A long-awaited trip to Israel

In Israel with Tehilloh

My second daughter, Tehilloh, is very excited, as in about a month, God willing, she and I will be spending eight days together in Israel. She will become Bat Mitzvah at the end of June, and this trip to Israel, her first, is her special birthday present from me and my wife.

I have the privilege of visiting Israel often, but for various reasons, my wife gets there only occasionally, and my children not at all. As such, it is a challenge to ensure that our children share our passion for Israel and remain aware of the fact that Israel lies at the centre of all Jewish religious, political and national aspirations. It is too easy for them to spend their childhood in the comfort of Golders Green without properly understanding the importance of Israel and the focal role that it ought to play in their lives and objectives. How does one convey to children living in a Diaspora that is largely happy and supportive of their religious lives that living outside Israel is not ideal? How does one teach Diaspora children to comprehend the miracle of the Jewish return to the Land, celebrate Israel’s successes, commiserate with her failings and identify with Israel and Israelis? How does one make them appreciate that the heart of the Jewish people beats not in Golders Green or Boro Park, but in Jerusalem?

One way that we have devised is to try to take each child for a private, intensive tour of Israel as the main part of the celebration of their religious maturity. I took our eldest daughter three years ago, but I hope that as we get further down the family, my wife will be able to take some of the children for their special tour. The rest of the celebration will be modest – a dinner for family and friends and a Se’udah She’lishit hosted by our community – but the trip to Israel is seen as the ‘big’ experience. While we are there, I hope to take Tehilloh to key places of religious and historical interest (she’s been researching where she would like to go), see some friends, engage in a chessed project and visit a couple of famous people. But mostly, I want Tehilloh to have a fabulous time soaking up the incomparable atmosphere of the Land, to experience its smells, sounds, people, craziness and Jewishness so that she too will get the ‘Israel bug’ that will fill her dreams and aspirations, as my wife and I did years ago. I am confident that this trip will do the job and enable her to understand why when I return from one trip to Israel, I can’t wait to plan the next.

As you can tell, I’m as excited as Tehilloh, even though I’ve done it all before, not least to get eight whole days of private daughter-daddy time. But most of all I’m excited and blessed to have the opportunity to contribute to strengthening Tehilloh’s Jewish identity and helping her to build her connection with our Land.

Statues in Montreux

Freddy Mercury, Charlie Chaplin and Rabbi Weinberg

A few days ago, I visited Montreux, a small Swiss town by Lake Geneva. It is picturesque, temperate, and while there are plenty of tourist shops, parts of the town are pretty up-market. It was a lovely place to spend a few hours with the family before driving back into the mountains.

Two significant statues on the lake-front are popular with tourists, both of well-known men who lived good parts of their lives in or near Montreux. One is of Charlie Chaplin, the famous actor and film-director, the other is of Freddie Mercury, a leading pop-star of the 70s and 80s. If we can briefly ignore their private lives (the inscription on the statue of Mercury even mentions the ‘discretion’ of the locals), each of them brought much pleasure to millions of people. Presumably, the residents of Montreux feel honoured that Chaplin and Mercury chose to live in their town and recognised this with lake-side memorials.

I was struck by the lack of a statue of Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg, a world-famous posek (Jewish legal authority) who lived in Montreux for a large part of his life until his death in 1966. He was a man of astonishing scholarship, who wrote landmark responsa (published as Seridey Aish, by which eponym the author has become known) tackling the most complex and contentious modern issues. The Seridey Aish was at home in the premier yeshivos of pre-war Eastern Europe, yet was a man of his times, facing modern challenges to traditional Judaism robustly, but with a light touch. He fostered a generation of students, including some of the world’s foremost rabbinical leaders, such as the late Gateshead Rov, Rabbi Betzalel Rakow, zt”l, the late Rabbi Joseph Hirsch Dunner zt”l of London, and ylc”t, Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch, shlit”a, the Ra’avad of the Eidah Charedis in Jerusalem.

Where indeed is the statue of Rabbi Weinberg? Of course, hardly any visitors to Montreux will have heard of him and it is unlikely that a bronze likeness of a rabbi would attract the level of interest from tourists to make its manufacture worthwhile; this apart from the obvious halachic issues raised by making a statue in the first place. I’m sure that the matter was never even considered.

