to which we take these needs seriously. Talking in Shul is a symptom of an entrenched, but resolvable clash of expectation. With good will, sensitivity and the vision that I believe can now just be perceived within our communities, we can develop the flexibility to create a vibrant and eclectic future.

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. It is republished with permission.