Wednesday, September 29, 2004
WACHNACHT: The term for the night preceding the day of circumcision, spent in feasting and the recitation of hymns and prayers by the mohel, sandik, and members of the family. The ostensible object of the watch is to ward off the "evil spirit" and to drive away the "devils," especially Lilith, who is supposed to be inimical to the child about to enter into the covenant of Abraham.
I was close to thirty when I first encountered this one. It includes (1) gathering all the neighborhood children to say Shema next to the infant's crib (2) festooning the crib with red ribbons, reb flowers and red string, and (3) putting the knife the mohel plans to use the next morning under the infant's mattress or pillow.
The point? Well, the reason I was given (by a heavyset Brooklyn matron who simply couldn't believe she was speaking to a person who had been raised in such ignorance) totally jibes with the Jewish Encycolpedia entry cited above. We're worried about poltergeists and have created a ritual to combat them.
Evil spirits, devils, and yes, even that old spook Lillith, are alive and well in the Jewish imagination of some communities.
Tuesday, September 28, 2004
I've been promising to list the Jewish rituals I first encountered after reaching adulthood.
By way of introduction, let me say that discovering these rituals was not pleasant. You see, I went to a good Jewish day-school, where I paid attention and studied hard. My grandfather, zl, was a pulpit Rabbi, ordained by one of the best rabbinical seminaries in North America (mayvin yavin.) His father, zl, was the sexton at a small American shul. My father is observant and religious.
I entered adulthood, the fourth male in this line, thinking I had a good understanding of what it means to practice Orthodoxy and I don't think it was ignorance informed by pride: I had been raised Jewishly and educated Jewishly. So imagine, if you can, my surprise when I cam upon whole communities of Jews performing rituals I wasn't taught. It was a blow to my religious self-esteem. In some ways, perhaps I felt like those ancient Jews I described in the previous post. My Judaism hadn't aquired the new practices.
I've grown up a bit since then, I hope. I've had the chance to do some research and to put these practices in their proper context. Still, it's sometimes a struggle to remember that these extra rituals are cultural and matters of style. It's a struggle sometimes not to snap at people who imagine that these practices are essentail when, in my estimation, they are not. It's your midos, your learning and your attention to the details of halalcha, that matter, of course. Not the mishigas. So with all that in mind, here they are: The Religious Rituals I First Encountered After Reaching Adulthood
1- Did you know that (according to some, but by no means all) a woman who has had a baby is not permitted to be seen in public until she hears kedusha or barchu? She has to hide in private until a minyan (ten men) can be convened so that she can complete the obligation. This was news to me, so when a well-meaning man at MMC attempted to accomodate this ritual by arranging a prayer group outside my wife's hospital room after the birth of my second child, I thought he was nuts, which, I suppose is fair: He thought I was indifferent to religion.
2 - It was Erev Yom Kippur, and I was talking to L. "What time are you leaving work," he asked. "I don't know," I told him, "maybe at 2:30"
"Two-thirty!?!" he exclaimed, "how will you eat twice, if you leave at 2:30?" Excuse me, eat twice?
3 - I always knew that some Jews beleive in demons, though I, following the Ramban and the Rambam, do not. However, I was surprised to learn, at the ripe old age of 30, that the demons other Jews believe in are less intelligent than your average loaf of bread. To wit: It's fobidden to seal or otherwise cover a window. Why? Because demons, it is supposed, use windows to enter and exit your house. If you block the window, the demon won't find a new route and quietly get on with his travels. No, instead the demon will revenge himself by wracking havoc upon your house and home. They aren't bright, these demons, and they don't like to be inconvinienced. It's all right there in the writings of Rabbi Yehuda HaChassid. Therefore, most Jews I know don't mess with their windows when they expand or otherwise rework their houses, and everyone has a story about a sister or a cousin or a neighbor who sealed a window, and was the prompt recipient of untold troubles. (It's much more reasuring if it's the demons and not our deeds causing the pain.)
4 - Shabbos ends 50 minutes after sunset, or so I was taught. There is no shame ending things on time. (Those are the few drops of Yeki blood in my vein making themselves heard) Later I found Jews who keep shabbos for an additional 22 minutes. Small beer, I know, and, now that I live among them, I don't mind extending shabbos. In the begining, though, I imagined these 72-minutes Jews were smugly judging me and my shabbos inferior because I stopped at 50. Often, I would wonder how they would feel if they suddenly landed in a neighborhood where shabbos was kept for 90 or 120 minutes after sunset. It would chaff and snide comments like, "what's your hurry?" would be no balm. I'm reconciled to this practice, finally, though grand rebbes who extend their third meal deep into Saturday night and Sunday morning are, for me, best avoided.
I could go on. In time, I am sure I will, but I think you get the idea. I hope you don't think less of me.
Ever wonder what it would be like to live as a Jew in antiquity? Sure, there were real troubles around like pagans and parasites, but religiously-speaking it had to have been a breeze.
Are you already worn out from the orgy of eating and endless praying that is Tishrei? Well, Jews of the year zero had none of that. They weren't afflicted with three-day yom-tovs; heck, aside from Rosh Hashana there weren't even any two day yom tovs. Your Rosh Hashana service was watching an animal get slaughtered, and listening to some blasts on the horn. Your Yom Kippur service was a pageant acted by the chief priest. Both smashing entertainment, I'm sure, in the age before television. Don't forget: neither service was mandatory. Even Sabbath services were optional. Back in the day, God only asked for a visit on the the three pilgrimage festivals, and all that meant was a you got to stand in the good, fresh air with your buddies, while somewhere up front another animal bit it. I bet you could even talk to your buddies all you wanted, with no gabbai to shush you as the bulls and rams were slaughtered.
There were no hats, no shtreimels, no kreplach, no kugel, no liturgy, no hakafos, no piyutim, no hosofos, no chazonus, no nigunim, no tables, no pews - none of the detritus that just accumulates and accumulates as Judaism marches through time. There was no mishigas. There were hardly any minhagim. It was simple. It was easy. Wasn't it?
The Jews who merited the Temple were the best Jews of all, I might argue, and most all the details of our modern religious life (and by modern I suppose I mean anything initiated after about 200 CE) would have to them seemed bizarre. Even the Jews who lived after the destruction, in the period just after the rules were changed and liturgy replaced sacrifice, would not recognize us. Ponder that, if you will.
Monday, September 27, 2004
Some blogosphere detritus worth recommending:
(1) Ayshes Chayil is all lies:
Hat tip Jew Cards
The Chosson's friends may then sing "Aishes Chayil" for the kallah. Even though she's officially been married for just a few hours, she's still managed to seek out wool and linen, bring sustenance from afar, give food to her household and a ration to her maids, consider a field and buy it, plant a vineyard from the fruit of her handiwork, strengthen her arms, support a spindle with her palms, get over her fear of snow, clothe her house in scarlet wool, make bedspreads and garments, deliver a belt to a peddler, and have children who rose up and praised her. That's pretty impressive. Meanwhile, her chosson has managed to split his pants.
(2) A new J-blog, with a fresh, new voice
The measure of a first-rate intellect is its ability to hold two contradictory ideas at the same time. With that in mind, say hello to the Renegade Rebbetzin.
Hat tip: Miriam Blghd.
(3) The apple doesn't fall far from the tree
Foster Boy's sister is the daughter of MoChassid, and a very good writer in her own right.
(4) Yom Kippur out West
Read about the Western Jew'sday.
Tomorrow: the baynonim list of 'Jewish Customs That I Reached Adulthood Without Ever Hearing About' (A high-five, and a sidebar listing, to the person who suggests a less awkward title for this list.)
Sunday, September 26, 2004
Ok, people, time to answer the question on every set of Jewish lips. What time did you finish yesterday?
In the shteeble we took our first break at about 10 am for the selling of indulgences, I mean aliyos. That took 30 minutes. At 12:30 we had a one hour recess, so that the Rabbi and the chazon could go to the mikva(1)
After musaf, at 4:30 or so, we stopped for another 45 minutes, giving us about 2 hours and 15 minutes of break-time.
How about you?
(1) I suppose it's important to get to the mikva, but it's also important to start musaf before the middle of the 7th daylight hour. We didn't make it. Starting musaf on time is so important, the Rema and the Mechaber urge congregations to skip parts of Shachris if it appears this deadline will be missed. Neither authority says anything about going to the mikva, so I don't know if they'd have advised the rabbi and chazon to skip the dip to allow us to start musaf on time. Anyone know?