Actually, I’d have been rather upset to have seen a statue of the Seridey Aish along the lake-front in Montreux: Rabbi Weinberg immortalised in the company of an actor and a singer. While the contribution of Rabbi Weinberg is immeasurably more significant than, lehavdil, Messrs Chaplin and Mercury, his immortal responsa, which are still debated and relied-upon by halachists the world over, are a far better testimony to his greatness than a bronze cast.

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents

What’s That For?

Musar from a three-year-old

I am enjoying the privilege of holidaying with my family in the French Alps, so I am far from a minyan. While my children rarely see me davening, especially wearing tefillin, this morning my second daughter Tehilloh (10) and younger son Shmuel Yosef (3) were in the room during Shacharis. When I was laying tefillin, my daughter remarked to my son that one day he would have to don them. As I was putting on the head-tefillin, my son asked her, ‘What’s that for – does it hold his kippah on?’ Then, being three, he suggested that I might need one to hold my neck on and another to keep my leg in place!

Other than causing me some amusement as I was trying to concentrate on davening, Shmuel Yosef left me considering something important. How often do I (or any of us) actually think ‘what’s that for’ when putting on tefillin? It’s so easy for regularly-observed mitzvos to become rote performances, devoid of real meaning. I realised that it’s easy to lay tefillin each day, but harder to experience the ritual as a means of connecting with God: a tool of subjugation of the most powerful human capabilities to the Divine agenda.

Many people say a meditation before donning the tefillin, one which I have just re-read. It reminded me that:

God has commanded us to wear the arm-tefillin to recall the ‘outstretched arm’ (of the Exodus), placed close to the heart to thereby subjugate the desires and thoughts of our hearts to His service; and upon the head, close to my brain, so that the soul that resides in my mind, together with all of my senses and capabilities, are subjugated to His service.

‘What’s that for?’ Three words of powerful musar (ethical guidance) from a three-year-old: God has many agents. It’s a good focal point with which to approach the pre-Rosh HaShanah month of Elul, which starts alarmingly soon.

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents

The Pope And Praying In Hebrew

Jews and Hebrew

The London Times reports that the Catholic Church is discussing reintroducing the Latin Mass largely abandoned in the aftermath of Vatican II. See here for details. Apparently, the Pope is writing to every seminary urging them to ensure that priests are trained to conduct the Tridentine Mass, which was replaced in the 1960s by the vernacular liturgy said in most churches today. While before Vatican II, every Catholic Church in the world conducted Mass in Latin, today it is recited in the local language.

Readers may wonder why I’m interested in the Latin Mass, something one can safely assume to be of marginal concern to most readers! The answer is brief and simple. It helped me to realise how blessed we are to have a Hebrew liturgy, which (with a few minor differences here and there) is the same the world-over. Indeed, among the supportive ultra-conservative remarks appended to the article, are a few thoughtful ones that welcome the return of a universal liturgy, allowing people of every nationality and tongue to celebrate Mass together.

The early 19th-century German-Jewish and later reformers genuinely meant well when they replaced certain Hebrew prayers with vernacular equivalents: they hoped to make them more accessible and comprehensible to their worshippers; presumably, this was successful. However (and this is apart from the theological and halachic issues raised by their versions of the prayers), a great deal more was lost than gained. They underestimated the universal value of Hebrew prayers: the capacity of a Jewish national language, the language of God and the Bible, to unite and inspire people; to erase boundaries between those of different cultures and unify them in devotion.

To be fair, this has now been recognised by some non-Orthodox groups, who have re-introduced greater Hebrew content into their services: I’m sure that they have been greatly enhanced by so doing.

But many Westernised Jews have little or no knowledge of Hebrew – not much has changed since 19th-century Germany (where the vernacular was introduced) in that regard. This is a problem that has a solution – learn Hebrew! It’s easier said than done, but the opportunities available (courses, CDs and internet sites, etc.) have never been greater or the rewards (especially the chance to communicate with the natives on a visit to our own Hebrew-speaking country) more evident. Anyway, there are excellent translations of the Siddur available, each serving a different need, which one can consult throughout the prayer service.

