desh ([personal profile] desh) wrote2011-07-19 07:23 pm

Yeshivat Hadar Week 5 Day 2

Most anyone who has met a Jew knows that Yom Kippur is a Jewish fast day. Less known is that there are 5 other fast days: Tisha b'Av, and 4 "minor" fast days. On Yom Kippur and Tisha b'av, one who is fasting refrains from all food and drink for 25 hours, from sunset one day to nightfall the next. On the minor fast days, you only refrain from sunrise to nightfall. (Or, practically speaking, from bedtime the night before, because one may not want to wake up at 4am just to eat breakfast.)

Today is the first minor fast day I'm ever fasting for. It's the 17th of Tammuz. (3 weeks until Tisha b'Av, the saddest day of the Jewish calendar!!! Woohoo!!!!!)

I never had a good reason for not fasting on the minor fast days before; it always seemed to me to be the biggest gap between Judaism the way I wanted to practice or felt I should practice, and the way I actually did. Interestingly, two days ago, I was reminded that the rabbi who is my yeshiva's chair in Jewish law actually thinks that the minor fast days are optional rather than obligatory in modern times (scroll down to the paragraph beginning "It therefore"). But I decided to fast today anyway, taking this summer in yeshiva as an opportunity to try on mitzvot (commandments) that I've never really tried or taken seriously before. (Plus, everyone else is doing it...) I have, unfortunately, learned today that a "half-day" fast, especially in the summer when it's hot and when sunset is late, is not much easier than a full-day one. And I even had a second dinner and half a gallon of water at 11pm last night!

So we had a short day in yeshiva today. Morning services were at 9:00am and we ended by 2:15pm. (Our usual "short day" of the mid-week, Wednesday, is 8:30-4:00. Tomorrow, though, is a full 7:30-9:00 schedule to make up for lost time.) And, speaking of mitzvot I've never really taken seriously enough before, we had a 3-hour shiur (lecture, in this case interspersed with partnered learning time) on tzedakah (often, though perhaps poorly, translated as "charity"). Tzedakah is a frustrating topic for me for multiple reasons:
  • 10% of your income, even post-tax, is a LOT of money to give up compared to what you might otherwise do and compared to what your peers probably do

  • Jewish life is expensive enough as it is, with communal centers in high cost-of-living areas, expensive kosher food, and for those of us with kids, extremely expensive education

  • Too many conversations on tzedakah end with the moral: "No matter what you're doing, you should do more", which is a guilt-inducing conclusion I've really come to hate

This conversation today raised some interesting questions, but unfortunately didn't deviate from that script enough or reach any of the conclusions I've been wondering about. (For example: I've chosen a job in my profession that pays me less than I could perhaps make elsewhere. I've done this because I like working for a poverty-fighting organization more than a stereotypically money-grubbing company. What effect does this decision have on my 10% tzedakah obligation; does any of the salary I've "given up" count? For another example: rather than calculating 10% of post-tax income, can one count 10% of pre-tax income and subtract the portion of tax money that goes toward certain causes, and if so, which causes and how much does that total?)

I did reach one conclusion that seems valuable, though: If you throw away all of the numbers involved in the tzedakah conversation (10% as a minimum, 20% as a maximum that may have been appropriate in rabbinic times but may be too low now?), it's still the case that the amounts we're talking about are significantly, significantly higher than the 1% (or even much less!) that a lot of people donate to the needy. It's worth having the conversation to push people's usual giving levels significantly higher, whether they reach 10% or 20% or not. If you're in the 1% category (and I probably am), then you've got plenty of room to do better.

Or not. One member of the faculty said to me, after the shiur was over, that he thinks taxes have completely eliminated the obligation for tzedakah. It's an even stronger statement than my wondering about what percentage of taxes "count". More food for thought...

Food. Dammit. I'm thirsty.

Taxes as tzedakah

(Anonymous) 2011-07-20 03:14 am (UTC)(link)
I've often wondered if taxes can count as tzedakah myself. I wonder if the faculty member has run the numbers or just thought about the top line tax number compared to the 10% tzedakah.

I wonder what percentage of my taxes go to help others and what value do i receive back from government services. I guess another question is do road paving, mail service, and military spending count as tzedakah?

How did government services work in the shtetl?

(Anonymous) 2011-07-25 04:33 am (UTC)(link)
I have, unfortunately, learned today that a "half-day" fast, especially in the summer when it's hot and when sunset is late, is not much easier than a full-day one.

It can actually be harder than a full-day fast, since I tend to prepare much more extensively for full-day fasts. (But it sounds like you prepared for this one too.) But these days, for half-day fasts, I usually get up before sunrise and eat breakfast.

expensive kosher food

Only if you're eating meat!

and for those of us with kids, extremely expensive education

I think that the fact that this gives people pause about how much they can give to tzedakah (and I'm not picking on you specifically here, because you're not the first to make this argument, and I've heard it from people who probably have much higher incomes) is the single greatest reason that day school education is not merely unnecessary but actually Bad For The Jews.