2012-06-27 11:37 am
Entry tags:

horizontal Shabbat elevator

Another post in the series of exploring the less logical sides (at least as viewed by an outsider) of my Jewish practice:

So I don't usually travel on Shabbat, from Friday sundown to Saturday after dark. This is one of many Shabbat restrictions I observe. But it's not really just one restriction. There are a handful of more fundamental Shabbat restrictions that lead to reasons why one might not travel:
  • One may not kindle or extinguish a fire on Shabbat, which is perhaps part of what you're doing if you're operating a vehicle.
  • Even if you question the "fire" one as it applies to vehicles, operating a vehicle certainly involves manipulating current electricity, which is something else people (including me) avoid, even if its connection to pre-modern restrictions is tenuous. Does your car have spark plugs?
  • If someone else is driving you, they are probably doing some of the above things specifically for your benefit, which can be seen as comparable to doing them yourself. (Are they dropping you off somewhere other than where they're getting out? Do they idle the car longer for you to get in? And so on.)
  • If you are taking public transportation, you are typically engaging in a commercial transaction, exchanging money for a ticket and/or exchanging a ticket for access to a vehicle. In addition to the above problems. (Does the bus driver make a stop for you? Do you have to swipe your subway pass through an electric reader?)
  • Outside an eruv, one may not carry on Shabbat. Do you have keys with you? A bus ticket? Your bike? (Yes, riding a bike may be considered carrying; it tends to be defined a bit more broadly in this ritual context than in the common English usage of the word.)
  • There is the issue of "t'chum", that one may simply not travel beyond a certain distance on Shabbat. I think the limit is about 2 kilometers, or if you're in a city, then 2 kilometers beyond the edge of the city.

In addition to the negative ("don't do X") commandment to not work on Shabbat, there's also a positive ("do X") commandment to create a holy and restful atmosphere on Shabbat. Sitting in traffic to get to something on time probably does not qualify.

OK. So normally I don't travel on Shabbat, for all of the above reasons. But this Saturday afternoon, I have a wedding to attend in Wilmington. I tried and failed to find a reasonable and inexpensive place to stay nearby, and doing so would anyway possibly have meant spending the first 20 or so hours of Shabbat alone and bored. (Not exactly a holy atmosphere.) So attending the wedding means traveling.

And I think I figured out how. I'm taking a train there. Why is this OK with me? Well, with the caveat that this justification might not work for all Jews who observe similar Shabbat restrictions, here's my thought process:
  • I'm not driving, so there's no kindling anything for me.
  • For the same reason, no electricity either.
  • The way commuter trains operate, they don't do anything different for an extra passenger. They're still making the same stops, for the same length of time, whether I'm on there or not. So I'm not causing any train worker to do the above things for my benefit.
  • Before Shabbat, I am buying a monthly train pass from a friend. When using the pass, no value is deducted from the pass when one takes a train, so there is no real transaction happening. The pass is simply permission to enter the train. In addition, in Philadelphia, commuter rail passes are not swiped or scanned. One simply shows one's pass to a conductor, who then continues down the train without stopping to write you a receipt or anything.
  • I will enter the train inside an eruv, so carrying is not an issue at that point. When I exit the train, I'll just leave the pass there! (Good thing the wedding is June 30th; no one will have much use for a June monthly pass at that point.) I won't need to carry anything else (I can wear my keys), so I'm good on that count.
  • As far as t'chum goes, I'm fine with considering Wilmington part of the same city as Philadelphia. The U.S. Census Bureau does.

And as far as the Shabbat atmosphere goes, I think I'm good on that count too. I'm doing my usual Shabbat things with my usual community for most of Shabbat, before I go and get on a train Saturday mid-afternoon. One might argue that attending a wedding is not conducive to a Shabbat atmosphere, but that's a separate question. (I would be going anyway, even if I didn't travel; I'd just try harder to find somewhere to stay within walking distance.)

Anyway, a train is really a perfect solution to the traveling problem. I have heard it referred to as a "horizontal Shabbat elevator". Some buildings such as hotels operate a "Shabbat elevator" for observant Jewish guests. Such an elevator runs continuously and stops on every floor, enabling guests to ride it without operating electricity themselves. A commuter train is the same thing, just horizontally and over a greater distance.