I think that the Pope has this one right: the vernacular alternatives to their (and our) prayers are, in the words of one comment to the article in The Times, ‘improvised’ and ‘fabricated’. Do you agree?

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents

Haggadah

Two Views (Pesach 5768)

The very word הגדה (Haggadah) conjures up wonderful memories of Sedarim past, reliving the story of the Exodus with family, friends and students. It’s used to refer colloquially to the booklet -- a compilation of texts and commentaries -- read at the Seder, but the word itself actually contains a wealth of information about the way in which a truly memorable and effective Seder should be conducted. Allow me to share some ideas:

According to Rabbi Tzadok HaKohen, the way to discover the core meaning of a Biblical word is to look at the first time it appears in the Torah. In the case of הגדה, the root word first occurs in the story of Adam and Eve. When God addressed Adam after the Sin, we find the following dialogue:

The Lord God called to Adam and said to Him, ‘Where are you?’ He said, ‘I heard your voice in the Garden and I was afraid because I am naked, so I hid.’ [God] said, ‘Who told (הגיד) you that you are naked? Have you eaten from the tree from which I commanded you not to eat?’ (BeReishit 3:9-11)

Rashi explains that God’s question is to be understood in the following way:

How do you know? What shame is there is standing naked? (Rashi ad loc.)

Before the sin, Adam and Eve wore no clothes but were not ashamed (BeReishit 2:25); however, they subsequently acquired a sense that there was something embarrassing about being naked.

It can be seen from this that the word הגיד means to acquire new information. This has an interesting implication for Seder night: the story must be told in a way that is new and exciting for the participants. One cannot fulfil the requirement of הגדה (which is primarily directed at one’s children) by merely reading the text or presenting a stale version of the Exodus. Instead, one must find a new angle on the story each year and create interest and fascination by finding new nuggets of information and by telling it in a refreshing way: one that will grab the imagination and retain peoples’ attention well into the night.

Based on ‘Hegioney Halachah’ Haggadah by Rabbi Yitzhok Mirsky

The Avney Nezer of Sochaczew pointed out that an accurate reading of the word הגדה can be derived from the Aramaic Onkelos translation of the word:

And you shall tell (והגדת) your son on that day as follows: because of this that God did for me in bringing me out from <st1:place style="font-style: italic;"   (Shemot 13:8)

And you shall point out to your son… (Onkelos ad loc.)

It seems that the word הגדה means to show or to demonstrate that something is true, rather that merely tell a story. This fits with the Rambam’s version of the text of a key paragraph of the Haggadah:

In every generation, one is obliged to see oneself (לראות את עצמו) coming out of Egypt (standard text)

In every generation, one is obliged to show oneself (להראות את עצמו) coming out of Egypt (Rambam’s text)

While the standard text suggests one’s mindset during the Seder, the Rambam’s text (supported by the Targum) regulates one’s behaviour by re-enacting aspects of the Exodus. The Seder should demonstrate the facts of the Exodus and present them in a tangible and accessible way such that leaving Egypt becomes a real, rather than purely intellectual, experience for the participants.

In fact, the text of the הגדה itself indicates the use of props to turn the Seder into a demonstration, rather than a purely intellectual process. We may only tell the story when the illustrative ‘props’ are in place:

One might have thought (that one should begin telling the story) from Rosh Chodesh (Nissan), so the verse writes, ‘on that day’ (only). But perhaps ‘that day’ means while it is yet daytime (of Erev Pesach), so the verse writes, ‘because of this’. One can only say, ‘because of this’ (by pointing towards something tangible) when the Matzah and Maror are present.

This could be considered the original multi-media presentation: one can only properly fulfil one’s obligation of הגדה by turning the occasion into an experiential show.

Based on the Haggadah of the Shem MiShmuel of Sochaczew

With a little thought over the remaining hectic days until Pesach, it should be possible to plan for a Seder that incorporates both of these ideas: telling the story from a new perspective, and bringing it to life for the participants.

May we be blessed with inspirational Sedarim, the impact of which will remain with us throughout the year. Chag Kosher VeSamayach.

