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April 21, 2014 / 21 Nisan, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘Beit Hillel’

2 Liberal Orthodox Rabbis Warring over Flipping Fuse on Stormy Shabbat

Wednesday, December 18th, 2013

Two National Religious rabbis, each a member of different National Religious organizations, have been pushing two radically different views of Shabbat laws following the weekend’s “storm of the century.”

Coordinator of the Beit Midrash (study hall) of the Beit Hillel organization Rabbi Yoni Rosenzweig, who lives in Efrat, in the Judean hills, reported in a personal column in Maariv that at 3 AM, Shabbat, he had woken up to discover that the electricity in his apartment was out.

“I sat down in the middle of the dark living room and was thinking: today is Shabbat. Pushing up the fuse and turning on heat sources in the house is a Torah level prohibition, but, on the other hand, it’s frightfully cold outside, and tomorrow is bound to be cold as well, how will we survive Shabbat without heat?” Rabbi Rosenzweig wrote.

Acknowledging that tens of thousands of Jews in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria had opted to avoid touching their electric systems on that Shabbat, Rabbi Rosenzweig insisted that to him, that choice seemed unreasonable.

“I said to myself: there must be a halachic solution,” the rabbi continued. In the end, he combined two halachic concepts: one – hakol cholim etzel tzina—everyone is considered sick when it’s very cold (Mishna Brura, laws of Shabbat, No. 253 – although the discussion there is regarding asking a gentile to heat the food on Shabbat, Y.Y.); and two – doing the prohibited labor with a change (meaning not the way it is normally done) combined with the concept of Grama (an event caused by another, indirect event) based on the fact that the electricity was not being produced directly as a result of flipping the fuse switch.

In the end, Rabbi Rosenzweig reported, “I lifted the switch with a change, and the heat returned to the apartment. I contemplated for a while if the act was really permitted, but I had no problem falling asleep. I felt that the duty of a posek—halachic ruler is to try and be permissive when it’s needed. We have plenty of ‘chumrot’—severe interpretations of the law, but in an emergency we must know how to go easy.”

Rabbi Rosenzweig’s neighbor in the Gush Etzion region, Rabbi Israel Rosen, of the Tzomet Institute, which, among other things, finds creative halachic solutions to Shabbat issues, and is not known for its strict rulings, published a response in the website Srugim, calling his decision “A Delusional Ruling to Anyone who Understands the Laws of Shabbat.”

Rabbi Rosen laid out a well founded objection to the heter—permission Rabbi Rosenzweig had given himself, starting with the argument that it appeared the children in the house—who are the vulnerable entity in such rulings—appear to have been sleeping comfortably under their covers, which should have at least justified pushing off the decision until morning.

He also suggested that the “indirect” argument is delusional, because there was only one, predictable outcome to flipping the switch on, makes no difference where the actual production takes place.

What I liked most about rabbi Rosen’s well reasoned attack was the fact that, after all had been said, he did not suggest Rabbi Rosenzweig was not within his rights as a halachic Jew to act as he did. What upset him was the fact that he chose to brag about it.

“I was mostly shocked by the atmosphere and the style,” Rabbi Rosen wrote. “It’s evident that the reporting rabbi wishes to aggrandize himself in front of the readers with his great arm that bends halacha with virtuosity.”

“It’s cheapening halacha, using it like playdough,” argued Rabbi Rosen, but, again, his greatest complaint was not the rabbi’s choice, but his turning of a choice that should have remained private into braggadocio.

“If he had ruled this way for his neighbors, I would have kept quiet,” Rabbi Rosen concluded. “But the entire entry emphasizes his own and his family’s interests.”

New Moderate Rabbis’ Forum an Answer to Religious Extremism

Wednesday, February 8th, 2012

A group of more than 100 moderate Orthodox rabbis assembled last week to announce the formation of Beit Hillel, a forum intended to provide a response to the extremist trend within religious Zionism.

“We mustn’t let the extremists do to Religious Zionism what was done to the face of Ruthie Fogel of Blessed memory,” said at the event Science Minister Professor Rabbi Daniel Hershkowitz, referring to a recent issue of a religious Zionist publication put out by the Meir Institute, which blotted out the face of terror murder victim Ruthie Fogel, apparently for the sake of modesty (see article image).