And congrats to Jeff and Sarah!
2012-03-06 10:50 pm
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BZ was right

Yes, BZ was right. At least about me. With this post, I am announcing my decision to become a "1-day yom tov (1DYT) Jew", rather than the "2-day yom tov (2DYT) Jew" I've been (with some exceptions) up until now. This is effective immediately and indefinitely. This is a decision I am not taking lightly at all, and I'd like to write a bit about the background of the problem and my thought processes leading up to this decision.


A brief aside -- why am I deciding now? Because there are no major holidays right now. )


Background of Jewish holidays and their length )

Why add a day? )


But shavuot is weird )

Does the law need to be reasonable? )


OK, so that's where I've been for awhile. There are 1DYT people, and they're following a legitimate minhag. I adopted their minhag when it comes to Shavuot, but I still accepted the reasoning, the nod to history and messengers, when it comes to 2DYT for the other non-Shavuot holidays. So what changed?

Israel )

Modern sensibilities and modern teshuvot )

And, finally, deciding )

And I'm confident in my status as an authentic, independent, actualized participant in the living conversation of Jewish law, practice, and life.
2011-07-19 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.
2011-06-28 10:46 pm

Yeshivat Hadar Week 2 Day 2

So since yeshiva started, I've been praying every (non-Shabbat) morning with tefillin.

One should pray 3 times a day in Judaism (or 4 times on Shabbat, depending on what you count as "times"). I've "prayed" 22 times in the past 7 days. I missed last Wednesday evening. But I also was at a minyan (prayer service) yesterday afternoon twice: the usual yeshiva one, and then one for someone who wasn't at the first one, but wanted a minyan to say kaddish (bad but workable definition: prayer said in commemoration of a recent death or death anniversary of a close relative), so several of us who had already prayed stood in for that. As of tomorrow, I will hopefully be able to say that I've really prayed all 22 services in the past week.

And the tefillin. Yes, they're weird. Between that, the tallit ("prayer shawl"), and the kippah (which some people wear all the time, and I might, but for now I've been putting mine on only right before morning services), you're really wearing a lot of awkward clothing for prayer. And it's weird-looking, too. And it's a leather strap awkwardly wrapped between fingers, and tightly (or else it will unravel) around your arm. It's very odd. But it's neat, in ways I can't really understand or describe yet. And it certainly leaves an impression on you for the rest of the morning.

Har har.

Anyway, in addition to praying 3 times, the usual talmud class, and a couple other classes, I took the first session of Cantor Elizabeth Sacks' prayer leading master class. I am SO EXCITED about this class, you have no idea. All these ideas that I think about a lot but don't actually have any formal training or true knowledge of, like music theory and prayer leading aesthetics and nusach (musical mode and phrasing characteristic to a particular part of a particular prayer service), I can learn tons more about! And get so much better at! From a great teacher! I couldn't stop smiling all evening! Yay!

2011-04-21 02:02 pm
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Jewish mimetic tradition and the 10-minute seder

I meant to write this post last year, or maybe even two years ago, but never got to it. It's basically my personal response to biqoret's 3-part rant on Jewish mimetic tradition, and especially part 2. (1, 2, 3. This is one of my favorite blogs on the internet, even though it has barely a dozen posts and nothing in over two years, solely on the basis of these three posts.)

My family has a short seder. No, really short. No, seriously, shorter than that. It's the shortest seder you've ever been to. For a few years we were using a haggadah designed for an old-age home, and we skipped about half of it. I can remember exactly once that we did any of the after-dinner part of the seder, and we don't do most of the before parts either. We only hit one of the four cups of wine, and this year, in the 10 minutes we were doing the non-eating part of the seder, we almost skipped that one.

For the first 15 years or so of my life, I didn't really know any different. That's what a seder was. When I was about 16, I went with friends of mine to their extended family's seders out of town, and fell in love. 5 hours, into the night, telling and debating and discussing the story, singing, jumping rope (family tradition), and basically celebrating freedom. I've been back to that seder every few years since, and when I don't go, I always attend a second seder (my family's down to just doing the first night these days) that's a bit more full than what I'm used to.