This post originally appeared on Cross-Currents

Shabbat And The Single Jew - part 2 (Mazal Tov edition)

Part 2 (Mazal Tov edition)
In one of my first posts on the theme of dating, I discussed the pros and cons of attending singles events on Shabbat and Yom Tov. I suggested that Shabbat and Yom Tov need to be ends in themselves and not just means to some other end, even the laudable objective of finding a life-partner. Those who use most Shabbatot as dating opportunities risk depleting their spiritual reserves and robbing their religious lives of transformative power. Interested readers will find the original post here.

In that post, I offered a specific (true) example:

A woman approached me recently for advice about attending a Purim party. She knew that there was only a slim chance of meeting someone suitable there, yet she felt that not going would leave her wracked with guilt. She took my advice and didn’t attend, instead devoting the evening to Purim pursuits: she later mentioned that focusing on the day alone enabled her to experience her most meaningful Purim for years.

Well, I am delighted to report that last Purim turned out to be more remarkable for the woman concerned than any of us could possibly have hoped (I am writing this at her request). Very late that Purim evening, she visited my home to help prepare for the Se’udah (Purim banquet) the next day. While I was reading the Megillah for my wife in another room, she got chatting over the kitchen sink to a fellow who was also planning to celebrate with us the next day.

As frequent visitors to our home, they had the opportunity to bump into each other on other occasions, and got to know and like each other, although for certain reasons it was not possible to consider furthering the relationship. Until recently that it, when they began to date in earnest. They became engaged this week and the wedding is likely to be in Israel in the summer. My wife and I are absolutely delighted for both of them and we feel honoured to have been instrumental in bringing them together.

It’s an astonishing story, especially as they only met each other because she decided to hang out in my house instead of going to a Purim party designed to enable singles to meet. God works in mysterious ways, and all of us who know the choson and kallah well know quite how extraordinary their relationship is; it has definitely served to remind us of the inscrutability of the Divine matchmaker.

Be assured that this is not an attempt to bash singles events, even those held on Shabbat and Yom Tov. They have their function and serve to bring people together who may otherwise not have met. Yet we should remember that they are only one of many ways in which God can make matches. We are not party to the Divine plan, but must allow Him to work through us in whatever way possible to bring singles together. Perhaps by simply recognising this fact, we open new vistas for His match-making and thus can become partners with Him in this holy work. May we all be blessed with the foresight and inspiration to grasp every opportunity to help others create new Jewish families.

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents

If You Prick Us Do We Not Bleed?

The Merchant of Venice

Some pupils at the Yesodey Hatorah girls’ high school not too far from where I live have attracted UK and international news overage (see, for example, here, here, here and here) over their refusal to answer examination questions about Shakespeare. Apparently, the pupils declined even to write their names on the papers, in protest at Shakespeare’s ‘anti-Semitism’, despite the fact that they had not even been studying ‘The Merchant of Venice’ and that by doing so they would forfeit the entire examination. As a result, the school has fallen drastically in the performance tables (it was, quite remarkably, first in the entire country last year and is now 274th albeit out of over 3000).

I should interject a word here about the school system in the UK. Many Jewish schools here have what is known as voluntary aided status, which entitles them to state funding for buildings, general studies teaching and a host of other things, leaving the parents to pick up the tab for the Torah curriculum. Of course, this requires the school to meet government educational standards in all relevant areas. The examination in question was a standard government test on material for which the Shakespeare section is a mandatory part of the syllabus.

The principal of Yesodey Hatorah, Rabbi Avrohom Pinter, has been interviewed several times about this curious episode, including on the prestigious BBC Radio 4 ‘Sunday’ religious affairs programme. (You can listen to the interview here: click on the link for ‘Shakespeare and anti-Semitism’). He walks a fine line between supporting the girls in their principled stand, while indicating that he doesn’t really agree with them. It is clearly not the school policy to eschew Shakespeare, since it has bought into a system that requires his works to be taught; at the very least it tolerates its inclusion in the English syllabus and assumes that its students will do likewise.

