Thursday, September 08, 2011

Eating and Drinking Before Davening in the Morning

Rabbi Ethan Tucker

Our contemporary lives always seem rushed, as we each try to cram in as many activities as possible to the limited amount of time we feel we have available.  Mornings can be particularly challenging, as observant Jews attempt to get themselves ready, out of the house, find time for both prayer and breakfast and off to work on time.  Add to this the factor of a commute to somewhere somewhat far from home, and many challenges arise.   Among them is how to manage balancing making prayer and the cultivation of one's relationship with God the first experience of the day, contributing to the communal by attending minyan and maintaining healthy eating habits around breakfast.  This post aims to engage some of the literature around this topic.  [Eating before davening on Shabbat has its own pedigree and raised other issues, such as the proper placement of kiddush.  The below material is focused on weekday davening.]
The ban on eating before davening finds its first mention on Berkahot 10b:
ואמר רבי יוסי ברבי חנינא משום רבי אליעזר בן יעקב: מאי דכתיב: +ויקרא י"ט+ לא תאכלו על הדם, - לא תאכלו קודם שתתפללו על דמכם. (איכא דאמרי,) אמר רבי יצחק אמר רבי יוחנן אמר רבי יוסי ברבי חנינא משום רבי אליעזר בן יעקב: כל האוכל ושותה ואחר כך מתפלל - עליו הכתוב אומר: +מלכים א' י"ד+ ואתי השלכת אחרי גוך, אל תקרי גויך אלא גאיך. אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא: לאחר שנתגאה זה - קבל עליו מלכות שמים.

In a series of sayings by R. Yose bR. Hanina in the name of R. Eliezer b. Yaakov, we get these two statements: A) One should pray for one's "blood"--for one's basic needs and right to exist--before one eats, with a poetic linking of this requirement to the verse לא תאכלו על הדם.  B) Eating and drinking before davening is considered an act of unacceptable hubris, with God classifying those who take care of their own needs before accepting the yoke of heaven as abandoning God in a nonchalant way, "tossing God aside."

The key questions that emerge from this text are:

1) What counts as eating and drinking?  Are there minimal or insignificant types of eating and drinking that don't trigger this opprobrium?
2) How unforgiving is this expectation?  Are there ever times when one can eat and drink before davening?  What if a person will be so hungry that they will be unable to focus properly on davening?
3) What parts of the davening must be said in order to avoid this problem?
4) What role might tefillah betzibbur play in this equation?

1) The statements in Berakhot do not engage shades of gray on this topic.  Later poskim engage the language of לאחר שנתגאה זה to argue that certain forms of eating and drinking evince no hubris and are thus not a problem.  Raaviah I:30 (R. Eliezer b. Yoel Halevi, Germany, 12th-13th c.) therefore states that only intoxicating drinks are a problem (מידי דמשכר), as they give a feeling of pride and contentedness.  Water would certainly be permitted.  Orhot Hayyim Tefillah #15 (R. Aharon Hakohen, Provence/Majorca, 13th-14th c.) cites a view (Rabbeinu Peretz?) rejecting this and forbidding even the drinking of water.  R. Yitzhak Aboab (Spain, 15th c.) considers both views and follows Ra'aviah, and so Beit Yosef.  Ra'aviah's permission is potentially expansive, though Rosh and others only report the permission for water, perhaps indicating a compromise position between the two views.  A narrower reading of Ra'aviah leads to later debates regarding coffee and tea (which generally end up permitted), and coffee and tea with sugar, which are frowned upon by some poskim as displaying hubris.  [On this point, see Mishnah Berurah vs. Arukh Hashulhan, the latter being much more expansive in his reading of Ra'aviah.]  Though there is some disagreement over details, the basic idea is clear: the statement in the gemara is aiming to forbid eating and drinking that gives one a sense of being pampered and having one's needs and desires sated before approaching God.  How can one approach God and prayer without some sense of vulnerability?  And how can one feel vulnerable after sitting down to a full English breakfast (and maybe even less)?

2) Rambam Tefillah 5:2 rules that one who is hungry or thirsty (clearly above and beyond what one would expect on average) such that it will be difficult to focus while davening is considered "ill" for this purpose and should eat and drink first.  This is codified in SA OH 89:4.  The value here is clear: waiting to eat and drink is intended to enhance the tefillah experience by generating more vulnerability and less haughtiness.  If this practice ends up detracting from one's ability to pray and connect to God, then it undermines its own purpose.  [It is also common Chabad practice to eat before davening in order to daven with as clear a mind as possible.]
In considering Ra'aviah's view described above, R. Yitzhak Aboab goes further than simply ruling like him.  He argues that once we accept the notion that the problem here is not eating and drinking per se, but rather גאוה/pride, then any eating and drinking which is not done in an inappropriately proud fashion is permissible.  He therefore rules that any eating for the sake of רפואה is permitted before davening.  This is codified in SA OH 89:3Magen Avraham 89:12 clarifies that this means to permit even types of food that might be subject to the concern of גאוה and even for someone who is not ravenous, as in the Rambam's case.  Arukh Hashulhan OH 89:24 spells this out further: this permission includes even eating that is not in response to serious hunger, but which is simply about maintaining a healthy lifestyle, as in the case of vitamins or eating to maintain basic nutrition and balance.  Someone for whom eating after davening would compromise this goal is permitted to eat beforehand.  This line of reasoning emphasizes Ra'aviah's emphasis on mindset and framing for early morning eating and drinking.