As I added more aspects of Jewish practice to my life, I got more and more frustrated with my family's seder. I had long ago stopped attending the family break-the-fast dinner after Yom Kippur, being as it takes place while the sun is shining and several hours before I end my fast, so I was down to only Rosh Hashanah as a Jewish occasion that I enjoyed spending with my family.

Things didn't change dramatically. There wasn't a "click" or anything. But over the past few years, probably not coincidentally since biqoret wrote about mimetic tradition, my views have done a 180. I really appreciate the seder now in a way I haven't since I was 15, or really ever. It means more to me than other seders, and more to me than extended-family get-togethers for birthdays or other occasions. I don't just tolerate the seder that starts early and skips many of the parts I find important. I embrace it. This is my family, and this is how we've always observed this holiday that's in some ways the most important, and certainly the most family-centric, of the holiday year.

And more than that, my current Jewish practices, though very different from mine growing up and from most of my family's, still came from my family. Now that I, as an adult, have chosen to incorporate more Jewish learning and Jewish practice into my life, it's still a product of my upbringing. My parents raised me to be curious and to make my own decisions. Both of my parents went to professional school after college and value education. I attended a Jewish preschool and then an after-school Hebrew school that eventually led both me and them to realize that I have an interest in Judaism and Jewish practice. All of this led to where I am today. I can no more easily reject the 10-minute seder than I can reject all of that.

And anyway, this year worked out especially well. Due to two of my cousins each attending seder with their kid under age 5, we started even earlier in the day and went even a bit quicker than usual. (Last year, this post would've been called "Jewish mimetic tradition and the 15-minute seder".) In a vacuum, these two factors would annoy me even more than in previous years. But it actually meant that, even though I drive on Jewish holidays, I was still able to attend my family's entire seder, drive back to Center City, and walk into my friend's apartment right as they were about to recite the first page of the haggadah for their seder. I told them I'd attend the "second half" of their seder, which ended up being the entire thing. This meant that, from the standpoint of fulfilling the Jewish legal obligations that one fulfills at a seder, I don't even need to think of the family seder as my "real seder"; it could just be a fun meal I went to before my "real one". I had my four cups of grape juice and first matzah of the year at my "second first seder", we went way into the night retelling the story and discussing and debating and singing, and then I went home satisfied and free.
2009-07-07 02:46 pm
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three weeks: more Jewish legalistic stuff

Continuing an occasional series in this journal...

"The Three Weeks" refers to an annual period of mourning in the Jewish ritual calendar. It begins with the minor fast of the 17th of the month of Tammuz, heightens during a period called "the Nine Days" starting with the first of the month of Av, and culminates in the fast of Tisha B'Av (literally "The Ninth of Av"), which is the saddest day in the Jewish calendar. This period all originally commemorates the destruction of both of the Temples in Jerusalem, which were both destroyed on the same date 655 years apart. (The fast of the 17th of tammuz commemorates when the walls of the second temple were breached leading up to its destruction three weeks later.) It's said that lots of other tragic things have befallen the Jews on the 9th of Av over the years as well.

The practices for these periods vary a lot, and at their strictest can be quite complicated and restrictive. As an example, below the cut you'll find an email that an Orthodox rabbi recently sent to a list I'm on, as an informative explanation preceding the start of the Three Weeks on Thursday. I don't know which aspects of this are followed by which friends of mine. I probably have a couple of friends who follow this to the letter, or attempt to, or attempt to follow something similar from their local rabbi to the letter. I have a bunch of other friends who attempt to follow much of it, but dismiss other aspects of it based on their own knowledge of Jewish law (for example, there's much less support in the tradition for the Three Weeks than for the Nine Days and for Tisha B'Av itself). And, of course, many people don't follow it at all. Personally, I tend to observe Tisha B'Av much as it says below (but not entirely; I don't sleep with a stone under my pillow), but I never do anything for the Three Weeks (without worrying about it) and tend not to do much for the Nine Days (but I feel a bit guilty about it).

Guide to the Three Weeks )

Comments welcome, please. Curious to hear your thoughts. And please feel free to ask me to translate any terms you're curious about but not familiar with.
2007-06-03 01:04 am
Entry tags:

A loophole measuring about five square miles

The Center City eruv is up! Which gives me a great opportunity to describe another fun bizarre Jewish legality to y'all.