I think that the issue as to whether Shakespeare was an anti-Semite is irrelevant – it has been debated for centuries. My own opinion (to the extent that I know enough about the subject to have an informed one) coincides with Rabbi Pinter’s. While the portrayal of Shylock has anti-Semitic overtones, there are also very humane, sensitive (dare one say philo-Semitic?) aspects of his character. The bard lived in an age when anti-Semitic sentiments were common; actually it is likely that he was writing with little first-hand knowledge of Jews, as he lived at the end of the 16th century, long after the expulsion in 1290 and some while before the resettlement in the mid-17th century. As such, I am not inordinately troubled by Shakespeare’s alleged anti-Semitism.

However, two other aspects of this incident have given me cause for thought. First, even if Shakespeare was an anti-Semite, should this influence whether his works ought to be taught in Jewish schools? Second, should a school support pupils’ principled objection to a syllabus item even if by doing so it significantly damages the school and its reputation?

Tacking the second question first, one could argue that the students (and their parents, who are reported as supporting them in this case) are bound by some kind of understanding with the school, in which they have agreed to engage fully in the stated programme of study. They ‘breach’ this ‘contract’ if they do not participate in the examinations. I don’t accept this argument, as I feel that the very essence of a quality education must encourage a degree of independent thinking and allow for the students to take informed decisions, especially when they are fully aware of the consequences. This is all part of growing up, something which a school must foster; in that respect, Yesodey Hatorah and Rabbi Pinter should be very proud of their students.

Yet there must be limits to this type of freedom within an educational environment. When I was at high school, one of my co-students became an anarchist, changed his name from Darren to ‘Grover Herbivores’ and refused to wear shoes. This provoked consternation and, finally, rage from the school administration, which eventually excluded him from school life. While this extreme example is no more than quaint, it illustrates the fact that conscientious objection to accepted school norms must have limits, otherwise the institution become ungovernable. Of course, at least in the minds of the students, there is a perceived moral dimension to the Shakespeare issues which is patently absent from ‘Grover’s’ unwillingness to wear shoes. Nonetheless, there has to be a balance between personal expression and potential damage to the school resulting from the students’ ethically motivated objections. If students fail to sit examinations or perform very poorly in them the school will eventually be subject to government scrutiny, which will influence the life of every student in the school. Striking that balance is very difficult – this is a genuine clash between private and public need. We all draw the line in different places, but I would advocate maximising the students’ opportunity for personal expression (based on informed choice and awareness of the consequences), only invoking the need for public responsibility when the potential damage is significant. I, like Rabbi Pinter, do not believe that to be the case in the recent school case.

However, before voting too firmly for the girls of Yesoday Hatorah, I would like to challenge the notion that if Shakespeare was an anti-Semite (accepting this for the purposes of this discussion), Jewish schools should not study his works. I find this incomprehensible, especially in a complex and open world where it is impossible to avoid a broad range of views about Jews and, indeed, everything else. Surely studying Shakespeare, even if one vehemently disagrees with his premises, is of great educational value anyway. Perhaps ‘The Merchant of Venice’ should be discussed in a Jewish school in the context of a lesson on the history of anti-Semitism. Perhaps the students should be encouraged to debate whether Shakespeare actually was an anti-Semite and if so, consider from where he derived his information and attitude. Are we so weak-minded that we need restrict our syllabi to the comfortable, familiar and unchallenging? I certainly hope not.

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents

Must Your Online Shop Shut On Shabbat?

Shabbat Internet Commerce

Widespread internet use has transformed the way many businesses operate. It is possible to use the internet to sell clothes, household appliances, books, or almost anything. And as websites are ‘open’ around the clock, this raises new issues for Jewish law: since commerce is forbidden on Shabbat, must one close down one’s internet site on Friday afternoon to prevent purchases being made?

Another related ‘hot’ topic is the issue of on-line auctions. May one bid for an item if the auction will end on Shabbat? What if the system bids automatically on Shabbat (when you are outbid in an on-line auction, such as eBay, but have indicated that you will pay more than the current highest bid by putting in a maximum bid before Shabbat)? The core issue is whether a transaction that takes place with no human involvement on Shabbat, even without one’s knowledge, remains prohibited by the laws of Shabbat.