The rabbinic get-together was studded with Religious Zionist stars such as Rabbis Yuval Sherlo, Yoel Bin-Nun, and Amnon Bazak.

“We want to establish the clear voice of Torah, which is compared to water, A Torah which people thirst and yearn for, and don’t twist their noses every time it is mentioned in the public arena,” said at the forum Rabbi Haim Navon, a congregation rabbi from Modiin who also teaches in several religious Zionist yeshivas.

Rabbi Navon added: “We didn’t come here to be nice, or to find favor in anyone’s eyes, or to say things people would necessarily enjoy hearing. We wish to make demands on Israel’s society, but in order for these demands to be heard, they must be phrased in a language this society would understand.”

This week, Rabbi Haim Navon emailed the Jewish Press a kind of manifesto describing the aims of the new forum:

“Recently, the Torah has been presented to the Israeli public in a superficial and misleading light. The Beit Hillel Forum was established by a group of rabbis who believe that this is not the true face of Judaism. We believe in the eternity of the Torah of Israel and are completely committed to Jewish Halacha. In our view, only Judaism in its true, illuminating form, with its “paths of pleasantness,” can deliver a meaningful message to today’s Israeli society.

“We believe in incorporating women in public leadership roles. In this spirit we chose to become the first Orthodox rabbinical organization to open its doors to women. We’re not talking about ordaining women rabbis, but learned women will find a home in Beit Hillel, alongside congregational rabbis and Torah teachers.

“We see ourselves as inseparable from Israeli society. True, on occasion we are critical of the manner of public discourse in Israel, but we express our criticism with love and empathy.

“We are devoted to the State of Israel, and think that its continued existence and success are essential to the development of the Jewish nation. We disapprove of attacks on the Zionist vision, which come from a variety of sources within Israeli society.

“We view positively the modern world with its innovations, as long as those fit the Torah of Israel. In our view, secular studies are essential to becoming a faithful Jewish person in our generation.

“We believe that the ideas we present are accepted by the majority of the religious Jewish public in Israel, which function as full partners in the State of Israel and in Israel’s society. We wish to give our voice to this silent majority.

“Our sages taught that the rabbis of the historic house of Hillel treated even their ideological foes with humility and respect. Likewise, we have committed to an open and attentive dialog, even with speakers with whom we disagree.”

Q & A: Tu B’Shevat: The Hidden, The Revealed

Thursday, February 2nd, 2012

Question: Why is Tu B’Shevat, known as the New Year for Trees, in the middle of the month and not at the beginning of the month – like all other New Years?

Pesach Bernstein
(Via E-Mail)

Answer: The first mishnah in Tractate Rosh Hashanah lists the various New Years. Each of them, like you write, falls on the first of the month except for Tu B’Shevat.

There are exceptions, however. For example, the Gemara (ibid., 4a) asks regarding the New Year for festivals (which is also used to reckon the years of a king’s reign): “How can the New Year for the festivals be on the first of Nissan, when surely it is on the 15th of Nissan?” The Gemara answers that the mishnah means to say that the festival, Pesach, that occurs in the first month of the year marks the New Year for festivals. The New Year itself, though, starts on the 15th.

Two additional New Years – not enumerated in our mishnah – also do not fall on the first of the month. The New Year relating to the omer – the sacrifice that permitted one to partake of newly harvested grains of the five species throughout the land – occurs on the 16th of Nissan, and the New Year for the shetei halechem (two loaves) – permitting the use of flour from newly harvested grains for meal-offerings in the Beit Hamikdash – occurs on the 6th of Sivan. The Gemara explains that the mishnah does not list these two New Years because they start during the day rather than the previous night.

Thus, we see that Tu B’Shevat is not that unique. However, perhaps it appears to be so because it is the only New Year listed in the mishnah that does not occur on the first of the month (in some sense of the word) according to Beit Hillel, whose ruling we follow. Beit Hillel states that sufficient rain has fallen by the 15th of Shevat, enabling trees to blossom. We therefore set the New Year for trees at that point.