3) The plain sense of להתפלל in both of these statements is that one must pray the Amidah.  One might argue for a more flexible reading of this statement as featuring some basic form of prayer--the idea being that before one eats and drinks, one does *something* of significance to reconnect with God.  Indeed, the second statement in Berakhot uses the phrase לאחר שנתגאה זה - קבל עליו מלכות  שמים to describe the problem with the person who improperly eats and drinks before praying.  This seems to focus not on the Amidah per se, but rather on some basic acceptance of the God's sovereignty and authority, a phrase usually associated with Shema and not the Amidah.  Perhaps, therefore, the concern here is not rigidly anchored around the Amidah.  And in fact, in the context of another restriction--that pertaining to refraining from work before davening in the morning--there was a common practice in 15th century Austria for people to come to shul, say the early part of davening up until Barukh Sheamar, and then go off to deal with other matters until they would presumably finish the davening later.  Terumat Hadeshen #18 (R. Yisrael Isserlein) reports this practice, but says that the plain sense of the Talmud is to forbid doing any work until after one has said the Amidah.  Nonetheless, Rema on SA OH 89:3 casts Terumat Hadeshen's conclusion as a preference for stringency on this matter and thereby seems to grant some legitimacy to reciting the early parts of the davening as sufficient.  [Levush casts it differently and Arukh Hashulhan OH 89:21 cracks down on any lenient reading of the Rema.]  If one extrapolated form this discussion about work to the discussion about eating and drinking, one might grant some legitimacy to eating and drinking before davening as long as the first parts of davening (birkhot hashahar, the abbreviated Shema, etc.) were said first.  In any event, poskim generally say that even when one has a legitimate reason for eating or drinking before davening (health, weeakness, etc.), one should recite at least the Shema and some of the early berakhot first.  [See MB 89:22 in the middle for one example.]

4)  The rubber really meets the road when there is a direct confrontation between tefillah betzibbur and one's ability to wait until after davening to eat.  The relative values of praying with a minyan and praying before eating then come into stark relief.

On Berakhot 28b, we find the following story:
רב אויא חלש ולא אתא לפרקא דרב יוסף. למחר כי אתא, בעא אביי לאנוחי דעתיה דרב יוסף. אמר ליה: מאי טעמא לא אתא מר לפרקא? אמר ליה: דהוה חליש לבאי ולא מצינא. אמר ליה: אמאי לא טעמת מידי ואתית? אמר ליה: לא סבר לה מר להא דרב הונא? דאמר רב הונא: אסור לו לאדם שיטעום כלום קודם שיתפלל תפלת המוספין! - אמר ליה: איבעי ליה למר לצלויי צלותא דמוספין ביחיד, ולטעום מידי ולמיתי!

R. Avya was too weak to make it to one of R. Yosef's public lectures.  Abaye suggests to him that he should have eaten something in order to have the strength to go.  R. Avya says this was impossible, because of R. Huna's ruling that one is not allowed to eat anything prior to Musaf [which seems to have followed R. Yosef's lecture].  Abaye suggests that he should have prayed in private, eaten and then come to the lecture.

R. Moshe Hagiz (18th c., Jerusalem) in Leket Hakemah, Hanhagat Haboker considers the case of an elderly or weak person who cannot wait to eat until the end of communal davening, especially on Shabbat and Yom Tov.  He rules that it is preferable for the person to pray Shaharit at home בנחת and then to make kiddush, eat something and then head to shul to answer kaddish, kedushah etc. and to pray Musaf with the community.  This is better, in his view, than having a cup of tea or coffee to tide one over before shul, even if it means missing Shaharit with the community.  In other words, the value of praying before eating and drinking is very strong, and even the possibility of merely private prayer recommends itself over and above any disregard for this proper order.

However, the gemara in Berakhot concludes that R. Huna's tradition regarding the ban on eating before Musaf is not normative, raising the possibility that all of R. Avya's behavior is called into question.  Perhaps Abaye only advised him to pray privately rather than eat because he thought there was a hard and fast ban on eating before Musaf.  But a more flexible approach to eating before Musaf might have led to a recommendation to eat rather than miss tefillah betzibbur.  And perhaps, given that the ban on eating before Shaharit is already riddled with exceptions for those who are too weak to wait until afterwards, tefillah betzibbur might rank higher than refraining from all eating before davening.

I haven't found a noted posek who says this explicitly, though it may be implicit in a number of poskim who highly value tefillah betzibbur, like R. Moshe Feinstein, who considers it a bona fide obligation to pray with a minyan three times a day.  You can also see this analysis, which trends in this general direction. 

The ideal is clearly to pack up something from home that fulfills one's breakfast needs, bring it to minyan and eat it after tefillah betzibbur.  If this is impossible and will lead to a situation of feeling weak or unhealthy, then one could argue that it is better to daven individually and then eat, thereby maintaining the value of attending to one's personal relationship with God through prayer before attending to one's own needs.  However, if that practice is threatening one's long-term commitment to tefillah--particularly when one does not have in their upbringing a stable reference point of a regular commitment to daily tefillah--and tefillah betzibbur will serve an important strengthening function in this regard, it seems reasonable to claim that little will be gained by praying individually at home in an unsustainable way that may lead to no davening at all.  Moreover, the framing of this issue by Ra'aviah and R. Yitzhak Aboab--accepted by the major poskim--makes it all the more reasonable to allow some eating at home in the name of nutrition and health when it is impossible to eat something healthy after minyan.  It is possible that even poskim who might have resisted this in their own day might have thought differently about this in the context of commutes and other realities of professional, urban life.

A reasonable middle ground would be to be pick a few days a week where one goes straight to minyan and a few where one eats at home first (perhaps Torah reading days); perhaps that is a sustainable balance.  In any event, any eating done before davening should avoid concerns of גאוה/hubris by being simple and non-elaborate, just giving enough sustenance to feel healthy as one goes through one's morning.  And one should say birkhot hashahar and the early appearance of Shema in the siddur such that a basic acceptance of God's role in one's life has already been established before eating.

