Ethics and Israel

July 21, 2007

This past week was quite a roller coaster.  The theme of our learning has been ethics – in the most general sense.  We have been dealing with the philosophical issues of ethics and the process of psak Halakha.  Is a rabbi supposed to attempt to remove his ethical biases from the making a decision or, perhaps, we are encouraged to engage our ethical intuitions in the very fashioning of Halakha?

We hade a tiyyul to Chevron.  We met with three different groups of people.  First was David Wilder who is a representative of the Jewish community of Chevron.  For him, more important than 1948 and 1967 were 1929 and 1994.  1929 were the Chevron massacres – marking the destruction of a community that was never really able to return until ’67. Purim 1994 was the Baruch Goldstein massacre – an event that changed the community forever.

We also met with a group call Shovrim Shetika.  This is a group of soldiers who are trying to ‘break the silence’ about what it means to be a soldier in the Israeli army.  They are, for the most part, dati and are committed to serving in the army for both religious and nationalist reasons.  At the same time, they are bothered by some of what they see.

We then met with a Palestinian resident of Chevron who had an entirely different understanding of what it means to live in this city.

Davening maariv at the maarat hamachpela, after a day of ‘ethical encounters,’ was tumultuous.  It is difficult for me, as an outsider to pass judgment on what I saw.  All I know is that my appreciation for the complexity of Chevron has grown tremendously.

We then spent a day up in the North at a place called Kibbutz Manara.  We met with Rachel Rabin, Yitzchak’s sister, and she told the story of building this Kibbutz with her own two hands.  She then shared with us about last summer.  The Kibbutz is less then 100 meters from the Lebanese border.  Until last summer the residents of the Kibbutz were often closer to their Lebanese neighbors than to their Israeli neighbors.  That all changed drastically with the Katyushas.

The foundational ethical question that we have been studying is as follows:

Socrates: And what do you say of piety, Euthyphro?

Is not piety, according to your definition, loved by all the gods?

Euthyphro: Certainly.

Socrates: Because it is pious or holy, or for some other reason?

Euthyphro: No, that is the reason.

Socrates: It is loved because it is holy, not holy because it is loved?


The answer to Socrates’ question has animated philosophers – Jewish and non – for centuries.  In Israel, that question is very much alive today.


July 13, 2007

This morning I enjoyed some time at the Biblical zoo in Jerusalem.  It is one of the most beautiful zoos that I have been to for some time.  As we were making our way the kids were ready for a snack and lunch.  We stopped at the little sandwich stand and had some tuna and egg salad and ice pops.  Beth turned to me and said, “Isn’t amazing to be able to just stop off and grad food!”

Whenever we are on vacation food always becomes a central focus of what we are doing.  When we go places other than Israel we end up carrying: tuna, peanut butter, bread, granola bars, chips, nuts and anything else that we can stuff into a single bag.  One of the more relaxing aspects of Yerushalyim is that we simply don’t have to think about those issues.

Last night we went out with my brother for his wife’s birthday.  We enjoyed a delicious meal in a quaint little town called ein karem.  The sunset was awesome, the food was great and the company was delightful.

As we have entered into the period of The Three Weeks, it is special to be here.  Preparing for Tisha b’Av is very different when we see the Kotel and the Mosque every other day.  Let’s hope that this Tisha b’Av should be a day of joy and that all of you are able to join us here in Israel!

Shabbat Shalom

The Three Weeks

July 7, 2007

The mourning process beginning on the day of the 17th of Tammuz and concluding at noon on the 10th of Av builds progressively.  Each stage adds on to the one prior.  Here is a summary on one page so that you can see the progression of this time period.  For a more in depth elaboration on these laws continue reading below.

The Fast of the 17th of Tammuz

Who? All adult men and women.  Pregnant and nursing women are not required, but should ask their doctors.

What? No eating or drinking

Where? Everywhere!