OK. So one of the things that many observant Jews don't do on Shabbat is "transfer between domains". It's one of the 39 traditional things you're forbidden to do. (Many of the modern prohibitions are interpretations or derivations of things on the list, but this is one of the literal ones.) What does it mean? Well, for all practical purposes, it means you can't carry things in public, or carry something from a public place to a private one or vice versa. And, again for all practical purposes, "public" means "outdoors". (Outdoor spaces that are legally private, such as a backyard, would have to be fenced in a certain way to count as private for our purposes, and indoor spaces that are kind of public, such as the hallways in an apartment building, can be considered private for this purpose via an easily-created loophole.)

So I and many other people who follow this rule have to take steps to structure our Shabbat to avoid problems. If I'm attending a potluck dinner on a Friday, for example, I'll make sure to bring my food before sunset, and I won't bring leftovers home. (My friends and I often run around right before sunset bringing food to each other's houses and quickly leaving, only to come back several hours later, relaxed and dressed fancier and empty-handed, ready to eat said food.) No reading in the park on a lazy Saturday afternoon, either. In order to avoid carrying my house key, I instead wear it on a string as a necklace, carefully put together such that the key is part of the necklace loop rather than hanging off of it, so it is truly part of the thing I'm wearing, and not something that my necklace is "carrying". Many people also consider pushing a baby carriage "carrying", which has helped to create some unfortunate gender implications of this rule over the years.

Well, this can be mighty inconvenient, so of course we've come up with a way around the problem. If one simply walls in an entire city neighborhood, one can consider it and all the houses in it "private", and therefore carry things all Shabbat long! (Well, there are other things you'd have to do, legal formulas to recite and all, and other restrictions you'd have to follow, such as not walling in areas as busy as Times Square, but I won't bore you with details. Anymore than I already am, that is.) So let's build a wall!

Except that that might disrupt traffic, bother the neighbors, and cost millions of dollars.

Well, actually, it doesn't. What if the wall in question has lots of gigantic doorways? With no doors in them? And the non-doorway parts of the wall are really thin? People might not even notice.

So that's what we do. We build the wall. In city settings, the "wall" is usually telephone poles and the "doorways" are the space between them. Any good doorway has to have a piece on top (because if it doesn't, it's just a gap in the wall), so the electrical wires serve that purpose. Since the top part has to be directly above (but not necessarily touching) the "wall" part, and since electrical wires tend not to go right over the tops of the poles, pieces of plywood about 3 feet high and 1 foot across are often nailed to the poles in such a way that the wires are going directly above them. If there are gaps in the wiring, one can instead string some fishing line across roofs of buildings, erect "poles"/"walls" by attaching thin plastic dowels to building walls (or, in non-urban areas, simply free-standing wooden stakes), and so on. (I only know some of the details because I've helped build such a monstrosity once or twice before.)

So this thing, together with some other legal elements, is called an eruv. Even though it's much less disruptive than a real wall (in fact, you wouldn't even notice one unless you knew how to look), and much less expensive too, it still usually requires city permission and it's still kind of pricey. The price goes up when you factor in the rabbi or other competent source required to not only certify that it was built correctly, but to have it checked every week to make sure it's still intact.

So a Center City (Philadelphia) eruv has been in the planning stages for years. It's had a website and brochures and a really ambitious map and everything. But no one knew how the process was coming along. Rumors were going around that it was anywhere from stalled to completed-but-not-certified. And then, suddenly, this weekend right before sundown Friday, the website changed and emails went out. The eruv was up!

Today for lunch, I went to a potluck picnic in the park.
2006-04-11 11:48 am
Entry tags:

legal fiction, part deux

How convenient! My synagogue just happens to have a siyyum tomorrow, just like last year! That's very lucky.

Speaking of religion and holidays, I wanted to share a bit of my religious reasoning with y'all. I don't drive on Shabbat (generally), but I do drive on the other Jewish holidays whose restrictions are 90% similar to those of Shabbat. Why?

Back in the early days of the rabbis, there was the concept of t'chum. The rule was that on Shabbat, you couldn't travel more than a certain distance (about 1 kilometer) from your starting point for the entire day. Even if your method of travel was permitted, like walking, you still couldn't do it. If you were within a city, then the t'chum-related boundary was extended to be 1 km beyond the edge of the city.