May Elul be a time of consistent and deep experiences with tefillah that strengthen both us as individuals and the communities in which we daven.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Nine Days

by Rabbi Ethan Tucker

Mishnah Ta’anit 4:6 articulates the principle that, with the arrival of Av, we minimize our joy.  Various texts, synthesized in Shulhan Arukh 551, give this concrete expression: we minimize our profit-making initiatives and avoid building or renovation projects that are about increasing joy and pleasure (e.g. building a swimming pool or renovating a display space for art).  This frames the mood that other traditions connected with the 9 days, which attempt to foreshadow the coming sadness of 9 Av through various ascetic deprivations. 

As is the case with regard to all practices connected with 9 Av, there is a plausible read of Jewish history that sees all of these practices and 17 Tammuz as obviated in light of the return of the Jewish people to the status of sovereign majority in the Land of Israel.  Some have even argued that this dramatic turn of events vitiates 9 Av itself or at least renders it an optional fast.  That central question is beyond the scope of this summary, which aims to describe practices leading up to 9 Av for those who feel that the successes of Zionism do not fully eradicate the ongoing significance of this period of mourning.  See the end of this summary for a final thought on this matter.

Several practices in various communities are specific to the first 9 days of Av:

Weddings, Celebrations and Musical Instruments

There is a baraita on Yevamot 43a that gets understood to mean that during some unspecified period of time before the week in which 9 Av falls, people refrain from getting married or having parties celebrating betrothal (betrothal itself being permitted).  Ramban applies this restriction to the first 9 days of Av.  So rules Shulhan Arukh.  [We noted that many European communitiesapplied this restriction throughout the 3 weeks between 17 Tammuz and 9Av.  See that earlier summary for more on this.]


A baraita on Ta’anit 29b reports a number of traditions on laundering clothing, with R. Meir forbidding laundering from 1-9 Av, R. Yehudah forbidding laundering during the entire month of Av, and R. Shimon b. Gamliel forbidding laundering during the week in which 9 Av falls.  Mishnah Ta’anit 4:7 sides with the view of R. Shimon b. Gamliel, allowing for doing laundry on Thursday (or Friday) in honor of Shabbat.

On Ta’anit 29b, there is a discussion regarding the precise nature of the ban on laundry.  R. Nahman thinks it is about not wearing laundered clothes.  In other words, this ban is similar to the ban on haircutting, in that it is about appearance.  R. Sheshet thinks the ban is more expansive and includes a ban on doing laundry even if one only intends to wear the clothing after 9 Av.  It is thus about both appearance and refraining from constructive, restorative acts like that of laundering clothing.  The gemara ends up concluding that we follow R. Sheshet.

While the gemara seems content to apply this restriction during the week of 9 Av itself, many European communities reverted to R. Meir’s position and forbade wearing laundered clothing or doing laundry during the first 9 days of Av (see Maharil).  Many communities did not apply this restriction to laundering children’s clothing, and Rema indeed rules that one can launder any kind of clothing that is regularly soiled to the point where it can no longer be worn (as is often the case with children’s clothing and adult undergarments).

Other interesting discussions emerged regarding what counts as “laundry”.  Already in the Talmud, a Babylonian text suggests that the laundering of clothing in Babylonia is not as effective as that of the Land of Israel (likely because the rivers and streams in Babylonia were much fuller of silt and slower flowing).  Therefore, the text claims, only ironed clothing falls under the prohibition.  Subsequent interpreters and authorities argue over their own local conditions.

A bottom line sensible rule for observing the ban on laundry during the 9 days in the contemporary world seems to be: Don’t do laundry in a washing machine if at all possible and certainly don’t iron or dry clean clothing during this period.  And don’t wear clothing that gives off an obvious impression of just having been laundered or dry cleaned (as opposed to T-shirts and other more basic items of clothing that don’t look so different when freshly cleaned).  This includes brand new clothing that has never been washed, ironed or dry cleaned, but which still contributes to an appearance inappropriate for this time period.  In general, there is no leniency to wash clothing in honor of Shabbat once one reverts to R. Meir’s position on laundry, though a number of later authorities permit laundry for Shabbat if one has nothing else to wear.

Meat and Wine

It is clear from the Talmud that there was only a ban at eating meat and drinking wine during the last meal prior to 9 Av (unless the day before 9 Av was on Shabbat).  Nonetheless, more stringent practices emerge.  Rambam is already aware of those who stop eating meat at the beginning of Av (with the exception of Shabbat) and Ra’aviah reports both this practice as well as a practice not to drink wine during this period.  These restrictions get cited in the Shulhan Arukh and are endorsed as normal practice in the Rema, with exceptions made for celebratory feast, such as a circumcision or the completion of a major section of Jewish learning.  Rema makes clear that this practice even extends to Havdalah, and thus if wine is used for havdalah, it should, if possible, be drunk by a minor who is present.  Alternatively, one could use another acceptable liquid for Havadalah, such as beer or juice.

With regard to beer, note that the main thrust of the practice surrounding meat and wine is their connection with the sacrificial order (see Tosefta Sotah 15:11) rather than the pleasure they give or the alcoholic content of wine.  Beer and other alcoholic beverages are thus acceptable during this period, since these were never offered on the altar in the Temple.


The Talmud contains no restrictions on bathing during this period, including on the day before 9 Av.  Nonetheless, Rambam is already aware of a practice of refraining from going to a bathhouse during the week in which 9 Av falls.  This seems to be limited to bathing in heated water.  Ra’aviah reports a practice not to bathe for the first 9 days of Av and Terumat Hadeshen argues that this applies even to cold water, like swimming in a river.  [There are several disagreements as to whether one can be lenient on Friday afternoon as part of the preparation for Shabbat.]  In any event, even for those observing this practice, it is always permitted to bathe in order to remove dirt; the focus here is on bathing for pure pleasure.  Again, a common sense guideline: regular showering as part of a basic hygiene regime is permitted, but showers that are overly long or hotter than they need to be to avoid basic discomfort would be out of line with what this restriction is trying to accomplish, which is the achievement of a more ascetic pose leading up to 9 Av.