By way of introduction, many authorities assert that the entire corpus of laws regulating commerce on Shabbat is of rabbinical, rather than Biblical origin. While this means they must be taken very seriously (and observed without compromise), in a case of uncertainty, the final ruling may allow for some flexibility.

Some 200 years ago, Rabbi Akiva Eiger considered the permissibility of selling an object when the money is handed over on Friday but remains the property of the vendor until Shabbat. Even though the acquisition happens automatically on Shabbat, he adopts the stringent position and prohibits this.

This point is qualified by Rabbi Zvi Pesah Frank, who asserts that when the entire process occurs on Shabbat, both the vendor and the purchaser transgress, but when the purchase is started before Shabbat and concludes on Shabbat, only the purchaser transgresses. While the owner of a website might not actually sin by ‘trading’ on Shabbat, he or she may be enticing a potential (Jewish) purchaser to sin!

According to this view, it would be difficult to allow a website to remain open on Shabbat, since any purchase made would result in transfer of title to the goods on Shabbat. However, if the vendor’s website can be designed not to actually process the charge on Shabbat, but instead wait to receive payment until the goods are available and ready for shipping, there may be no halachic problem.

Based on this ruling, Rabbi Yisroel Belsky, senior halakhic authority of the American Orthodox Union, is quoted as prohibiting ‘proxy’ bidding for an item when the internet auction ends on Shabbat. However, his ruling seems to ignore the fact that when the sale ends, all that actually happens is that one becomes legally committed to buying the item; until one pays for it after Shabbat, there is no actual transfer of title. This should remain permitted even according to Rabbi Eiger, since no acquisition actually happens on Shabbat.

Offering a fresh approach, Dayan Yitzhak Weiss considered the permissibility of a Jew trading on Shabbat using a vending machine. As the device is left in a public place and is freely accessible to passersby, it provides an excellent precedent for its ether-equivalent, the e-commerce website. After an extensive discussion of the issues, Dayan Weiss permits the use of vending machines when the following conditions are met:

  1. The owner of the machine must declare that the proceeds of the sales won’t be acquired until after Shabbat (to avoid the above-mentioned concern of Rabbi Eiger).
  2. The owner must have in mind that any items purchased on Shabbat are notionally considered to have been acquired by the purchaser before Shabbat commences. In certain circumstances, Jewish law allows the status or ownership of items to be determined in this way, even though the actual selection takes place on Shabbat.
  3. The vending machine is in a public place, which avoids the appearance that the product has been bought from a Jewish business on Shabbat.

It seems reasonable to apply these conditions to e-commerce websites. The website may be considered to be a ‘public place’, and, as discussed above, the site can be designed to avoid the issue of actual acquisition on Shabbat.

While beyond the scope of this study, modern sources also consider the issue of enticing another Jew to sin and the concern that trading in a technically permissible manner degrades the sanctity of Shabbat. However, while there is indeed room for concern that internet trading interferes with the sanctity of Shabbat, even when no humans are involved, many modern halachists have adopted a lenient stance.

Sources

The rabbis forbade many things on Shabbat, some because they resemble Biblically prohibited acts and others because they may lead to committing a Biblically prohibited act. (Rambam, Laws of Shabbat 21:1)

Re: the sale of an item on Friday for money on the condition that it becomes your property the next day, such that the acquisition is concluded on Shabbat. Is it permissible, as no prohibited act takes place on Shabbat since the acquisition happens automatically, or forbidden, as the acquisition is concluded on Shabbat? It is forbidden. (Responsa of Rabbi Akiva Eiger 1:159)

The purchaser transgresses by acquiring title to an item on Shabbat, even if the contract was made on Friday… (Responsa Har Zvi, Oreh Hayyim 1:126)

In conclusion, when one fulfils all the conditions: the machine is not in a Jewish place and located such that no-one can identify the owner and all the preparations are made before Shabbat… there is room to permit its use. (Responsa Minhat Yitzhak 3:34)

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

So... Can You Write God’s Name On A Computer?

God on your screen

Does Jewish law allow one to erase God’s name from a computer disk or monitor?

When I first encountered this question, I assumed that it was a joke. What if the response were negative? Would one have to bury old computer disks? What if God’s name appears on a computer monitor? Would one then have to avoid deleting it and instead of switching off, hope for a power cut?