Now, this rule never really went away. Many observant Jews today still think of themselves as people who abide by this law. It just doesn't come up much; I'm pretty sure that most of us live in areas that are considered "cities" for this purpose, and if we don't, we probably don't have much of anywhere to go anyway.

So t'chum is one of the few prohibitions of Shabbat that doesn't apply to most other holidays. The reason for this is that on holidays, you're allowed to cook, and you're allowed to do certain other things in the service of preparing a hearty meal. (On Shabbat, by contrast, cooking is forbidden.) Some rabbi somewhere decided that traveling beyond the boundaries of t'chum is one of those permitted things.

So, what does this have to do with driving? Driving is the main Shabbat-related travel issue that affects the lives of modern Jews, in the same way as t'chum was the main Shabbat-related travel issue that affected the lives of Talmud-era Jews. And, just as it was decided in the Talmudic era that t'chum-related prohibitions don't apply on holidays, I've decided that I'm not going to follow the driving-related prohibitions on holidays that I ordinarily follow on Shabbat. Especially if the purpose of my driving is to go to a hearty meal.

Is this logic sound from the perspective of an Orthodox rabbi? Almost definitely not. But to me, it holds together and even makes some poetic sense.

And this particular reasoning is even something I can use as a sort of litmus test for whether people observe "my kind" of Judaism or not. If the reaction of another Jew is either "No, you're wrong, you're not allowed to make decisions like that at all!" or "Eh, why bother? If you want to drive, drive; and if you don't want to drive, don't drive; that's what I do, at least," then we approach Jewish law in fundamentally different ways. (Which is fine. No judgment here.) But if this sort of reasoning makes sense to you, whether it's something you'd apply to yourself or not (and whether you even feel it's necessary or not; you may have your own reasons why driving is okay), then you and I are on the same wavelength.

[Poll #708330]
2005-04-20 02:02 pm
Entry tags:

legal fiction

I think this is one of the charming things about my religion. Others may disagree.

All first-born sons, in addition to being sold off, have to fast every year on a certain day right before Passover; in this case, tomorrow. Like most minor fast days, you can't eat or drink anything from sunrise to sunset.

Now, totally separate from that, there's a concept of a siyyum. "Siyyum" comes from the root meaning "to finish". A siyyum is a celebration had when someone completes the study of a portion of Jewish law, usually one of the six books of Mishna or one of the several dozen tractates of Talmud. The person or people who have finished studying invite a gathering of people, teach everyone a summary of what they've learned, and actually complete the studying by learning the last few sentences right then. Special prayers are said, and then everyone celebrates with a small feast.

Now, a siyyum is such a joyous and important thing that the commandment to eat at it overrides the commandment to fast (except when the fast applies to all Jews, so not Yom Kippur, for example), and once you've broken a fast there's no point in keeping the rest of it. And purely coincidentally, there are siyyums being held all over the place, early tomorrow morning. Apparently, lots of people, including at least one at nearly every synagogue, have learned a body of Jewish law and just happen to be finishing then. How convenient! Guess I won't have to fast this year. And I think there might have been another coincidentally-timed siyyum last year too, so I didn't have to fast then either! Or the year before that...
2004-09-23 09:26 am
Entry tags:

(no subject)

In Judaism, all first-born sons of their mothers (subject to certain restrictions) are promised to the priesthood. But the son's father can, and in fact is obligated to, buy the kid back at an age of at least one month, at the price of five silver coins or an equivalent amount of silver. This ritual is known as pidyon haBen.

I didn't know until yesterday, but this ritual actually needs a kohein (descendant of the ancient line of priests) present. And I'm a kohein.

So this morning, I went to synagogue, attended morning services, and then sold a kid back to his parents.

It's a very strange ritual. I don't know how I feel about participating in it in the future. I generally have problems with most ritual things that are assigned to kohanim nowadays, because we're no different than anyone else since the Temple was destroyed over 1900 years ago, and I'm not a big fan of the idea of it being rebuilt. But so it goes. I did it, it felt weird, but I think it was kind of fun for all involved. Archaic things sometimes are.