For a more esoteric understanding of the significance of the 15th of Shevat as the New Year for trees, we turn to the author of the chassidic work, Ohev Yisrael by Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heschel of Apta, who discusses this matter. We glean from his words:

“Regarding Tu B’Shevat, we must know and understand why it is stated specifically there (in the mishnah), ‘The New Year of the Tree, according to Beit Hillel, is on the 15th of Shevat, while according to Beit Shammai it is on the first of Shevat.’ It is also important to understand the reference to ‘tree’ in the singular, when it should have stated [the New Year of the] Trees, in the plural.

“We must answer that it states in the Torah (Deuteronomy 20:19), ‘For man is the tree of the field.’ [Here the author is alluding to the interpretation in Gemara Ta'anit 7a.] Just as the tree possesses roots, branches, leaves and fruit, so does the Jew possess all these because of his good deeds. How are these drawn to man? They stem from their source, the root of the Jewish soul, which is the Holy Tree – the Tree of Life under which all Creation’s animals and birds of the skies seek shelter. It is the tree that is blessed so that all its shoots are like it.

“The word ilan [tree in Hebrew] is numerically equivalent to the two Holy Names, Havaya and Adnut (their combined total is 91). This is in accordance with the hidden meaning of ‘Tzaddik katamar yifrach – A righteous man shall blossom as the date tree…’ (Psalms 93:13). Just as the palm tree has the means of propagating itself, so, too, do the righteous bring forth those that will propagate themselves.”

Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heschel continues with a citation from Tractate Rosh Hashanah (10b-11a). R. Yehoshua claims the world was created in Nissan, but R. Eliezer argues it was created in Tishrei. (These two months both launch the beginning of a different half of the year.) Rabbi Heschel points out that both these statements are “the living words of G-d” – both are true in some sense. He explains: “On [the first of] Tishrei the thought came to His mind to create the world, as the paytan notes [in our Rosh Hashanah liturgy], ‘Hayom harat olam – Today You have conceived the world.’ However, the actual creation was in Nissan.”

He then offers a lengthy explanation, comparing the tree to the original Creation by presenting the month of Shevat as a microcosm of the 12 months of the year and dividing Shevat into two parts. He compares the first half of the month to the conception of trees – the part of creation that is hidden. This is actually the essence of Beit Shammai‘s opinion, whose rulings hold sway in the Heavenly Court. Beit Hillel, on the other hand, represents that which is revealed – like the blossoming of trees. For the most part, blossoms appear on the first day of the second half of the month – Tu B’Shevat.

Chanukah: Not Just A Children’s Holiday

Wednesday, December 14th, 2011

It never used to bother me; that is, until recently.

Somehow, over the years, Chanukah has come to be celebrated as a children’s holiday. Even in Jewish folklore, children’s games have traditionally been an important part of the Chanukah experience. Chanukah without a dreidel game is perfectly acceptable halachically, but it would feel incomplete emotionally.

The ethnic foods of Chanukah, both Ashkenazic latkes and Israeli sufganiyot, appeal to children. Adults, particularly those of us who are on diets, find them far less appetizing.

The songs of Chanukah, even the old Yiddish ones that date back generations, were clearly composed for the enjoyment of youngsters, and the audience for the more contemporary Chanukah music of groups such as the Maccabeats is definitely the younger generation.

Chanukah gelt is another aspect of the holiday clearly directed at kids, though grownups might put the gelt to better use. The contemporary American custom, which I am afraid is heavily influenced by the culture of the country in which we live, makes the holiday even more child-centered by distributing an additional gift each night to the young ones in the family.

No doubt about it. Chanukah has become a children’s holiday. But why has that begun to bother me?

It hasn’t taken much introspection on my part to realize that it has only begun to bother me in recent years, as I have become more and more conscious of my own aging.

Don’t get me wrong. First of all, I am not that old. I love watching the faces of my grandchildren and great-grandchildren as they light up, brighter than the lights of the menorah, with fun and games and gifts of the eight days of Chanukah. But there is a part of me that is envious, that wishes to reclaim Chanukah for myself and for my generation.

After all, there is nothing in the Talmud, or in the halachic tradition in general, to suggest the holiday is to be celebrated any less by us grandparents than by our grandchildren. The central hero of the Chanukah story, and the only one mentioned by name in the Al HaNissim prayer, was Matisyahu the high priest, and he was certainly no youngster when he led his valiant sons into battle. Indeed, in most of the drawings I have seen, the artist envisions Matisyahu as having a longer and whiter beard than I do.