In a passage dealing with the requirement to eradicate idolatry from Israel, the Torah urges us to ‘eliminate their name from that place’. (Devarim 12:3). This is followed by the warning, ‘do not do so to the Lord your God’. (ibid. 4) The Talmud and the legal codes understand this to constitute the Biblical prohibition of erasing any of God’s names (Sifri Devarim 61).

This has many applications: most notably the prohibition of destroying a text in which God’s name appears. In religious circles, people avoid writing God’s name in full (at least in its original Hebrew form) so that they can later dispose of the text. And every Jewish community has a ‘genizah’, where items containing God’s name, such as worn-out Mezuzot and Siddurim are stored until they can be buried.

But would Jewish law allow one to erase God’s name when it appears in a readable or audible form, although not actually written or printed? May one, for example, dispose of a tape recording of God’s name, or record something over it? What is the status of text stored digitally: for example, a word-processing document saved on a computer’s hard drive?

This question was first addressed in reference to the forerunner of the gramophone – the phonograph, a device in which a needle detected grooves on a revolving foil or paper sheet, amplifying them into sound. In a landmark responsum, Rabbi Z.P. Frank ruled that the markings on the paper are not actually letters (as they can’t be read or even seen) and so the prohibition of erasing God’s name does not apply to smoothing out the paper. He notes that the great Rabbi Shmuel Salant only prohibited this because he didn’t understand how the phonograph worked!

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein takes a slightly more circumspect approach to tape recordings: in a responsum dated 1963, he acknowledges that there are no real letters and hence no clear prohibition of erasing the tape, yet he feels that it is improper to erase the tape directly. He recommends an indirect approach (presumably recording something over the name of God, rather than merely wiping the tape blank).

While there are more stringent views, it seems that these rulings can also be applied to magnetic storage devices such as computer hard drives, which may be erased irrespective of their content. However, how would halachah address God’s name displayed on a computer monitor, when one can actually read the letters?

In the case of a CRT monitor, electrons are fired at the inside of the screen, forming light patterns that can be seen from the front. They are constantly refreshed, but at a rate that the human eye cannot detect: in reality, therefore, each letter is formed from a series of pixels (dots) each of which only appears on the screen for a moment before being replaced by another. Rabbi S.Z. Auerbach is quoted as ruling that since no complete letter ever actually exists, this does not constitute ‘writing’; it follows that deleting God’s name from this type of screen cannot be prohibited.

More modern TFT LCD monitors operate in a different way: the pixels forming the letters are all lit at once. The RJJS Journal quotes a Rabbi Hecht who was once asked about installed light bulbs that spelled out the name of God, would it be permissible to unplug them? He responded positively: since the lights are constantly ‘rewriting’ God’s name, cutting off the electric supply does not delete the name, but prevents it from being written. This reasoning, together with other principles, will suffice to allow us to delete God’s name from a computer screen, since anyway, the erasure is performed indirectly. What a relief!


Sources

Someone with a Divine name written on his skin may not wash nor stand in an unclean place. Should he be obliged to immerse in a mikveh, he should do so normally, as only direct erasing is prohibited. (Shabbat 120b)

But for a non-obligatory purpose, even erasing the name indirectly is prohibited, for there is no greater shame than causing God’s name to be erased. (Noda BeYehudah 2:OC:17)

One who erases one of the God’s holy names transgresses a Biblical prohibition. (Rambam, Yesoday HaTorah 6:1)

With respect to a phonograph: if one smoothes out the wrinkles on the paper so that the impression is lost and one can no longer hear the sounds… there is no issue of erasing God’s name… for in reality, there are no actual letters. Even though Rabbi Shmuel Salant wanted to be stringent, it seems that he wasn’t properly aware of how the device works. (Har Zvi, OC 1:280)

With respect to tape recordings, there is no prohibition of erasing God’s name as there are no real letters. Nonetheless, it is improper and one should try to do it indirectly. (Iggrot Moshe YD 2:142)

Shooting electrons is not considered by the Torah as writing, but storing those letters on the diskette may be considered to transgress the Shabbat prohibition of ‘building’... (Nishmat Avraham, quoting Rabbi S.Z. Auerbach)

