Archive | June, 2013

Two Faces of Shabbat

5 Jun
English: Shabbat Candles Deutsch: Schabbatkerzen

Shabbat candles (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Throughout the course of this academic year, I have been learning Hilchot Shabbat. Recently, I began taking a smicha test on that material. The exam is take-home, which might lead some to make suggestions about its simplicity, or question the validity of an open-book exam for such an important topic. I would like to deal with neither of those challenges now, except to say that the test is quite difficult, requiring considerable probing of the depths of legal details. In my answering of the multi-faceted test questions, I have come to think about Shabbat, and said details, in a different way, and asking the following: do the prohibitions make Shabbat? or Because it is Shabbat, certain activities are prohibited?

Prohibitions make Shabbat. After pouring over volumes of text that are filled with minute details, often prohibitions, it seemed clear that Shabbat is created by way of forbidding a litany of activities, down to the way we tear (or not) toilet paper and make tea. We define the day by prohibiting activities that prevent the day from passing like all the rest. Imagine the usual process for making a cup of tea, now imagine having to significantly alter the process because of prohibited ways of cooking. Yes, it can be burdensome and intimidating, especially for a novice, but it creates the atmosphere of a different kind of day, one where individuals must rethink basic tasks in a way that sanctifies the day. Even meals are different. They are festive, sanctified with wine, and usually involves a gathering of friends or family, and to allow the feeling of uniqueness to extend beyond the meals, additional prohibitions exist. For me, it is hard to imagine Shabbat as Shabbat when the day’s activities are ‘normal,’ where cell phones, televisions, and the internet are readily at hand. So in that sense, yes. The prohibitions give birth to an atmosphere that protects the sanctity of the day.

Speaking of atmosphere, it leads me to the other side of the equation. It assumes the existence of a day called Shabbat, that is distinct in its nature from the balance of the week. It is knowing that every seventh day will be somehow distinct from the preceding six. But then we have to set upon the job of making that day different, how is this done? Through prohibited activities. We effectively erect fences that prevent us from crossing into areas that would damage the atmosphere of the day, by doing so we stay away from what the halakhists call “the 39 melachot.” These so called fences are placed around tasks that are not “Shabbosdik,” or not in keeping with maintaining the holiness of Shabbat. Thus because there is a day called Shabbat, we forbid activities that create tension with the underlying assumption of Shabbat itself.

The ability think about Shabbat in both directions has proved constructive for me. It has cemented my understanding of why I must make my tea differently on Shabbat as well as why I should not simply set a timer for my television (if I owned one), although it might be technically within the letter of the law. So as much as halakha creates Shabbat by way of preventing a litany of daily tasks, the assumed existence of a day of rest is manifested by ceasing from creative and quasi-creative activities. It is with these theories that I have found the lenient and stringent laws more compelling, as well as understanding their necessity in creating a mechanism for a halkically observant Shabbat.

Happy Shabbating, I would be curious to hear your thoughts.

A Special Siyyum

2 Jun
Yeshivat Har Etzion (www.haretzion.org). Obtai...

Yeshivat Har Etzion (www.haretzion.org). Obtained with express written permission from Yeshivat Har Etzion (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last August I arrived at Yeshivat Har Etzion amid the excitement of starting a new adventure and making aliyah. Every student arrived and established their goals for the year, but one group would not assemble in yeshiva until after the Sukkot vacation.  The word from continuing students was, ‘I can’t wait for the Darkaynu guys to arrive.’  As promised, Yeshivat Darkaynu and its students eventually joined us with goals  and challenges of their own. From Darkaynu’s website:

Yeshivat Darkaynu is a new and innovative program developed for religious young men with special needs who are looking for the perfect way to spend a year in Israel. The program is designed for students who want to continue their learning, develop vocational skills, build independence, improve self-esteem and expand their love of Israel and the Jewish people.

While Gush is known for its devotion to the intellectually rigorous study of Torah, it does not receive enough recognition for the significance of Darkaynu. Relatively easy is the task of sitting for hours and pouring over pages of text and formulating theories and ideas of the substance found within, only to have an all-star rabbi confront you with a contradictory or supplementary theory. Much more difficult is the ability to step back from the process of learning and apply the values of Torah to the people in our lives, greeting those around you with pleasantness and treating ones neighbor as you would like to be treated. Yeshivat Darkaynu provides both of these opportunities to its students as well as to the students of Yeshivat Har Etzion. These fabulous young men live among and learn with us, sharing meals, holidays, and goofy yeshiva moments, we are better for their presence and hopefully they are better for ours.

One Darkaynu student in particular has a special reputation. Davey (not his real name) is known to the entire yeshiva. With his prodigious memory and far reaching hearing, he is almost always ready to engage you in conversation. He will ask you questions that you would prefer not to answer. In my case, “aren’t you too old to be in yeshiva? how do you plan on going to the army when you’re so old?” have been frequent topics of conversation. We are there for him on his good days, and try to offer comfort when he is in difficulty. He has committed himself to learning Torah, and last week finished the mishnah of Masechet Beitza, which he had learned in hevruta. Traditionally, when finishing a body of work, a small celebration, a siyyum, is held to mark the occasion and to look forward to the next goal. In Davey’s case, completing the text was challenge enough, and there was a massive turnout to hear his comments as he concluded the relevant mishnayot. First and second year Anglos, other Darkaynu students, Israelis, pre and post-Army, some of the alterim (old guys), all made sure to grab a seat. By the time Davey made his dramatic entrance and began speaking, there were no seats remaining. Although I can not tell you exactly what he said, I can say that we were hanging on his every word, while he soaked up the limelight, rejoicing in the thrill of being surrounded by his peers, and having made a significant accomplishment.

As my time at Yeshivat Har Etzion winds down (for now), I can say with absolute sincerity that spending so much time with the fine young men of Yeshivat Darkaynu was one of the central elements of my year. They are thoughtful, willing to learn, grow, and have new experiences, even in the face of their personal challenges. Waiting for their arrival was more than worth it, as they provided not only friendship, but also opportunities to watch their growth and discovery, as well as to put a face on some of the Torah’s most closely held values.