I would like to make a case, therefore, that Chanukah is at least as much a holiday for us older folks as it is for children. Further, I want to argue that a central teaching of Chanukah is one that contains a special lesson for those who are coping with the challenges of advancing years.

Studies of the general society indicate that an increasingly larger percentage of the population is sixty and above. This is true of our Jewish society as well. More attention needs to be given to this growing segment of our community and to what it means to be getting older.

Specifically, people who are growing old need to learn not only how to age gracefully, but how to age well. What are the secrets of those older people who seem to thrive – if not always physically, then certainly mentally and emotionally and spiritually? And how can other individuals who are getting old learn those secrets?

I have long reflected on these questions as I observed the great sages of my generation and how they seemed to become even greater as they aged. I speak specifically of Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky and Rav Moshe Feinstein, both of whom I was privileged to observe closely when they were well past ninety. Who among us was not impressed and inspired by Rav Yitzchok Koppelman, the revered dean of the yeshiva in Lucerne, Switzerland, whose active life came to a close within the past year?

Do not all of us in the Torah-observant camp stand in awe of the youthful vigor and ongoing creative accomplishments of the various great sages in Israel today, very many of them in their 80’s and 90’s and some even above 100, who continue to teach and preach and write and lead with undiminished vitality? What is their secret?

* * * * *

Lest we think successful aging is limited to great holy men who may very well have been granted a divine blessing that enables them thus to flourish, let me share with you some of my experiences during my recent stay in Israel.

My wife and I have a small apartment in a neighborhood in Jerusalem where many retired Americans have settled. When there, I have had occasion to observe men and women 20 years or more my senior who live active and productive lives.

One such occasion occurred over a Shabbat I spent as a scholar in residence at Beit Tovei Ha’Ir, a retirement community in the heart of Jerusalem. I must say that though I was invited to this wonderful community to teach, I learned much more than I taught, as is often the case.

I spent the entire weekend in the company of men and women who live in a retirement community but who have never really retired. They may no longer be in the work force, but in his or her own way, given the limitations that invariably accompany age, each continues to be active. More importantly, they continue to grow.

Some do it through Torah study, attending one or more of a dazzling array of shiurim at all levels and in several languages, though many of them have little or no formal Torah education. Some do it through physical exercise programs. Some do it through learning new artistic or musical skills, painting and drawing and learning to play musical instruments.

What does all this have to do with Chanukah?

There is no better metaphor for the secret skill of aging well than the central visual symbol of Chanukah. We are familiar with the age-old dispute between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel. The former would have had us light eight candles on the first night, and then decrease the number of candles to seven, to six, and eventually to just one. Pochais v’holech – diminishing light, waning life.

We follow a different model: mosif v’holech. This is the approach of Beit Hillel, lighting an additional candle each day, beginning with one and increasing step by step to eight. Expanding light, growing horizons. This is the secret of aging well, which is so exquisitely exemplified by the imagery of the Chanukah menorah.

If the secret to aging well consists of learning new things and being involved in new activities, why then do so many of the elderly not take advantage of this knowledge? Why is it that when one visits some other retirement communities, one finds residents who not only are not growing, but who are deteriorating?

I was asked to deliver a lecture at Beit Tovei Ha’Ir that would answer precisely these questions. I found myself using as a text for the lecture a passage in Maseches Berachos which teaches us about certain hindrances to proper prayer.

“One should not begin to pray in an attitude of sadness, nor in an attitude of laziness, nor in the midst of laughter or idle conversation, nor in the midst of levity or trivial discussions, but rather in a spirit of simcha shel mitzvah, of joy for a mitzvah well-performed” (Berachos 31a).

I argued that these negative conditions are precisely the obstacles to successful aging. If an older person begins to get bogged down in self-pity and despair, succumbs to idleness and laziness rather than engage in healthy activity, or entertains himself mindlessly, he or she is apt to become bored and will soon be overwhelmed with feelings of uselessness and lack of purpose.

It is often said that old people no longer have a yetzer hara, an evil inclination. The Satan they knew earlier in life has left them. The passions that lead youth astray begin to lose their grip upon us as we age. I have found that Satan has not abandoned the elderly; he merely substitutes new temptations for the old familiar ones. A new yetzer hara comes on the scene for the elderly, and takes the form of yielding to sadness, laziness, and idle pastimes that do not stimulate the intellect or challenge the mind.

The ideal mindset for prayer, according to the Talmud, is “simcha shel mitzvah.” This is defined by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch as the experience one has when one has set an objective to perform some good deed, and then achieves that objective. At that point a joyous sense of accomplishment is experienced. That, argues Rav Hirsch, is the proper mood from which to pray.

I would argue that this is precisely the mood that pervades the psyche of those who age well. They set new objectives, work hard to achieve them, learn new skills in the process, and ultimately experience the joyous feelings that accompany a job well done.

This too is one of the lessons of the story of Chanukah. The Maccabees had a set of objectives, partly military, but mostly spiritual. They wished to combat the tendencies among their Jewish fellows to adopt the culture of Hellenism. They wished to overthrow the cruel yoke of alien rulers. They were clear about what they wanted to accomplish.

They set about achieving these objectives by adhering to Torah and mitzvot with great self-sacrifice. They resorted to military means to rebel against the tyrants who oppressed them, though the oppressor was mightier and more numerous than they.

With the help of the Almighty, they prevailed and achieved all their objectives. Then they experienced the “simcha shel mitzvah” that is a special reward of those who set high goals and persist until they achieve them. This is the significance of Chanukah. This is why this particular holiday is such an appropriate set of symbols for the admittedly difficult process of aging well.

In the research I did as I prepared for the talk to that retirement community I discovered a fascinating and insightful passage in the writings of the Maharal of Prague. In his commentary Gur Aryeh on Bereishis 8:21 he analyzes the nature of the evil inclination. I paraphrase his analysis:

The yetzer hara operates best when a person is convinced that his job is over and done, and that no further growth can be achieved. That is when a person is vulnerable to the Satan of self-satisfaction and complacency. But when a person is in motion toward a goal, he looks neither to the left nor to the right. He’s not susceptible to the distractions of the yetzer hara. It is only after one reaches some plateau in life that he succumbs to temptation. When one is busy striving, when one is yet incomplete and undeveloped, there is no evil inclination.

In this particular passage, the Maharal focuses on a very early stage of life. But I find his observations particularly relevant for the later stages of life as well. If an aging individual feels his life’s work is done and he has no further mission in this world, he is very likely to yield to the yetzer hara of boredom, despair, self-neglect and sloth.

But if he sees himself as launching a journey, as initiating a dynamic new process of learning and achievement, he is in motion. Moving targets, as it were, are immune to the darts of Satan. At any stage of life Satan is but a pseudonym for surrender to an empty life.

There are so many other lessons in this beautiful holiday. Lessons for those of us who are not getting old, but – as I learned to say from one of the residents in that wonderful retirement community, Rabbi Dr. Simon Eckstein – are getting older, who are not burdened by years, but blessed by them.

Besides the candles of Chanukah, there are the mitzvot of hallel v’hodaah, singing praise and thanksgiving. For among the secrets of aging well is expressing gratitude to the Almighty for the blessings of additional years. Giving voice to this gratitude through song, through hallel, is an especially beneficial way to enhance those blessings even further.

My new acquaintance Rabbi Eckstein, who though a great-grandparent feels to me like a young friend, quotes his distinguished friend, Rabbi Berel Wein: “One of the blessings of our generation is the unique role of grandparents and great-grandparents in providing a bridge as well as a perspective: a bridge to the past and a perspective on life for the present and future.”

I would add that families need to appreciate the resources available to them in those members of their own families who can serve as such bridges and offer such perspectives. I would further add that even in families where older folks are not available, those bridges and perspectives can be found among the older people of other families, who would be willing, nay eager, to play the role of surrogate grandparents. Chanukah is a perfect time to invite such individuals into your own homes and families.

Older people are not, as the phrase from the Maoz Tzur song has it, the nosar kankanim, the dregs that remain at the bottom of the containers of oil. From those “dregs” a great miracle occurred to the shoshanim, to the budding flowers.

“Growth through new experiences.” That is the symbol of Chanukah. That is the secret of aging well.

I found these words of a wise mentor of mine in an old notebook from my psychology graduate school days:

“To know how to grow old is the masterwork of wisdom, and one of the most difficult chapters in the great art of living.”

And in the words of none other than wise old Socrates:

“I enjoy talking with very old people. They have gone before us on a road by which we, too, may have to travel. I think we’d do well to learn from them what it is like.”

I close in the hope that this Chanukah, you younger folks, whom we older folks are blessed to call our grandchildren, make some room at your dreidel game for Zaidie and Bubbie. Chanukah is their holiday, too.

Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is executive vice president, emeritus of the Orthodox Union.

Civility: What The Sages Had To Say

Wednesday, January 26th, 2011

In the aftermath of the tragic shooting in Tucson, “civility” is the word on everyone’s lips. This is ironic when one considers that civility is nowhere to be found in anyone’s actions. Each partisan faction is charging the other with hatred and violence.

The rhetoric being bandied about is beyond ridiculous. Our elected officials are saying things that are absurdly similar, except they’re saying them with a straight face. They scream “civility” at the top of their lungs, but each demands it from the other with no signs of action on their own part.

There’s a cliché that says that when one points a finger at another person, he has three fingers pointing back at him. Things get to be clichés by being true. TheTalmud tells us that one should not criticize others for faults one possesses himself. (In modern parlance, “People who live in glass houses “) But all that’s being done is name-calling and finger-pointing.

Why don’t people realize it’s possible to disagree – even on topics of great importance – and still treat one another civilly?

The Talmud is replete with disputes between the disciples of Beit Hillel and those of Beit Shammai. They disagreed on some pretty significant points of law and their differences had many practical ramifications, but the Mishnah tells us that the students of Beit Hillel and those of Beit Shammai did not hesitate to rely upon one another. A member of each school knew a student of the other wouldn’t let him do something he himself considered impermissible, even if the other’s point of view permitted it. They were civil to one another because they recognized that, differences aside, we’re all on the same team.

Another example – perhaps far more extreme – is that of Elisha ben Avuya, a scholar who suffered a traumatic experience and became the heretic known as “Acher” (“the other”). The Talmud tells us how Acher was riding a horse on Shabbat with his former student Rabbi Meir walking beside him. Even though Acher had lost his faith, he informed Rabbi Meir when they reached the Sabbath boundary. Yes, he had lost his faith, but he maintained his civility. Even a heretic can be a mentsch.

It’s okay to disagree. The question is, why are we disagreeing? The Mishnah in Avot (5:20) tells us there’s a difference between sincere disagreements and those with ulterior motivations. The example the Mishnah gives of a sincere disagreement is that between the students of Hillel and the students of Shammai. As we’ve already noted, these two groups got along quite well despite their differences. This is because each faction recognized that they were both in pursuit of the truth.

But what of the disagreements with ulterior motivations? The example the Mishnah brings is Korach, who tried to overthrow Moses and seize leadership of the nation for himself. Rashi on Numbers 16:1 cites the Midrash detailing the pretexts Korach used to try to undermine Moses. Korach had prepared a list of questions such that, whatever Moses would answer, he could twist things to make Moses look bad.

Korach could smile and say, “Can’t we all just get along?” but his disagreement was insincere. Korach wasn’t after the truth; he had an agenda. Nothing short of a coup would satisfy him. Such a person cannot be civil to those with another point of view.

So why are we fighting? Do we want to discover the truth? Do we want what’s best for our nation? For our communities? For our schools and our synagogues? Or do we come in with both barrels blazing, saying, “It’s my way or the highway?” If we are sincere in our disagreements, we’re not threatened by hearing what others have to say. We only oppose civil discourse when it impedes fulfilling our preconceived idea of how things should be. (It’s actually pretty arrogant for one to unilaterally decide on how the universe should be, without considering the input of others. No human is so wise as to have all the answers.)

Civility starts within. If one really cares about an issue, being civil not only doesn’t hurt the cause, it actually helps. Let’s care less about what the other person is doing and worry more about ourselves. Civility can be contagious – it behooves all whose causes are sincere to be carriers. In the end, sincerity and respect will create an environment of civility. For those whose motivations are ulterior, nothing ever will.

Is Beit Shammai In Ascendency?

Wednesday, July 21st, 2010

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.

Questions & Answers

Friday, February 14th, 2003


QUESTION: I am intrigued by the fact that the New Year for trees is in the middle of the month and not at the beginning of a month, as all the other New Years. Even the gentiles begin their New Year at the start of a month. Do you have an explanation for this?

Pesach Bernstein

via e-mail

ANSWER: Our reader is obviously referring to the first Mishna in Tractate Rosh Hashana (2a), which lists the various New Years, each falling on a Rosh Chodesh ? lit., the head or beginning of the month ? with the [textual] exception of the New Year for trees, which falls on the 15th of Shevat.

In actuality, the New Year for festivals (regalim), the second of the New Years listed (which is also used to reckon the years of a king's reign), does not fall on a Rosh Chodesh either. The Gemara (ibid. 4a) asks, “How can the New Year for the festivals be on the first of Nissan, when surely it is on the 15th of Nissan? [The Torah states (Numbers 28:16-17), "In the first month, on the 14th day of the month, is the Passover [offering] to G-d. On the fifteenth day of this month is a festival; for a seven-day period matzot shall be eaten.”] Thus the festival that occurs in the first month of the year marks the New Year for festivals.

We also find two additional New Years not enumerated in our Mishna, and these do not fall on the first of the month either.

The Gemara (ibid. 7b) lists the New Year related to the omer ? the sacrifice that permitted one to partake of the newly harvested grains of the five species throughout the land ? as occurring on the 16th of Nissan, and the New Year for the shetei halechem (lit., the Two Loaves), brought on the 6th of Sivan, to permit the use of flour from newly harvested grains for the meal-offerings in the Beit HaMikdash.

The Gemara explains that these were not included in the Mishna as the Tanna only listed those that start on the previous evening.

Thus we see that Tu- BiShevat is not that unique. However, perhaps it appears to be so because it is the only New Year actually listed in the Mishna that does not occur on the first of the month, according to Beit Hillel, whose ruling we follow. Beit Hillel's reasoning is that sufficient rain has fallen by this time to enable trees to blossom. Therefore we set the New Year fortress at that point.

For a more esoteric understanding of the significance of the 15th of Shevat as the New Year for trees, we turn to the author of the hasidic work Ohev Yisrael, R. Avraham Yehoshua Heschel of Apta, who discusses this matter. We glean from his words:

“Regarding the 15th of Shevat, we must know and understand why it is stated specifically there (in the Mishna), 'The New Year of the tree, according to Beit Hillel, is on the 15th of Shevat, while according to Beit Shammai ? it is on the first of Shevat.' It is also important to understand the reference to 'tree' in the singular, when it should have stated [the New Year of the] trees, in the plural.

“We must answer that it states in the Torah (Deuteronomy 20:19), 'For man is the tree of the field.' (Here the author is alluding to the Gemara in Ta'anit 7a.) Just as the tree possesses roots, branches, leaves and fruit, so does the Jew possess all these because of his good deeds. How are these drawn to man? They stem from their source, the root of the Jewish soul, which is the Holy Tree ? the Tree of Life under which all Creation's animals and birds of the skies seek shelter. It is the tree that is [heavenly] blessed so that all its shoots are like it.

“The word ilan, tree in Hebrew, is numerically equivalent to the two Holy Names, Havaya and Adnut (their combined total is 91). This is in accordance with the hidden meaning of 'Tzaddik katamar yifrach ? A righteous man shall blossom as the date tree…' (Psalms 93:13). Just as the palm tree has the means of propagating itself, so, too, do the righteous bring forth those that will propagate themselves.”

R. Avraham Yehoshua Heschel continues with a comparison in Tractate Rosh Hashana (10b-11a): There is a dispute between R. Eliezer and R. Yehoshua. R. Yehoshua says that the world was created in Nissan, and R. Eliezer says that the world was created in Tishrei. (Each of these two months is at the beginning of a different half of the year). He points out that both these statements are “the living words of G-d” ? both are truthful.

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