As a closing point, it is clear from every section above that these practices manifested themselves in a range of ways in different communities.  For those who grew up with no particular practice and for those who feel that the contemporary State of Israel ought to impact this area of practice in a significant way, it is appropriate to think about observing some of these practices in their more moderate forms.  For instance, one might only refrain from bathing in hot water during the week  in which 9 Av falls and might act similarly with respect to laundry and shaving/haircutting.  These are just a few of the ways in which one might achieve a balancing of values in this area of Jewish practice, allowing for the maintenance of some ancient customs while still recognizing the dramatically different moment in Jewish history that we live in compared to many of our ancestors.  Another challenge is to strike a balance between one’s individual synthesis and some basic communal norm, though a number of the activities above are more private and thus more amenable to varied practice even within a single community.

Shiv'a Asar B'Tammuz (the 17th of Tammuz) and "the Three Weeks"

by Rabbi Ethan Tucker

Already in the wake of the destruction of the First Temple, there was a fast in the fourth month, the month we now call Tammuz.  This may have been connected to the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem by the Babylonians on the 9th day of the fourth month, an event and date preserved in Jeremiah 39:2 and 52:6-7.  But no day of the month is prescribed for this fast when it is mentioned in Zechariah 8:19.

By the time we get to rabbinic literature, the “fast of the fourth month” mentioned in Zechariah is understood to refer to the 17th of Tammuz.  This is the date when the Talmud says that the walls of Jerusalem were breached by the Romans following their siege of Jerusalem in the year 70 CE.  This date is also mentioned by Josephus, Wars of the Jews VI:93.  Rabbinic tradition in Mishnah Ta’anit 4:6 ascribed other calamities to this day: The breaking of the first tablets given to Moshe (in the context of the sin of the Golden Calf), the cessation of the daily offering in the Temple (likely on the same day that the Romans broke through the walls—see Josephus); a public burning of a Torah scroll and the setting up of an idolatrous statue in the Temple precincts.  The years and contexts of the last two events are uncertain.

Zechariah chapters 7 and 8 are largely devoted the question of whether the “fast of the fifth month”—known to us as Tish’a B’Av—remains relevant once the Second Temple has been rebuilt.  After a group asks whether the fast should still be observed, lengthy prophecies are reported to Zechariah with two main points: 1) God was never that interested in the fast day in the first place and is equally uninterested in the question of its abrogation.  God is mainly interested in the construction of a just society where the weak are protected and corruption is rooted out.  2) The four fast days (known to us as Tzom Gedaliah, Asara B’Tevet, Shiv’a Asar B’Tammuz and Tish’a B’Av) will be a time of rejoicing.  Whether this is to take place in the present or in the future is left unclear.

Picking up on this answer, the Talmud Bavli on Rosh Hashanah 18a-b has a short sugya that tries to lay out a framework for these fast days and their potential status as days of rejoicing.  The bottom line the emerges is this: 1) In a time of shalom, these days are ones of rejoicing (on which it would seem to be forbidden to fast).  2) In a time of shemad (persecution/suffering), these days are mandatory fast days.  3) In a time covered by neither of the above categories, three of these fasts are optional (though unclear if individuals or communities decide). Tish’a B’Av remains mandatory.

While early post-Talmudic sources affirm the optional nature of three of these fast days—including 17 Tammuz—later medieval sources begin to say that the Jewish community has accepted them upon themselves and they are thus mandatory, especially given that there are still Jewish communities under persecution.  And so was the official status of these days in almost all Jewish communities until the 20th century.

The success of political Zionism as manifested in the founding of the State of Israel has raised serious questions with regard to the status of these fasts.  Some have argued that the restoration of full Jewish political sovereignty over the land of Israel has returned us to category 1) and thus all of these fast days—including Tish’a B’Av have been canceled and are now days of celebration.  Others have maintained that while we might not describe ourselves as living in a time of shalom (for all the obvious reasons that political Zionism has not completely solved issues of Jewish sovereignty and independence and because of a great deal of ongoing persecution and war in the context of both the Jewish community and the global community beyond it), we certainly don’t live in a time of shemad, and the founding of the State of Israel is certainly significant enough to upend the medieval consensus for mandatory observance and return us to the purer optional status of category 3).  Among those who take an optional stance, there are many who have advocated fasting half a day and breaking the fast after Minhah.  Still others have argued that until some dramatic sign of shalom—on the messianic/apocalyptic order of magnitude of the rebuilding of a Third Temple or its equivalent—we remain with the medieval consensus that these days are fully mandatory.

I would add that the American Jewish experience of living in a free democratic society that is deeply different from many exilic communities Jews have found themselves in throughout the ages has also contributed to the sense that these fast days do not have the same power they have had at other points in time.

This is a complex topic.  You can listen to a shiur on this topic here and the key sources are here.

My own feeling is that the factors of the founding of the State of Israel and living as equals in American democracy are too significant to claim that we either live in a time of shemad or even in the world of medieval consensus that the Jewish people has clearly accepted these fasts upon themselves as unquestionably mandatory.  It is hard to imagine that all of those medieval authorities would have lived through 1948 and 1967 unaffected.  On the other hand, I am skittish about suggesting that with the creation of the State of Israel, shalom has arrived, and worry about running afoul of Zechariah’s call to prioritize the creation of a just and perfect society over the question of the celebratory abrogation of fast days.