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

Leading From Behind

Two types of leadership

This week’s Torah reading sees Yaakov at the end of his life dispensing blessings to each of his sons. There is a comparable passage right at the end of the Torah, in which Moshe blesses the tribes soon before he dies. While these two poetic sections are quite similar, I want to focus on a difference:

A lion’s whelp is Yehudah… (BeReishit 49:9)

…Dan is a lion’s whelp… (Devarim 33:22)

Here the lion, as in other forms of literature, refers to the leader. While we would expect Yehudah, the ancestor of the kings of Israel, to be portrayed as a lion, why is Dan described in the same way?

Rabbi Tzadok HaKohen explains that there are two models of leadership, which he refers to as ‘head of the lion’ and ‘tail of the lion’. We might call them in modern parlance ‘leading from the front’ and ‘leading from behind’.

Yehudah’s role is to lead the Jewish people from the front, setting the spiritual pace for the nation that will follow his example. The Jewish king marches ahead of his people, constantly raising the standards of observance and morality demanded of the nation. This is an indispensable role, one that truly requires the bravery of a lion to implement.

Yet there is another, no less vital form of leadership: that of Dan, which is conducted ‘from behind’:

All of the count of the encampment of Dan came to 175,600 – they travelled last under their flag. (BeMidbar 2:31)

And the flag of the encampment of Dan travelled – those who gathered all the encampments… (ibid. 10:25)

The tribe of Dan travelled at the back of the Jewish people, gathering the stragglers and ensuring that no-one got left behind. As a result, although Dan could be described as a ‘minor’ tribe, he is accorded great status in Yaakov’s blessing:

Dan shall avenge his people like one of the [important] tribes of Israel. (BeReishit 49:16)

One may also explain that ‘like one’ means that he is compared with the unique tribe of Yehudah. (Rashi ad. loc. paraphrased)

Yehudah may strike out in front, beating the drum to which he hopes that the Jewish people will march. In both national and religious aspirations, he will, perforce, guide them to places that they don’t really want to go: his leadership must comprise a heady brew of idealism and obduracy to succeed in steering the Jewish people towards their destiny. Yet for all his management skills, there is a danger that Yehudah will glance over his shoulder and realise that the people are struggling to keep up with him; worse still, they may not be following him at all. This is where Dan appears to complement the role of the leader: he nurtures, cajoles, even carries the slackers back into the camp and helps them to follow Yehudah. And while out at the front, Yehudah may not even notice the varied needs of the nation in his charge, Dan, who lives among the people, is capable of appreciating their diverse spiritual requirements and devising appropriate means for every member of the community to take his or her rightful place behind the king. This role requires just as much bravery as that of Yehudah, for the Dan’s job is often difficult to implement and deeply counter-cultural in a world that expects identically high standards from everyone. Dan, too, is a lion.

Our communities are blessed with many Yehudah-style leaders: tremendous sages, tzadikim, and outstanding role models of inspirational religious life. The Jewish world would, quite literally, cease to function without them. Yet, at least in some places, this appears to be not quite enough: for the people are in danger of falling behind the aspirations of the leaders. Sometimes the demands made by the leadership (whether it be in life-goals, stringent application of halachah, or other areas of Jewish life), cannot be met by every member of the community; this may lead to disappointment, religious burn-out and a sense of disenfranchisement. Perhaps the Jewish world would profit from a few more ‘Dans’ to gather the strugglers and bring them home: to make them feel loved in a world whose aspirations they find hard to meet and to show them a range of ways of living a meaningful and rich Jewish life with confidence and pride. In fact, at certain times in our lives, all of us may experience the type of disillusionment that the ‘Yehudahs’ can’t quite understand: at those moments, we all need the intervention of a ‘Dan’ to keep us within the fold.

Finally, we are told in an obscure Midrash (quoted in Torah Sheleimah), that the ultimate form of Jewish leadership must combine the attributes of Yehudah with those of Dan:

Mashiach hails from two tribes: his father is from Yehudah and his mother is from Dan. This is why Yehudah and Dan are both called ‘a lion’s whelp’, for the Mashiach will emerge from both of them.

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents