Three Jews who eat together...

Two Jews may have three opinions, but three Jews who have eaten together form a zimun – a group who may jointly say the birkat hamazon, grace after meals using a special formula, also called a zimun.

Deriving the idea from the Torah itself, the Talmud in Brachot understands that there is special significance in one person calling others to join him in praising God; it seems that when recited in response to the invitation, the grace is viewed as a collective, and therefore, more powerful form of thanksgiving.

In its Mishnaic form, zimun is simply the word nevarech – let’s bentsch! However, this has expanded over time. The leader starts with rabbotay nevarech – my gentlemen let’s bentsch, to which the others respond by praising God’s name. (In Yiddish-speaking circles, this is often said in the vernacular – rabbosay mir villen bentschen.) The leader then invites the others to ‘praise the One from whose food we have eaten.’ Before starting the grace proper, the others respond with a similar formula. When a Minyan is present, God’s name is mentioned (praise our God, etc.); when mentioning it, one rises slightly from one’s seat in deference.

The Mishnah offers increasingly superlative versions of the zimun, dependent on the number of diners present. At a feast attended by at least 10000 people, one should apparently say, ‘Let us bless our God our Lord, Lord of Israel, Lord of hosts who dwells among the cherubs, for the food we have eaten.’ Sadly, this text is never used, not even at the most lavish Simchah. There are, however, longer forms of zimun recited following a wedding or brit milah banquet, containing poetic additions apposite for the occasion.

It is considered an honour to lead the zimun; there is a system of priority as to how to select the leader. It is usual to ask a guest to lead; when there is no guest present, the wisest diner is prioritised; it is also appropriate to offer the honour to a Kohen, although the host is entitled to lead whenever he wishes. As such, when inviting the others to respond to his call to bentsch, the leader asks permission of anyone present whom he believes to take halachic precedence. This is achieved by saying birshut – with the permission of – then mentioning the host, Kohanim, etc., before proceeding.

Although the formula is written in the masculine, a group of three women who eat together have the option of forming their own zimun, with an appropriately adapted introduction, such as gevirotay or chavrotay – my women or friends. Some authorities rule that this zimun is actually obligatory; others note that women eating with men may choose to form their own separate zimun, rather than respond to the men’s one. And while not widely practiced, this possibility seems particularly worthy of consideration when three or more women dine with one or two men, when otherwise there would be no zimun at all. Whether men and women may answer to each other’s zimun remains a matter of halachic debate.

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

I Wish You Long Life

Greetings for sad times

Sadly, the most frequently heard Anglo-Jewish greeting is ‘I wish you long life,’ offered to a mourner in the week following a bereavement and on the anniversary of the death (known as the ‘yahrzeit’).

The Hebrew original of this greeting is ‘arichat yamim’ – length of days or ‘chayim aruchim’ – long life. Among Jews of German extraction, the phrase ‘ad bi’at hago’el’ is added on the yahrzeit, blessing its subject with long life ‘until coming of the Messiah.’ Although it may seem incongruous, this greeting is even offered to an elderly person. Judaism attaches such a high premium to every moment of life that we wish everyone, young or old, length of days to carry out their sacred purpose in this world. The greatest blessing we can receive is the promise of long life, one especially dear in the face of a recent bereavement or when recalling a family tragedy on its anniversary.

There are other traditional phrases associated with death and mourning. Immediately following a funeral, a longer greeting is used. The mourners walk through two parallel lines of funeral attendees, who recite the sentence, ‘May the Almighty comfort you among the mourners for Zion and Jerusalem.’ This text is also used by visitors to the Shiva; it creates a sense of solidarity, of shared loss and comfort.

When one hears of a death, one says, ‘baruch dayan haemet’ – blessed is the true judge. Upon the death of a close relative, this takes the form of a full blessing, recognising God’s righteousness, even at the harshest of times. The blessing is often actually recited just before the funeral commences.

When referring to a deceased person, it is common to append the phrase ‘alav/alehah hashalom’ – may peace be upon him/her. This is rather confusingly contracted by some people into ‘Oliversholom.’ However, during the first year of mourning for a parent, the correct form is ‘hareni kaparat mishkavo/mishkavah’ – behold I (the child) am atonement for his/her resting place. This acknowledges the Jewish tradition that departed souls may spend up to a year being disciplined in the afterlife before proceeding to their eternal reward. During the first year, the child expresses the hope that he or she can be an atonement for the deceased parent, but after the year has ended, one either opts for ‘may peace be on him/her,’ or the Halachically recommended ‘zichrono/ah livrachah’ – of blessed memory. The Shulchan Aruch (code of Jewish law) suggests one should also follow this practice when mentioning the name of one’s deceased teacher.

Some sources suggest that a longer form should follow the name of a deceased relative, ‘of blessed memory for the life of the World to Come,’ where presumably the person now resides. There are even longer versions of this: the winning entry, commonly used with reference to deceased Chassidic Rebbes, being, ‘may the memory of the righteous and holy man be for a blessing for the life of the World to Come, may his merit serve as a protection for us, Amen!’

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

Karpas And The Wait For Dinner

When's Dinner?

And now the fifth question – when do we eat? This question, a joke of course, should actually help us to focus on a vital Pesach theme: the extent of our ability to delay gratification for a higher purpose.

More than just a commemoration, every festival is intended to help us recapture a major event of Jewish history and internalise its message. As the Exodus was the moment of the founding of the Jewish people, Pesach is an opportunity to consider what it means to be a member of the Jewish nation. What character traits are we to inculcate and which areas of personal growth are we to spotlight at this time of year? What will we have gained from all the intense preparations, from the Sedarim, the vast expense and effort? If all we will be left with after Pesach is exhaustion and a few extra pounds to shed, will it be worthwhile?

The ability to delay gratification is a key determinant of adult human behaviour; it distinguishes us from everything else in the world. Animals are driven by irrepressible needs; hunger, fear, the urge to reproduce. Once a need arises, its fulfilment becomes paramount; all energies are channelled into its realisation. Babies are scarcely different; when little Jimmy is hungry, tired, cold or has a dirty diaper, nothing will divert him from screaming until he gets what he wants.

In contrast, adults have a sense of higher meaning and value, which can often be strong enough to enable us to delay realising our immediate personal needs in lieu of achieving something of greater overall significance. There are dozens of examples of this phenomenon, ranging from the simple decision not to eat another piece of chocolate, to complex life-choices in which personal needs are completely marginalised in favour of national or even world improvement. This is, of course, a function of the struggle between the physical and spiritual drives; while Judaism prioritises the harmonisation of the two, there are occasions in life when the higher, spiritual yearnings must overcome and sublimate the lower, physical needs. The extent to which we are capable of doing this determines just how successful we really are as human beings.

As popular psychologist M. Scott Peck puts is. ‘Delaying gratification is a process of scheduling the pain and pleasure of life in such a way as to enhance the pleasure by meeting and experiencing the pain first and getting it over with.’ (The Road Less Traveled) I think that Jewish sources would view it quite differently. While initially there may be a sense that one is scheduling the pain before the pleasure, the capacity to do so is one of the most profound human achievements, one that transforms the ‘pain’ into purpose and possibly a higher form of pleasure itself.

While central to meaningful human experience, the ability to delay gratification doesn’t come easily. We don’t naturally graduate from childhood into mature and disciplined altruists. What we gain at adulthood is the capacity to control ourselves, but development in this area is a lifetime’s work. One need look only at advertising and the media to see that immediate gratification with no consideration for the consequences is very much in vogue. High-risk sports, sexual exploration and many other activities that focus solely on immediate gratification are as popular as ever. The descent into instant fun and the consequential move away from the development of quintessential human sensitivities is all too easy. And we have all experienced people consumed with physical needs of one sort or another – they are unstoppable until they have what they want. In position as major leaders, such people can quite literally destroy the world; they nearly have on a number of occasions.

The Jewish people are expected to be the world experts in the field of delaying gratification, when necessary, to achieve higher goals. All humanity was originally destined to be proficient in this area, as evidenced by the prohibition of eating from the fruit in the Garden of Eden. Seen through Kabbalistic eyes, God did not demand that Adam and Eve forever deny themselves the fruit, only that they wait to eat it until after the first Shabbat. Had they demonstrated their ability to postpone their desire to eat it in order to fulfil God’s will, they could have enjoyed the fruit legitimately. Instead, they were expelled from the Garden, forever changing the course of history.

As the nation of the Torah, the Jewish people are charged with the task of restoring, by example, this capacity to the whole of humanity. This began at the Exodus, the birth of our people. Our ancestors clearly demonstrated the capacity to wait for redemption, to tolerate the backbreaking Egyptian slavery, to put their dearest yearnings for salvation on hold until the right moment. Some members of the tribe of Ephraim had not been able to wait and had escaped before the appointed time; the Talmud records that they sadly died in the desert. Even when the time for deliverance seemed to be at hand, the Israelites’ ability to wait enslaved until God was ready for them was tested to the limits. No sooner had Moshe introduced himself to Pharaoh than the slavery deepened; the Jews were no longer given straw, yet were expected to maintain the same level of brick production. Just when they thought the end of the slavery was in sight, they discovered that they had to wait a little longer. When the Exodus finally occurred, the nascent Jewish people were already well-trained in the art of waiting.

Each Pesach, and especially on Seder night, we are afforded a unique opportunity to relive those crucial final moments in Egypt. The lessons learned there were so central to our national and personal mission that we must revisit them every year to ensure that we are attuned to our key Jewish responsibilities.

This message is most obviously expressed in the structure of the Seder. We begin the evening in much the same way that we would commence any Shabbat or Yom Tov. Kiddush is followed by hand-washing, in preparation for the meal. But instead of eating the matzah and commencing the delicious Yom Tov feast, there is disappointment in store. Each person gets a small piece of vegetable dipped in salt-water (known as Karpas), then the matzah is broken, as if to eat it, but then hidden away and the plate containing the Seder foods is removed from the table, to be replaced with story books! We are tempted into thinking that the meal is coming (the fifth question – when do we eat?); we are taken to the point when the food is almost in our mouths and then told that we will have to read the story of our ancestors’ miraculous escape from Egypt before we can actually have the meal. The Karpas makes matters worse, for it is a salty hors d’oeuvres; not only do we prepare for the meal and then take the food away before eating it, but we make the participants extra-hungry before doing so!

This is all part of a genius plan to ensure that the annual re-enactment of our redemption inculcates within us the same sense of priorities as the original Exodus experience. We have waited all day to start the Seder, we are hungry, delicious food odours are wafting from the kitchen and all the ‘let’s eat now’ switches have been thrown (Kiddush, hand-washing, hors d’oeuvres, breaking matzah). Pavlov would have been proud. Yet something much more important than food must happen first – recounting the story of the Exodus. Understanding our roots, the very fibre of our national being, the unfolding Divine plan for Mankind, God’s miraculous intervention in human history and the very concept of purposeful freedom – all of these must be achieved before we may begin our meal.

On Seder night, we sacrifice our need for immediate gratification (having rather cruelly stimulated it) to the noblest ideal; transmitting the wonders of Jewish history and our unique relationship with God to the next generation. This should inform our sense of priority in all our endeavours, throughout the year. We have seen that developing the capacity to delay gratification is central to the Jewish understanding of real achievement, defines us as a nation and contributes to rectifying the primeval sin of the Garden of Eden. If we finish this Pesach having learned, even a little, to delay our immediate needs long enough to pursue some of the majestic goals of Judaism, then it will all have been worthwhile.

Have a kosher, joyful Yom Tov and meaningful and uplifting Sedarim.

Based on a sermon for the first day of Pesach at Golders Green Synagogue, a version of this article first appeared on Jewish World Review.

Se'udah Sh'lishit

The third Shabbat meal

Like so many Jewish occasions, Shabbat is celebrated by eating. The Talmud (Shabbat 117b) actually derives from Shemot 15 the obligation to eat three meals each Shabbat. I recall one of my teachers saying that eating the third meal on Shabbat is one of Judaism’s least onerous duties!

While the first two meals fit comfortably into normal life (Friday night and Shabbat lunch), Se’udah Sh’lishit (the third meal) is enjoyed towards the end of the day. During the summer, when Shabbat finishes late, this may be supper on Saturday evening; in midwinter, it may be just a light snack before dashing back to Shul.

Although ideally, one should eat a ‘meal’, technically, one need only eat a minimal volume of food to fulfil one’s obligation. Interestingly, the Tur reminds us that ‘the wise people have eyes in their heads and don’t stuff themselves at lunch, to leave room for Se’udah Sh’lishit!’ If possible, one should eat the third meal after the Minchah-afternoon service, although in practice, it often eaten beforehand. Unlike the first two Shabbat meals, this meal is not introduced with Kiddush, but simply with the two loaves that characterise each Shabbat meal. However, the texts record that one may use a single loaf if necessary and if one is not hungry, eat cake or, in extremis, fish, meat or fruit.

The atmosphere at Se’udah Sh’lishit echoes that fact that Shabbat is nearing its conclusion. Often quite mournful tunes are sung, capturing the waning majesty of Shabbat and the gradually encroaching reality of weekday life. Psalm 23 is a favourite, as is ‘Yedid Nefesh’ – a mystical poem by Rabbi El’azar Ezkiri, expressing the soul’s yearning for union with the Divine. This reflects what the sources consider the ‘third’ aspect of Shabbat. While Friday night connotes the creation of the world and Shabbat morning the giving of the Torah, the end of Shabbat focuses on the ‘Shabbat of the future’ – a time when the Jewish people will be at one with God in a harmonious Messianic age. Abudraham (a medieval halachist) explained that the weekly journey through Shabbat is akin to the celebration of a wedding, the groom being God with His bride the Jewish people. Friday night is the nuptials themselves, Shabbat morning the wedding festivities and the end of Shabbat the moment of first intimacy. It has taken the entire Shabbat to achieve this delicate state, but sadly, it will last only a short while and once Se’udah Sh’lishit is over, imperfection will reign once again.

The special ambience that pervades the closing moments of Shabbat is frequently captured at communal Se’udah Sh’lishit celebrations, which are particularly common in Chassidic circles, but also prevalent in other communities. The rabbi offers an inspirational discourse (many important Chassidic works are collections of them) and those gathered sing and imbibe the mood, sometimes in the darkening room, often until well after Shabbat has actually finished. Eventually, the weekday encroaches, the lights are switched on and another week has begun.

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

How Flexible Is Your Judaism?

Movement and Tolerance

Those familiar with the cycle of Torah readings will know that at this time of the year, we read about the construction of the Mishkan – the portable desert Sanctuary that accompanied the Jewish people throughout their wanderings. At first glance, the minutiae contained in the hundreds of verses dealing with the Mishkan seem complex and, dare one say, tedious. Yet part of the brilliance of the Torah is that even the most arcane passages convey profound and accessible truths applicable in any circumstance.

The nerve-centre of the Mishkan was the Aron, a container that housed the tablets brought by Moshe from Mount Sinai. In common with the other Mishkan utensils, it was fitted with rings into which carrying poles were inserted; when the Jews travelled through the desert, the Aron would be carried by four bearers. Rather oddly, the Torah instructs that despite their obvious function, the poles were never to be detached from the Aron, even when it was at rest in the Mishkan. This contrasts with the carrying-poles for the other utensils, which were removed and stored as soon as the journey was over.

The Talmudic sources question how the poles could be made so that they couldn’t be removed from the Aron. Apparently, their ends were thicker than their middles, so once the poles were forced through the rings, the Aron could slide around on them but never actually fall off.

Now all this seems obscure, irrelevant and so far removed from 2006 that you may even have stopped reading. But please don’t, because, believe it or not, this ancient building instruction contains one of the most fundamental truths about Judaism and the survival of the Jewish people. Bear with me!

The permanently attached carrying-poles testify to the unqualified portability of Judaism. The relevance and applicability of Judaism is absolutely independent of place and time. While, of course, Judaism is ideally lived in the Land of Israel, it is always possible to pick up the Torah (the contents of the Aron) and move it to new surroundings. No matter where we end up, we can set the Torah down and immediately make it the focus and driving force of our lives. Throughout our long and often torturous history, we have lived in places that have been friendly to us as well as those that have been hostile; we have encountered theologically sophisticated as well as primitive peoples, lived through eras that were technologically advanced and others that were functionally backward. We have been hosted by nations sympathetic to our spiritual pursuits, those for whom they were utterly alien, places where we were respected as people of God, others where we were viewed as the devil incarnate; environments where the beliefs of the locals enticed us away from our faith, still others where they offered nothing whatsoever of interest to us. The common feature shared by these disparate national experiences is that the Torah has been successfully transplanted into each of them. Part of its genius is its immense portability – whether in sixth century Babylon or 21st century New York, the Torah has been equally applicable, inspirational and indispensable to the Jewish experience.

A sad fact of Jewish history is that we have needed to travel from place to place to escape persecution; we have had to demonstrate the portability of the Torah in every century, for our past is littered with tales of displacement, expulsion and flight from discrimination and hatred. To ensure our spiritual survival, we have ‘lifted the Aron’, often at a moment’s notice, set it down in new surroundings and then began the arduous task of building a new Torah-centred life from scratch. This is a truly remarkable, and perhaps one may suggest, miraculous achievement, one that for at least for me, testifies to the historical truth of the Torah and the eternal survival of the Jewish people.

The nature of the carrying-poles educates us how this is to be done – remember that they were thick at the ends and thinner in the middles, enabling the Aron to move about on them without ever falling off. This teaches the critical concept of the need for flexibility within certain boundaries; the Torah itself has many different valid expressions, corresponding to the different positions that the Aron could occupy on the poles. It is hard to overstate the importance of this to a mature and properly-functioning Jewish community. The fact is that there are many manifestations of authentic Judaism. Of course, they all share the core belief in the historical truth of the Sinaitic revelation and the eternal imperative of Jewish law; nothing without these can be considered Judaism. Yet within these parameters, Judaism contains a great wealth of styles, philosophies, attitudes, complexions, emphases and even variations of observance. All of these are part of the amazing, and unsurpassable multichromatic Divine system we call Judaism.

Differing manifestations of Judaism (all, of course, committed to the core principles outlined above) are required in different places and times. In some societies, such, as I believe, our own, a whole range of different types of Judaism will be required, sitting comfortably next to each other, benefiting immeasurably from each other’s company. While the truth of Torah is absolute and eternal, it is hardly likely that the same style of Judaism would have suited 12th century Provence as 19th century Galicia.

The idea of flexibility (albeit within limitations) is fundamental to the survival of Judaism. The Aron could only be carried to its next destination because it could move about on the poles; without this latitude, attempts to carry it would have resulted in the poles snapping and the Aron being left behind. This conveys a stark message – that portability is absolutely contingent on flexibility. Lack of flexibility will result in the Aron (and the Torah it represents) remaining forever at its previous location, absent from its rightful place as the focus of activity at all future destinations. In short it could spell the death of Judaism.

Sadly, in parts of the Jewish world today, we see a tendency to ignore this truth. There are many people who believe that Torah can be anything one wishes to believe, whatever one chooses to observe, a kind of insipid humanism with a Jewish flavour added at will. By denying the fundamentals of Judaism, they have, in effect, detached the Aron from its poles, for they believe that the Torah can be prostituted into anything they wish.

Yet at the other end of the Jewish world there is another, quite different, but almost equally worrying, phenomenon - the trend to extreme rigidity in Halachic practice and Jewish outlook. By this I mean the promotion of the attitude that there is only one right way to observe Judaism, only one way to view the world through Jewish eyes, and only one mode or style of Jewish life that is really ‘correct’. In reality, in most areas of observance there is a range of practices, as well as a variety of philosophic positions on almost every issue, all within the parameters of Judaism. We deny the validity of other authentic expressions of Judaism at our peril, for once we ‘shtetelise’ it to the extent that observance in any other form is unimaginable to us, we endanger the very future of the Torah world. If we link Torah observance to specific conditions, be they socio-economic, cultural, educational, or any other, we jeopardize the portability of Torah, for when they change, as they must, Judaism disappears together with them. When we force the poles into the Aron so that it cannot move about, we deny ourselves the flexibility that has enabled us to carry the Torah with us proudly through history.

It is vital that we capitalise on the immense cultural heritage that we have gained from our travels through history. The Jewish world is immeasurably enriched by every experience that our past has thrown at us. We should enjoy, explore and revel in every nuance, style and custom gained on our journey. But when our Judaism becomes contingent on a certain set of external factors, when only one way of doing things becomes conceivable, the existential warning sign should light up.

We should have known this idea from the experiences of recent history, profited from the sad example set by a generation of European Jews who left their Judaism in the shtetl; learned the lesson of those who threw their tefillin into the sea as they approached the United States. But not all of us have internalised this message; the attempt by some to turn Jewish practice and thought into an unbending monolith is testimony to that.

We have much to gain from investing our energies into developing a diverse and heterogeneous Jewish society and a great deal to lose by not. We live in a dangerous and unpredictable world, one in which we cannot be sure of our long-term security wherever we may be. We hope and pray that we will remain comfortable in our host countries, but history has taught us that we must be ready to travel at any time. Are we up to the challenge? Is our Judaism portable? Only flexibility within the system will ensure its portability. Our very survival may depend on it.

Based on a sermon given at Golders Green Synagogue on 4th March 2006 a version of this article first appeared on Jewish World Review

A Seder In February?

Tu B'Sh'vat and the mystics

Tu B’Sh’vat (15th Sh’vat) is best known today as a celebration of the importance of trees in Israel, but it actually hails from ancient times. The Mishnah (Rosh HaShanah 1:1) offers two choices for the date of the ‘new year for the tree’; Jewish law follows the School of Hillel, who opt for the 15th of Sh’vat.