It therefore seems to me that we are best described as living in category 3), where the fast days other than Tish’a B’Av are optional, and I personally do not feel that there is any formal obligation to fast on the other three fast days.  So why do I fast and why does Yeshivat Hadar choose to observe these days as fast days in terms of our liturgy and our practice?  There are, to my mind, two compelling reasons: First, there is much injustice and imperfection in the world in general, and in the sovereign Jewish state in particular.  These days and their fasting ritual are a powerful way to trigger us to think about those issues.  Second, Zechariah tells us that these days will one day be ones of rejoicing.  That means that they must be maintained on the calendar so that the Jewish people will remember them when history takes the turn that will enable us to see the world as one infused with shalom.  I have personally committed to be among those that guard that calendrical space for the future and I think it is most appropriate for yoshvei beit hamidrash—those who spend the lion’s share of their time learning from the Jewish past and its application to the Jewish future to be among those who assume that road.

Bein Hametzarim (“The Three Weeks”

The three weeks from 17 Tammuz through 9 Av are commonly known as בין המצריםbein hametzarim—“the narrows,” the time of year in which Jewish grief over Jewish history is most acutely focused.  It was during the month of Tammuz that the walls of Jerusalem were breached by the invading Babylonian army and later the Roman army, attack that culminated in the destruction of the First and Second Temples on 9 Av.  9 Av became a kind of calendrical receptacle for other tragedies in Jewish history that transpired throughout the ages.

Aside from the observance of 17 Tammuz and 9 Av as fast days, a range of practices sprung up over the generations with regard to the days and weeks leading up to 9 Av.  The ancient liturgical cycle in Eretz Yisrael already reflected the special nature of these three weeks, in that the haftarot chosen for the three weeks prior to 9 Av reflected the sense of impending doom many Jews felt during this period.

Two of the main practices that emerged: 1) Refraining from getting haircuts or shaving; 2) Refraining from weddings, celebrations and any use of musical instruments.


A baraita on Ta’anit 29b reports several views, with R. Meir forbidding haircutting from 1-9 Av, R. Yehudah forbidding haircutting during the entire month of Av, and R. Shimon b. Gamliel forbidding cutting hair during the week in which 9 Av falls.  Mishnah Ta’anit 4:7 sides with the view of R. Shimon b. Gamliel.

In a kind of shifted version of R. Yehudah’s position, Sefer Haminhagim, an Ashkenazic compendium of European practices, reports a custom to refrain from haircutting during the 3 weeks between 17 Tammuz and 9 Av.  Many maintain this practice until this day. 

Weddings, Celebrations and Musical Instruments

There is a baraita on Yevamot 43a that gets understood to mean that during some unspecified period of time before the week in which 9 Av falls, people refrain from getting married or having parties celebrating betrothal (betrothal itself being permitted).  Ramban applies this restriction to the first 9 days of Av.  So rules Shulhan ArukhSefer Haminhagim reports that medieval Ashkenazic practice was to back up the restriction on weddings to 17 Tammuz.  So rules Rema.  Aharonim assert that this added Ashkenazic restriction did not extend to betrothal parties but only to weddings specifically. [See Mishnah Berurah 551:19.]

Magen Avraham 551:10 rules that it seems to him that any kind of dancing is forbidden starting at 17 Tammuz, even if it is not attached to a betrothal party.

Responsa Kappei Aharon #52 analyzes the question of whether the playing of musical instruments is forbidden during the 3 weeks and concludes that it is totally obvious that such playing is forbidden--despite this not being mentioned specifically in the Shulhan Arukh or its commentaries—given that the Shulhan Arukh assumes that it is problematic--in the wake of the destruction of the Temple—ever to play musical instruments, with only some authorities permitting in mitzvah-related situations.  Even though observance of this prohibition on using musical instruments at all has largely fallen by the wayside in most Jewish communities, poskim have tried to enforce the prohibition during specifically intense periods of mourning like the 3 weeks.

For all of these reasons, the practice among many Ashkenazic Jews today is to refrain from listening to music (at least live music) during the 3 weeks. 

Mitigating Factors

There are, however, a number of other factors to consider:

1)  There are a host of restrictions similar to those laid out in the baraita above for the days before 9 Av in texts talking about restrictions during the time period after many unsuccessful fasts for rain.  R. Hai Gaon (quoted in Ran on Rif Ta'anit 5b) lifted these restrictions in any case where a mitzvah was involved.  For instance, he permitted one who had not yet had children to get married during this time, since there is not actually a prohibition against getting married, claims R. Hai Gaon, but rather it is a bad omen to get married during this time, a concern that we override when a more important principle is at stake.  Though Beit Yosef has some initial doubts about whether this leniency would apply to the first 9 days of Av as well, he seems to conclude that it does, and Rema indeed rules this way.  Arukh Hashulhan indeed rules that if there is some pressing need, we can permit even a marriage during the 3 weeks (though he won't allow it during the actual week during which 9 Av falls).  Indeed, many Aharonim extend this principle to permit using musical instruments during this period to celebrate an event like a pidyon haben, which is a celebration surrounding a mitzvah.  [See R. Ovadiah Yosef in Yehaveh Da'at 6:34 for more.]

2) Context matters: Peri Megadim rules that a professional musician who plays at Gentile parties is allowed to play during the 3 weeks.  Zekher Simhah (R. Simhah Halevi Bamberger) says that a person may take music lessons--at least up until the actual week during which 9 Av falls--since this is not really playing music for joy but learning a trade. [This view is endorsed by, among others, R. Eliezer Yehudah Waldenberg in Tzitz Eliezer 16:19.]

