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September 2, 2015 / 18 Elul, 5775
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Is Beit Shammai In Ascendency?


Kupfer-Cheryl

Way back in the “good old days” in Jerusalem, before the Jews were exiled, singles looked forward to the 15th day of Av, known as Tu B’Av. On this day, unmarried girls and boys had the opportunity to pair off and become couples. The girls, all dressed in white and in a way that none could tell who came from wealth or poverty, would dance in front of the young men, who would then choose the one who caught his eye and marry her.

Obviously this “singles scene” was halachically sanctioned by the spiritual leaders of the time. Which has my daughter-in-law, Maya, scratching her head. As someone who wasn’t raised frum and is by nature analytical, she will point out what appears to her to be puzzling contradictions in the religious lifestyle.

If girls back then were allowed to dance in front of men – not with them of course – why can’t they do that now? She is confused as to why young unmarried people are segregated by gender at weddings and other social gatherings – eating at separate tables – yet when they go on a date, they sit together in the car and wherever it is they go.

After all, at a wedding full of people who know them, there would be hundreds of eyes on them as they eat together – and no opportunity for inappropriate behavior – yet they can go off on a date, one on one – usually going to an out of the way place where no one from the community will see them. “How is it that you can’t trust individuals sitting at a table with a dozen of their peers in the middle of a huge crowd, but somehow it’s OK for them to be in a lounge or hotel lobby at night, alone? It doesn’t make sense to me!?”

She is even more confused as to why MARRIED couples are separated. If the reasoning is that men and women not related to each other should not be in close proximity due to possible attraction, then men and woman should not be allowed to shop at the same time, or at the very least, not stand behind each other in the grocery check-out line or post office or bank etc. where while waiting there is an opportunity to socialize.

If there is a concern about not putting people in a situation where, despite a lifetime of being taught self-control, they can be tempted to “sin,” then likewise, Maya argues, people should not be allowed to go into a supermarket where non-kosher food is sold or walk through the treif food court in the mall. The smells wafting from the barbecue, pizza and Chinese food are so tantalizing.

“Don’t the rabbis trust people who have been raised in Torah from the minute they were born? Maya asks puzzled. “I learned about the concept of kaf z’chut – giving people the benefit of the doubt, believing that people will do the right thing. Beit Hillel was more relaxed about erecting extra fences – unlike Beit Shammai, who I guess had less confidence in the people’s ability to restrain themselves and set up even more restrictive barriers.”

Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai were two rabbinical schools of thought (named after their founders) that interpreted Jewish law during the Roman occupation of Israel. The rabbis of Beit Hillel were more moderate and lenient in their interpretations of the Oral Law, while those of Beit Shammai were more stringent and machmir, perhaps to protect the people from Roman culture. However, throughout the centuries, Beit Hillel’s more liberal views were embraced over the stricter ones of Beit Shammai.

Yet it seems that in the last decade or so, there is a movement towards strictness and restriction that is closer to Beit Shammai’s style rather than Beit Hillel’s – and it is making keeping a religious lifestyle more complicated and stressful.

I grew up in a time when Orthodox men and woman did sit together at simchas; dairy products with a reliable hechser were eaten by all – I don’t remember cholov Yisrael products in my youth – the hamburgers and steak we dined on were certified kosher and not necessarily glatt. In those days, when the religious supervising agency declared a cow kosher, it was kosher. Like Maya says, either a woman is pregnant – or not. We made due with one oven for meat and for dairy, not unlike our Bubbies in Europe who baked their bread in their village’s communal oven used by Jew and gentile alike.

These same Jews in Europe ate leafy vegetables and berries for centuries- when there were no pesticides to get rid of bugs like we have nowadays – yet they felt confident in their ability to properly check for insects. Today, due to recent stringencies, many housewives are fearful of not being careful enough, and therefore, to be on the “safe side,” either buy pricy kosher bug-free produce, or do not serve these healthy foods to their families.

A number of years ago, married women were told by their rabbanim to burn their Indian hair shaitels because they might have been used in idol-worshipping rituals. There were bon-fires burning in Bnei-Brak and other religious communities, where woman dutifully tossed their costly shaitels. Honestly, I was confused by this edict. If churches and other non-Jewish houses of worship – where thousands of religious services and rituals were conducted daily – can be converted into shuls and yeshivas, why couldn’t hair used similarly not also be converted into an object of mitzvah.

Why the added stress, guilt and expense?

Beit Hillel’s moderate interpretations are supposed to hold sway until the Moshiach comes, at which time Beit Shammai’s stringent, exacting ones will take precedence.

Last time I looked, Moshiach was still not here.

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