This ‘new year’ is relevant only to the laws of tithes pertinent to fruit trees that grow in Israel. Since each year’s produce must be tithed separately, the ‘year beginning’ is important, as it divides one crop from the next. For most fruit-bearing trees, the moment when the buds appear determines the year in which they are tithed – so those that bud before Tu B’Sh’vat are tithed in one year and those that bud after Tu B’Sh’vat in the next. Although a good part of the winter is still to come, Tu B’Sh’vat is chosen as the cut-off date as most of the winter rains have passed and, as Rashi puts it, the sap starts to rise in the trees at this time of year. Although these laws were hardly observed for many centuries, the return to the Land means that they are widely applicable in modern Israel.

Other than agricultural laws, there are few formal practices associated with Tu B’Sh’vat. However, in recent centuries, a number of forms of celebration have emerged. Some sources mention that one should mark the day by eating fruit, thereby acknowledging the importance of trees in the Torah Weltanschauung. In some circles this is accompanied by psalms and songs of praise; in some Chassidic courts, Yom Tov clothes are worn and the Rebbe holds a ‘tisch’ – a festive table gathering with songs, food and words of Torah. Many people attempt to eat fruits from Israel, or at least the varieties (such as dates and pomegranates) for which the Torah praises the Land. The esoteric thinkers understand that the Divine blessing flows first to the Land of Israel and only then to other places in the world. So while in Europe, Tu B’Sh’vat is in the middle of the winter, the start of the spring season in Israel (as evident by the wakening of the trees from dormancy) is critical to the wellbeing of all humanity. The great Chassidic thinker Rabbi Zvi Elimelech records a tradition of praying on Tu B’Sh’vat for a beautiful etrog for the coming Sukkot. Rabbi Yitzhak Luria (Ari) understood that when one eats fruit on Tu B’Sh’vat, one should intend to rectify the error of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, who sinned by eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Even the precise number of fruits eaten is deemed significant; examples are 12 and 15.

In 16th century Sefat, the circle of kabbalists surrounding the Ari developed these ideas into a ‘Tu B’Sh’vat Seder’, not dissimilar from the more-familiar Pesach version. One enjoys certain types of fruits in the context of readings that express the philosophical and mystical aspects of the day. Apart from the fruits for which Israel is famed, fruits and nuts of various types are eaten, accompanied, à la Seder, by four cups of wine. The first cup is white wine, the second white with a little red, the third half white, half red, the fourth red with only a little white. As white wine indicates the latent and red wine the actual, the progression through the cups represents Man’s increasing capacity to maximise his potential as he grows spiritually, as well as our capacity to appreciate God’s design and greatness in the world. Fruits with inedible shells (such as nuts) are eaten first, then those with inedible stones (such as peaches), then those that are entirely edible (such as blueberries). This sequence too refers to development from potential to actualisation. The edible part of nut is completely encased by an inedible shell, representing the start of spiritual growth, in which potential is still deeply concealed by negativity. Peaches are mainly edible but partly only potential (the inedible stone). Blueberries are entirely edible, representing the world of complete actualisation.

A major goal of any Tu B’Sh’vat celebration is for the participants to gain a heightened appreciation of God’s bounty and the centrality of the Land of Israel in Jewish life.

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

Shemirah - Guarding The Dead

Caring for the dead

Shemirah or ‘vaching’ refers to ‘guarding’ the remains of the deceased from the moment of death until burial. It is usually performed by close relatives of the deceased, sometimes with assistance from friends or, who sit with the body in shifts, not allowing it to be left unattended even for a moment. Some communities organise a rota of volunteers to help with this practice; in the past, there were even paid ‘vachers’ to call upon.

This practice is well-ingrained into the Jewish psyche and is observed in every segment of traditional society. While the imperative to ‘guard’ the deceased is not mentioned explicitly in the Talmud, we learn in Mishnah Berachot that those who are engaged in the shemirah are exempt from other Mitzvah observances during their shift of duty. It is evident from this that shemirah has been a widely observed practice since ancient times.

One practical reason for shemirah is clear from the word itself – to guard the deceased from any physical harm. Left unattended, there is a concern that the body may be stolen, interfered with in some way, burned in a fire or attacked by rodents. In hot or insecure environments, these are reasonable concerns. It is also understandable why some would suggest that in modern mortuaries, where the area is usually secure and the temperature carefully regulated, that shemirah is no longer necessary.

There are, however, other reasons for the practice. The corpse, until recently a living human being, must be treated with the utmost respect. Leaving it unattended would imply that one now regards it as useless. The esoteric thinkers explain that the body, once the receptacle for the holy soul, is susceptible to negative spiritual forces until burial. We are assured that attending it prevents this from happening. Another view understands that the soul is in a state of flux soon after leaving the body – it is starting the long journey into the afterlife, yet remains attached to the body, its only anchor in the physical world, which has been its ‘partner’ for so many years. It causes the soul great distress to see the slightest ill treatment or neglect of the body; this may impede the soul’s progress. However, assured that the earthly remains are accorded every possible dignity, the soul can proceed on its journey, without, as it were, looking back. Of course, these reasons mitigate in favour of shemirah, no matter the circumstances.

It follows that since shemirah is a sacred duty, there are strict rules governing the conduct of those performing it. One may not engage in idle chat, eat, drink, smoke, greet others or even pray, learn Torah or perform Mitzvot when in a room with the deceased. Anything that distracts one from the task at hand is forbidden. However, it is appropriate to read psalms or learn Mishnah in memory of the deceased. Ideally, even these should not be read right next to the body; we are required to remain sensitive to the fact that while we can learn and pray, the deceased cannot.

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

Swarming Supper

Locusts on the menu?

Fancy locust shish-kebab, locust chips or stir-fried locusts? Apparently, locusts should be cooked alive, otherwise they become bitter! The locust plague that attacked Eilat at the end of 2001 gave Israelis as well as workers from Thailand (where locusts are considered a delicacy) an opportunity to try these recipes.

While most Westerners don’t normally regard them as part of a kosher diet, the surprising fact is that the Torah in VaYikra 11 explicitly permits some types of locusts. The code of Jewish Law (Yoreh Deah 85) summarises the tradition for permitted locusts: any variety that has four walking legs, four wings that cover the majority of its length and girth, as well as two extra legs for jumping. In later Jewish literature, the presence of a ‘chet’-shaped mark on the insect’s thorax was also considered evidence of its kosher status.

Although locusts don’t require shechitah (just image if they did!) one must ensure they are dead before consumption and not simply pluck them straight from the air to eat. A Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 13:7) describes the ancient Egyptians attempting to profit from the plague of locusts by pickling them. Indeed, locusts remain a highly-prized dainty in some countries. While we would normally associate a swarm of locusts with catastrophic devastation, for many North African and Yemenite Jews, the 2001 plague in Southern Israel (the first for over 40 years) evoked memories of a culinary treat not tasted in a generation.

So why aren’t locusts on the menu in my local kosher restaurant? The Shulchan Aruch notes that in order to actually eat them, we require an unbroken tradition passed through the generations as to the identity of the correct species. In Ashkenazi, and most Sefardi communities, this tradition has not been preserved and although there is plenty of literary evidence that locusts were eaten in many countries where Jews lived through history, most communities have discontinued their consumption.

Rabbi Ari Zivotofsky, a prolific contemporary writer who is fascinated with obscure kashrut issues, quotes numerous sources to indicate that until quite recently, the consumption of locusts was very common; nowadays the tradition is maintained by a small number of Yemenite Jews. Eager to ensure that the tradition is preserved and even spread abroad, Zivotofsky organised a ‘halachic dinner’ in Israel at which he demonstrated the kosher varieties of locusts according to the Yemenite tradition. He then served locusts for desert! Another expert, Dr. Zohar Amar, himself of Yemenite descent, provided the tradition through which the insects were identified. A number of academic studies have appeared on the subject; the Encyclopaedia Talmudit devotes seven pages to the subject and issue 19 of the Israeli Halachic Journal ‘Techumin’ offers 17 pages of detailed analysis from a Rabbi Sari in collaboration with Dr. Amar.

The likelihood is that cultural factors and unavailability (they’re not too common in Northern Europe!) led to the loss of the tradition. Will they ever appear on Ashkenazi menus? While Zivotofsky, who clearly has a very strong stomach, would have us eating all manner of strange foods, I think it may be some time.

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

Sleeping In The Sukkah

A night in the garden

It might seem crazy, but there are people who sleep in a hut in the garden in October. We are familiar with the use of the Sukkah for Kiddush, family meals and even parties, but many Tabernacle enthusiasts go one stage further and camp out for the week of the festival.

Actually, the Talmud understands the main use of the Sukkah to be for sleeping. We are encouraged to teishvu k’ain taduru – live in the Sukkah in the way that we normally live in the house, which, of course, includes sleeping. Indeed, while a snack is permitted outside the Sukkah, one may not take even a short nap elsewhere. Of course, this only applies if the weather is dry; when there is enough rain to disturb the Sukkah-experience, one is not expected to live in it.

The Shulchan Aruch quotes this position on Sukkah-sleeping as normative. Its author, Rabbi Yosef Caro, lived in Sefat, where the autumn weather is generally clement. However, Rabbi Moshe Isserlis (Rama), the author of the Ashkenazi gloss to the Shulchan Aruch, lived in Krakow, where the climate is rather colder. He notes that only those few who are ‘scrupulous in observance’ sleep in the Sukkah.

In trying to justify the common practice, he points out that the weather is too cold! One is not required to remain in the Sukkah if it is appreciably uncomfortable. If, for example, the Sukkah is invaded by wasps, or (as has happened in Israel recently) the weather is unbearably hot, one is exempt from living in the Sukkah. The same applies to cold.

However, Rama’s preferred explanation is that married couples should live together in the Sukkah, just as they do inside the house during the rest of the year. For those with a prurient interest, the Be’ur Halachah rules that marital intimacy is permitted in the Sukkah. Since (at least in 16th century Poland), most families didn’t have a private Sukkah, sharing instead with neighbours, the lack of privacy made this impossible. Rama recommends building a private Sukkah to obviate this problem. This justification was by no means accepted universally; indeed it was roundly rejected by the Vilna Gaon.

Of course, even if one accepts Rama’s reasoning, in warmer climes (or even elsewhere, armed with a heater and sleeping bag) and especially with the advent of private Sukkot, not sleeping in the Sukkah is hard to justify. In fact, even in England and the US, there has been an increased interest in sleeping in the Sukkah, whereas in Israel it is extremely common.

It is worth noting that despite the halachic normalcy of sleeping in the Sukkah, members of some groups (Chabad, for example) follow the tradition not to, even in ideal circumstances. This is because they understand the intense, all-encompassing holiness of the Sukkah to be incompatible with the state of sleep. Conversely, other mystical thinkers consider sleeping in the Sukkah to be the ultimate surrender of even our subconscious to God’s care. Better hope it doesn’t rain!

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

Sheva Berachot

A week of celebration

Post-marriage Sheva Berachot parties are definitely ‘in’, and especially welcome by those who still feel hungry after the wedding!

The Sheva Berachot – seven blessings – said under the chuppah towards the end of the proceedings, form the major part of the ‘Nesuin’ – nuptial – part of the ceremony. They are repeated (in a slightly different order) following the wedding dinner Grace. They are also recited in the presence of a Minyan after meals attended by the couple during the week after the wedding. The Minyan must include at least one new participant who has not yet celebrated with the couple, although on Shabbat there is no need for a ‘new face’. The Sheva Berachot are recited for a week only when one, or both, of the couple has not been previously married; otherwise they are said just on the day of the wedding.

The term ‘Sheva Berachot’ has come to refer to a dinner-party thrown for a newly-married couple in the week following the nuptials. It might be a large, formal affair, or a modest, informal gathering; the idea is to create the circumstances in which the blessings can be recited in the presence of the couple. And while there is no absolute obligation for the newly-weds to attend such occasions, where circumstances permit, it is certainly desirable, and tremendous fun besides!

The blessings themselves are part of the great inspirational experience of Jewish marriage. They note that every aspect of human life is dedicated to the glory of God; refer to the creation of the world, and specifically to the uniqueness of human beings, who are formed in God’s image and are capable of emulating Him. They talk of Man’s creation as a single entity, before division into male and female, and pray for the new couple to experience a level of contentment akin to that of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Finally, they observe that God alone is responsible for every possible dimension of pleasure that the newlyweds can experience and yearn for ultimate joy in the Messianic age celebrated in a peaceful, spiritually replete Jerusalem.

In a few short lines, the Sheva B’rachot encapsulate the Jewish vision of the purpose of life, the yearning for love and inspiration, the historic role of marriage from the Garden of Eden through to the distant future, as well as the vital role of relationships, sexuality and happiness in building a meaningful physical and spiritual life. No wonder that the great mediaeval philosopher Rabbenu Bachya considered a wedding a micro-recreation of the universe itself; for the very concepts on which creation was based are reborn with every new union.

The ideas contained in the Sheva Berachot are multifaceted to an astounding degree – each time they are replayed in front of the couple we hope that they internalise a little more of their powerful, timeless message. By the end of the week, they are set up for good; inspired to develop a life together in which every moment is sacred.

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