3) The State of Israel and living in a free democratic society that is deeply different from many exilic communities Jews have found themselves in throughout the ages:  As noted above, there is strong basis for arguing that the fast of 17 Tammuz (and perhaps even 9 Av) have become optional in a reality where there is once again Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel.  Since the loss of that sovereignty was arguably the impetus for the establishment of the fasts in the first place, its restoration clearly has something to say about how these fasts are observed today.  Of course, that political sovereignty is imperfect and incomplete, and it is an equally valid view of history to say that the fasts remain in full effect even today.  Anyone who feels that the fasts themselves have become optional will obviously feel the same way about the rituals and practices that have grown up around them.  Even those who do not subscribe to a reading of history that obviates these fasts in our contemporary reality may still argue that Jews living in parts of the Diaspora that are unlike the dominant Jewish experience of Exile (such as the contemporary United States) ought to return to observances grounded in the Talmud rather than those that sprung up in medieval Europe in response to conditions of Jewish life there.  That would mean whittling down the ban on haircutting to the week of 9 Av and permitting parties and music any time before the month of Av.

[Another interesting practice, with its own history: Sefer Hasidim #840 states that one should not say a שהחיינו during the 3 weeks, reflecting a sense that a sense of gratitude for coming to “this time” is inappropriate during such a mournful period.  Maharil Responsum #31, however, only accepts this in cases where one could later say the שהחיינו, as in the case of a new piece of clothing or a seasonal fruit, but rejects the notion that we would drop the recitation of a שהחיינו over a mitzvah that happens to fall in that period, such as a pidyon haben (redemption of the first-born son).  The Vilna Gaon, among others, rejected this whole stringency and said שהחיינו should be said in this period.  This debate is a fascinating meditation on the tensions between living in a mythic past while still engages with the pleasures, responsibilities and miracles of the present.]

I hope this is a meaningful period of time for all of you.  May we see the arrival of complete peace and redemption in our day.

שנזכה לראות בנחמת ירושלים

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Waiting for Nightfall to Begin Shavuot

by Rabbi Ethan Tucker

Sifra Emor Parashah 10 Perek 12:6 considers the question of whether Sefirat Haomer is to be performed during the day and concludes that, though the Korban Haomer is indeed brought during the day—the verse says “מיום הביאכם”, “from the day that you bring”—we must count at night in order to fulfill the imperative of seven “whole” weeks.  By counting at night, we include the entire first day (and subsequent days) in the count and respect the wholeness of this unit.  This text is cited on Bavli Menahot 66a.

Tosafot there (s.v. זכר) comment on the fact that later Babylonian Amoraim seem to have treated Sefirat Haomer as being only of rabbinic authority in the absence of the Temple and recommends therefore that one should actually try to count the Omer during twilight: 1) We need not wait until true darkness has set in, since we can treat the doubtful period of twilight leniently in the context of a rabbinic mitzvah, and 2) counting before it is truly dark will better underscore the “temimut” of each day.  However, a later voice in that Tosafot rejects this reasoning.

Out of this conceptual framework emerged the idea of delaying kiddush on the first night of Shavuot until nightfall, so as not to impinge on the wholeness of the 49 days of the Omer.  R. Avraham Horowitz (16th c. Poland, student of Rema) is the first to cite this practice, in the name of R. Ya’akov Falk, in his work Emek Berakhah.  In this work, he explicitly defends davening early, since we see in the gemara that one can pray the Amidah for motzaei Shabbat before the end of Shabbat.

Probably bothered by the fact that the gemara also permits making havdalah before the end of Shabbat—without a candle—R. David b. Shmuel Halevi, (17th c. Poland) in his Magen David on the Shulhan Arukh, recommends delaying Arvit on the first night of Shavuot as well so that the 49 days can be completed.  R. Eilyahu b. Binyamin Shapira (17th c. Bohemia, Prague) seems resistant to this extension, probably because it was not practiced in his community.  It is not at all clear how widely this extension caught on in Poland either, at least right away.  One can imagine that it was much more difficult to delay Arvit until nightfall than to ask people to make kiddush after nightfall once they had returned home.

There are several grounds for being lenient, however:

R. Yosef b. Pinhas Selgmann (17th c. Germany) was unhappy about this new custom, whose influence clearly had begun to make itself felt on his community.  In Yosif Ometz #850 he points out that none of the great authorities in his community ever worried about this, particularly not those who would stay up to learn all night, since there would be virtually no time to have dinner and rejoicing with one’s family before beginning a serious study session.  [Remember how late nightfall is in northern Europe in the middle of the summer.]  He therefore says that one is certainly permitted to make kiddush after sunset, since that is already considered nighttime.  He does address the question of davening late and it seems that practice had not caught on.

Degel Mahaneh Efraim rejected the entire custom, citing the Tosafot on Pesahim 99b (s.v. עד שתחשך), who seem explicitly to reveal complete lack of knowledge of such a custom.

R. Yaakov Emden (18th c. Germany) writes in his siddur that being careful about this custom is truly unnecessary, as it is based on a weak inference by later authorities and therefore even if one wants to worry about it, he can restrict his concern to kiddush, given that that was the original custom.

R. David Tzvi Hoffman prefers fulfilling the tradition of starting late but allows saying kiddush after sunset if need be, on the theory that if Sefirat Haomer is today only of rabbinic authority—as mentioned above, though the Rambam (Hilkhot Temidin U’Musafin 7:22-24) seems to disagree—then one can treat twilight leniently with respect to “temimut.”  [This is indeed the position of the Ittur (Matzah Umaror 137a) and R. Nissim of Gerona with respect to other practices relating to “temimut.”]

R. Ovadiah Yosef seems to disregard the ban on early davening and is very lenient about early kiddush, particularly for those living in high latitudes.

The custom does, however, have some aesthetic advantages to it all other things being equal, and is a nice way of further encouraging attentiveness to the astronomical rhythms of the world we so often get alienated from.  I see no real basis for distinguishing between Arvit and kiddush.  However, if there are any obstacles to following the practice, I think the history above is sufficient to show that there are good grounds for being lenient.  

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Is it permissible to interrupt the reading of the Megillah with explanations and other thematic expansions on the story?

Question:  Is it permissible to interrupt the reading of the Megillah with explanations and other thematic expansions on the story?

I should note off the bat that the most logical solution for a crowd that would require English explanations is to have a Megillah written in English that is read in English.  For various reasons, probably both good and bad, even many non-knowledgeable people prefer a mystical experience in an exotic language they barely or don’t understand to a more transparent ritual in the vernacular.  There are halakhic issues as well, though in my view, a Megillah written in the vernacular except for those words like האחשתרנים בני הרמכים and other phrases whose meaning remains uncertain even in the JPS translation could be read by someone who does not understand Hebrew to fulfill the obligations of others and not run afoul of Beit Yosef’s discussion of this in 690:10-11.  I would rely on that view in a situation like this, despite the feelings of some Aharonim to the contrary (see MB there) given the importance of connecting an entire community that otherwise might get nothing out of the experience.  But since there isn’t such a Megillah and people probably wouldn’t want this anyway, let’s go back to the original question.

A much more thorough treatment of הפסק in general is needed, but I hope this can be a basic frame to think about this issue.

The overarching question here is obviously about preserving the integrity of certain ritual units and has at least two dimensions: 1) Maintaining continuity between recitation of the berakhah and performance of the associated act; 2) Maintaining the unified integrity of the act itself.

With respect to the first question, it seems fairly universally assumed that there should not be a break between a berakhah and the act with which it is associated.  [Some interpretations ground this in Shmuel’s statement on Pesahim 7b and parallels that one must make berakhot prior to performing mitzvot.  The exact meaning of this statement is not entirely clear, however, particularly with respect to where the legal emphasis is.  See also parallel at Yerushalmi Berakhot 9:3, 14a for different attributions.]  A number of discussions address what to do if there is nonetheless some sort of interruption.

On Berakhot 40a, a series of Amoraim debate what sorts of interruptions between המוציא and eating the bread can be tolerated such that one need not repeat the berakhah.  The final word is had by R. Sheshet, who says that directing others to eat, asking for salt or some other condiment or even ordering someone to prepare food for the animals do not constitute serious enough interruptions to warrant repeating the berakhah.  [Halakhot Gedolot points out that all of this is only בדיעבד; ideally a person should not interrupt at all.  Indeed, this is supported by Tosafot’s feeling on 39b that even the silent cutting of bread is something we try to avoid as much as possible between the berakhah and the act of eating.]

A similar discussion with respect to a ברכת המצוה is reported on Menahot 36a, where R. Hisda rules that if one speaks between putting on the תפילה של יד and the תפילה של ראש, one must make the berakhah over the של יד again.  [There is then an intervening discussion leading to the famous Rashi/R. Tam dispute about whether one or two berakhot are assumed here.]  It is possible that any speaking would invalidate the berakhah and that mitzvot must be even more tightly connected to their berakhot, but Rashi, wanting to harmonize this text with the previous passage, assumes that the speech here is unconnected to the mitzvah at hand and thus wipes out the berakhah.  The considerations, however, are the same as we saw above.  [Tosafot assume the legal parallelism as well.]

This would then mean that one should always avoid any kind of interruption—even a significant silent delay—between making a berakhah and beginning the associated act, though there is room to be lenient with certain kinds of interruptions that are sufficiently connected to the act at hand such that the integrity of the berakhah-act unit is preserved.

The second concern is a bit different and concerns the integrity of the act itself.    Let’s begin with the general question of interrupting the Megillah.  The major Tannaitic paradigm for thinking about interrupting lengthy mitzvot is Mishnah Berakhot 2:1, which engages situations of intitiating conversation or responding during Keriat Shema.  The normative view follows R. Yehudah (though see Massekhet Soferim 20:7 for an apparent holding like R. Meir) who says that normally one can only interrupt Shema and its blessings in order to initiate conversation מפני היראה and to respond מפני הכבוד (a lower standard).  At certain major break points, however, one can initiate conversation מפני הכבוד and respond to anyone at all.  It must be emphasized that these interruptions are assumed to have nothing to do with the reading of Shema.  One could imagine something that was somehow related—such as saying berakhot over tefillin just dscovered and donned during the Shema—might be treated more leniently.  [See Tosafot on 14b.]

On 14a, R. Hiyya says about Hallel and Megillah that פוסק ואין בכך כלום.  This would seem to be an application of the Mishnah’s regulations on Shema to these rituals, dispelling the possible notion that they might need even more integrity in order to be effective heralds of their associated miracles.  Nonetheless, the מפני הכבוד/מפני היראה considerations would apply.  But R. Hiyya’s strident language might also suggest a more radical view that there simply is no issue of הפסק in the middle of the megillah at all, or at certain dividing points.  [See R. Yonah there on this last point.]  Yerushalmi Berakhot 2:1, 4b possibly suggests that Hallel and the Megillah, because they are consecutive texts (unlike Shema) would be treated under the more stringent rubric of באמצע, such that one would always need a standard of מפני היראה to initiate and מפני הכבוד to respond.  But Rabbah on Bavli Berakhot 14a explicilty refers to the “chapter breaks” (not clear what these are historically before Christian chapter numbers) in Hallel as well and gives these significance.  It seems pretty clear that Rabbah is expounding on the guidelines laid out by R. Hiyya, and even if not, his ruling is followed by Rif and almost everyone else.  One could, however, read R. Hiyya as more lenient and rule like him, or suggest—but without very good conceptual basis—that we are more lenient with Megillah than with Hallel. [The story regarding Ravina at the end of the sugya is actually difficult with either reading.]

The more radical reading seems to be adopted by Ittur Aseret Hadibrot Megillah, p. 114a, where he suggests that given that the last berakhah following the reading is not truly obligatory, the Megillah reading is not sandwiched between ritual requirements such that we have to worry about breaking an uninterrupted flow from the first berakhah to the last berakhah,  He therefore concludes that there is no issue at all with speaking during the megillah reading (provided one hears all the words).  Tur rejects this, saying that communities that do say the berakhah at the end must treat it like a single unit that ought not to be interrupted.  Many other rishonim follow this approach as well, (see R. Yonah, Rosh Megillah 2:2 and Hullin 6:6 and Riaz) and Shiltei Gibborim also seems to reject the Ittur’s approach.

The Ittur’s position is thus largely rejected, even though it is possible to ground it in a tenable reading of Berakhot 14a.  It is therefore really only useful as a סניף להקל within a larger argument.  So let’s return to the specific parameters of this question, which involves not just any interruption, but something topical intended to enhance the reading of the Megillah.  Mishnah Megillah 2:2 reads: היה...דורשה...אם כיון לבו יצא ואם לאו לא יצא, indicating that oral interruptions within the Megillah do not necessarily void the reading.  The main question for interpreting this Mishnah, however, is whether it assumes that it is permitted לכתחילה to interrupt with a דרשה assuming that there is proper intent during the reading of the actual Megillah text, or whether this is only tolerated בדיעבד.  [Let me just note right here that if we are truly dealing with an audience that will simply be unable to connect with the Megillah reading unless there is some explanatory and expository material interspersed, then we can certainly consider that to be a בדיעבד case.  Given that this seems to be the basis for the question, the Mishnah closes the case.  Note the comment in Noda Biyehudah I:41 to this effect regarding בדיקת חמץ: since it is impossible for a person to sit in one place the entire time from בדיקת חמץ until שעת הביעור, the rules of בדיעבד apply and we allow someone to travel even great distances during that period even though we would normally forbid this לכתחילה during performance of a mitzvah.  The same can be applied to people who simply cannot follow a reading that long in Hebrew.  Nonetheless, the other sources I will cite help define parameters for thinking about this issue more broadly.]

Yerushalmi Megillah 2:2, 73a weighs in on this question with the following line: ודורשה ובלבד שלא יפליג עצמו לעניינות אחרים.  The language of שלא יפליג, as opposed to והוא שלא הפליג suggests an assumption that it is permitted לכתחילה to engage in these sorts of homiletical insertions, with the important proviso that they remain relevant and not lead one astray into other topics.  Rashba Megillah 18b entertains the possibility that the Yerushalmi is only speaking בדיעבד, but seems to come down on the side of this being a לכתחילה instruction.  In any event, he clearly holds that topical interruptions are permissible לכתחילה and Ritva there is emphatic about this holding.  Rosh Megillah 2:1 also initially entertains the notion that derashot are only permitted בדיעבד, but cites the Yerushalmi as unequivocally being לכתחילה and he and Rashba have a text that applies this ruling to a public reading of the Megillah as well.  Tur 690 uses language that evokes the Yerushalmi suggesting that he also holds this way.  [See Noda Biyehudah’s different reading of Rosh here in Teshuvot I:41, which I disagree with, and even he seems to back off of it.  Note also that he likely did not see the Rashba and Ritva I just cited.  See there generally for more on our topic.]  SA 690:13 is clearly permissive: וכן אם היה דורשה, שקורא פסוק במגילה שלימה ודורשו, אם כיון לבו לצאת י"ח, יצא; ולא יפסיק בה בענינים אחרים, כשדורשה, שאסור להפסיק בה בענינים אחרים.  The clear implication is that it is permitted to interrupt the reading with relevant material.  MB there defines this as anything that is מעניינו של יום.  Note that all of these authorities agree that, provided there was proper intent for the actual reading of the Megillah, even non-topical interruptions do not void the reading בדיעבד.  [If any given interruption is as long as it would take to read the entire Megillah, one would begin to get some dissenting views, like Yereim, but even then, all of the authorities just mentioned think the reading is valid בדיעבד.  See Rosh Hullin 6:6 for confirmation that this is his view as well.  For more on the Rashba’s general analysis of הפסק, which is very helpful for thinking about these issues in general, see his Teshuvot I:244.]

My own bottom line feeling is that one should avoid all interruptions between the berakhah and the beginning of the reading and then urge those responsible to be sure than all other interruptions are truly topical and don’t lead people to thinking about unrelated topics.  But anything that will help people focus on the reading and get more out of it is permissible לכתחילה.  One should also know that if for some reason there are completely irrelevant interruptions, the reading is still valid בדיעבד.

There is one other concern I have, which pertains to all forms of davening geared towards beginners.  I think it is very important to avoid making decisions that inexorably lock people into the role of novice in Jewish life.  Arguably, you don’t ever want to run a shul where a more knowledgeable person will walk in and feel estranged from a service she feels is simply not geared towards her.  That is the great virtue of having a learner’s service where these more creative things are done, such that people can eventually “graduate” to a more intense version of the ritual that presumes more facility and knowledge.  But even in a community where everyone is a learner and the main service has to be in a more introductory mode, I would urge you and others to think about a multi-year plan for getting to a point where there is a reading that is not geared towards beginners as part of a larger vision of getting the community to that more advanced stage.  Otherwise, people who actually advance will feel that they have graduated the shul and the community, which will be a loss for everyone.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Hilkhot Purim

In honor of Purim, please enjoy the following compilation of the Halakhah Think Tank's articles related to Ta'anit Esther and Purim:

Can one who is not fasting lead davenning on a fast day?  (July 2009)

Can a Jerusalemite read the Megillah elsewhere on the 14th?  (in Hebrew)  (May 2009)

Seudat Purim on Friday  (March 2008)