Why? Moshe broke the tablets of the law when he came down Mt. Sinai and saw the Jewish People worshiping the Golden Calf; the sheep supply for the sacrifices ran out as a result of the siege; the outer walls of Jerusalem were breached during the Second Temple; Apostramus burnt a Torah scroll; an idol was erected in the Temple.  (see Mishna taanit 4:6)

The Three Weeks

Who? All adults

What? No weddings, music, haircuts, shaving, or shehecheyanu.  If you must shave try to wait two days in between.

Where? Everywhere!

When? From the day of the 17th of Tammuz until noon on the 10th of Av

Why? Since this day marks the beginning of a tragic time for the Jewish people.  We begin a process of ever greater mourning, building up to the 9th of Av.

See upcoming email for special rules regarding Tisha b’Av on Saturday night.

The Nine Days

Who? All adults

What? No laundry or wearing of laundered clothing, bathing for cleanliness only (take quick cold or cool showers), swimming for health only.  No meat or wine.  One should not undertake a major business venture at this time.

Where? Everywhere!

When? From the 1st to 10th of Av;

Why? As we get closer to tisha b’av we begin to add various signs of mourning, each stage adding to the prior.

The 9th of Av

Who? All adults.  Pregnant, nursing or sick people should speak with their doctors’.

What? No eating, drinking, bathing, washing, leather shoes, anointing (deodorant to remove bad smells is permitted), sexual relations, learning of Torah not related to tisha b’av.  In addition it is customary not to greet people with shalom aleichem.  We sit on the floor.  It is better not to work.  Gifts are not sent.  One should consider oneself in mourning.

When? The 25 hours of the 9th of Av.

The Three Weeks and the Nine Days:

In Jewish Law (Halakha)

I.  Halakha – Jewish Law

A. Introductory Material

It is important to note that the Talmud does not speak of a unit of time called the “three weeks or the “nine days.”  The Talmud is only aware of the tragedies that befell the Jewish People on the 17th of Tammuz and on the 9th of Av.  The intervening period took on the general name of bein ha-metzarim (between the straights) during the Medieval period.  Over time other titles were offered:  The Magen Avraham (Rav Avraham Gumbeiner, 16th Century, Poland) refers to these days as yemei puraniyut (days of destruction) and the Vilan Gaon (Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer, GR”A, Vilna, d.1797) refers to these days as yemei aveilut (days of mourning).

B. The 17th of Tammuz

The Mishna (Taanit 4:6, with elaboration by the Gemara there, page 28b) explains that we mourn on this day for five specific events:  Moshe broke the tablets of the law (luchot ha-berit) when he came down Mt. Sinai and saw the Jewish People worshiping the Golden Calf; the sheep supply for the sacrifices ran out as a result of the siege; the outer walls of Jerusalem were breached during the Second Temple; Apostramus burnt a Torah scroll; an idol was erected in the Temple.

All adults, men and women, are obligated in this fast.  However, pregnant women,  nursing women or women who have just given birth are not obligated to fast.  It seems, from a simple read of the Shulkha Arukh that they are discouraged from even trying to fast (see siman 550.)  However, if you have a question, I would first encourage you to ask your doctor.  If the doctor says that there is no risk at all to mother or child if she fasts then I think you should try to fast.  If you feel the least bit faint do not hesitate to drink and/or eat.

On this day it is permitted to wear leather shoes, to wash and put on deodorant.  Brushing your teeth is a matter of some debate.  If you are a person who sometimes does not brush your teeth in the morning, then you may not brush on this morning.  If you brush your teeth every day but do not necessarily get bad breath when you don’t then you should not brush on this morning.  If not brushing your teeth will lead you to have bad breath and offend others then you may brush but should be very careful not to swallow any water.  One can try brushing without toothpaste first as well.

It is also technically permitted to have physical relations with your spouse on this day.  It is however discouraged unless it is mikvah night.

C. “The Three Weeks”

This time period refers to the interval between the 17th of Tammuz and noon on the 10th of Av.  There are three basic restrictions during the three weeks: weddings, haircuts, reciting shehchiyanu.

1. Weddings: When the Rabbis wanted to refer to a moment of joy (simcha) their model was a wedding.  Therefore, there are several extensions made from the category of wedding.  Dancing and playing musical instruments are also prohibited at this time.  Practicing a musical instrument is, however, permitted.

Although there is no distinction made between live and recorded music for the three weeks it is important to note that using music for a functional purpose is permitted.  For example, one can listen to music while doing aerobic exercise or keeping oneself awake on a long car drive. 

            2. Haircuts & Shaving: The custom is not to take a haircut or shave for the three weeks.  Combing hair, on the other hand is permissible.  Also, trimming your mustache, if it interferes with eating is also permitted.  If you are a person who shaves daily and you are expected to do so for business then you are permitted to do so.  You should try not to for the week of the 9th of Av itself.

            Rav Soloveitchik zt”l explained that the Rabbis modeled the laws of national mourning upon the laws of personal mourning.  In his schema the three weeks parallel the year after one’s parent dies.  At that time one is permitted to shave and take a haircut do to social reproach – if someone tells you that you need to.  Every person’s facial growth is different but, generally speaking, after about two days one needs to shave and would be permitted to do so according to this approach.  Since the Rav was not my teacher I do not follow this shitta but it is a valid position upon which to rely.

            Both of these lenient positions would only apply in a social milieu in which not shaving would be scoffed upon.  If you work in an environment where not shaving could be explained as a quasi-mourning process for the destruction of the Temple then you may not shave.  If Senator Lieberman was able to address the Senate floor with the a beard due to the loss of a parent, I think that most of us should be able to do the same.

            3. Shehecheyanu:  The recital of the blessing of shehecheyanu is the matter of some debate – some prohibit and some permit, while still others only allow it on Shabbat.  My understanding is that one should not do things that would otherwise mandate the saying of this special and happy berakha.  For example, one should not wear a new suit for the first time during this time or eat a new fruit as that type of experience contradicts the emotions of the time.  However, one may do so on Shabbat.

D. The Nine Days

In addition to the prohibitions of the three weeks (weddings, haircuts, reciting shehchiyanu), during the nine days there are three more categories of prohibition: laundry, bathing and swimming, eating meat or wine and business

            1. Laundry: There are two separate prohibitions here: washing clothes and wearing freshly washed clothes.  For this reason the nine days require some preparation.  Make sure to send your cleaning in (To Ed!) before the first of Av.  Once it comes back, any shirt or suit that you intend to wear for those nine days should be worn  briefly (for about ten minutes).  This prohibition does not apply to any garments that you wear on your skin.  If you prepared your clothing and then all of your shirts were stained you can then wear freshly laundered clothing if there is a financial loss involved.  It is permissible to wear freshly laundered clothing on Shabbat.  Children’s clothing that has been soiled may be washed.

            2. Bathing & Swimming:  You should only take a shower for the purpose of cleansing yourself.  If possible, the shower should be cold, or colder than usual, and quick.  You are not required to smell bad during this week, you just may not take a long pleasurable shower or bath.

            Swimming for fun is also prohibited.  However, for exercise or to wash sweat off your body, it is okay.  Also, instructional swim is permitted, though in most camps it is not practices for hinnuch concerns .

            If a woman is preparing for the mikvah she may do so her normal fashion as this prohibition does not impact bathing for a mikvah.

            3. Meat & Wine:  In a general attempt to lessen the joy of this time period we do not eat meat or drink wine.  Also, meat and wine are the main ingredients of the sacrificial system which ceased at this time.  This custom applies to fowl as well.  However, it does not apply to food cooked in a meat pot with no meat ingredients.

            It is permitted to eat meat and drink wine on Shabbat or at a seudat mitzvah (an obligatory meal –  bris, pidyon haben or siyyum).  A woman who is pregnant or nursing and has discomfort from dairy food is permitted to eat meat, preferably fowl.

            If one naturally completed the course of their learning of a tractate of Talmud, order of mishna or book of the Bible during the  nine days then one can make a seudat mitzvah.  It is not appropriate to “save” a siyyum for the nine days just so that you can have a barbeque. 

            4. Business: This is generally speaking bad time of the year to expand on your business practices.  However, business for the sake of a mitzvah (like building a shul!) is permitted.

E. The 9th of Av

1. Seudat mafseket – The meal before the fast:

This meal should be eaten in a mournful fashion.  You should sit on the floor and eat eggs with some ash (the best way to make ash is to burn apiece of toast and scrap the top into a bowl) and not more than one cooked dish.  Also, this meal should not be eaten with three people so as not to obligate you in a zimmun

You can eat a full meal before the seudah hamafseket so that you will be full for the fast.  Once you begin the official seudah you should try not eat or drink anything after.  If you need to drink more before the fast starts, even after your official seudah that is ok.

2. According to the Mishna in Taanit (4:6) five tragedies occurred to the Jewish People on the 9th of Av: the decree was made after the sin of the spies that bnei yisrael would not enter the Land of Israel, the first and second Temples were destroyed, the stronghold on the Bar Kochba rebellion was quashed at Betar, Jerusalem was ploughed under.

In addition to all the prohibitions of the nine days and the three weeks there are several additional categories of forbidden actions: eating & drinking, bathing & washing, wearing leather shoes, anointing yourself, sexual relations and learning Torah.

3. Eating & Drinking:  All adults, men and women, are obligated to fast.  Unlike the minor fast days, even pregnant and nursing women are required to first consult with their doctor and should fast if the doctor says it is ok.  Prescription medication should be taken without water if possible.  If you must use water, ask your doctor if you can skip a single dose.  If the doctor says that you must take the medicine at all costs, then you must listen to the doctor.

4. Bathing & Washing: All bathing and washing is prohibited except when you wake in the morning and after using the bathroom.  When you wash your hands you should only wash up to the knuckles.  Also, in the morning you may wash your eyes as well.

5. Leather shoes: According to some, all shoes are prohibited.  We generally allow the wearing of non-leather shoes.  If you must, for professional reasons, wear leather shoes you should do something like putting sand in them so that you feel discomfort.

6. Anointing yourself: You may not rub on any oil, soap, alcohol, cream or salve on your body.  However, you may put on anti-perspirent in order to avoid bad smells.

7. Sexual relations:  Since intimate relationships are prohibited women also do not go to the mikvah on this night.

8. Learning Torah: One is prohibited from learning anything other than things related in some way to tisha b’av.  This means that you can learn, for example, the laws of mourning, Eicha, the Midrash on Eicha and stories relating to the destruction of the Temple.

Reflections on Hartman

July 7, 2007

Being in Jerusalem reminds me of two facts that are, I believe, inctontrovertible:

  1. There is no city in the world like Jerusalem.
  2. There is no place like home.

It is both invigorating and exhausting to be here.  The children are slowly acclimating to the new time, new place, new routine, now camps…  It is only recently that I have come to appreciate jet-lag as contagious – you can catch it from your children.

The Hartman Institute is truly amazing.  We have been studying tikkun olam in the morning and The Kuzari in the afternoon.  Each morning we are visited by a leading Israeli teacher to share their understanding of the concept of ‘fixing the world.’  We spend time preparing source material and then there is a shiur for the entire group.

On Thursday we heard from a scholar of Kabbalah, Melila Hellner.  She is working on creating a language of discourse for enviromentalism by borrowing from the mystical tradition.  One of the sources that she shared was from the Zohar and it really places the story of the garden in a different light.  We are familiar with the commandment from the second chapter of Genesis from every tree of the garden you are free to eat, but of the tree of knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat.  The Zohar, is a bold re-reading of this text says as follows:

Everything {including the tree of knowledge} was permitted to him is eaten in oneness.  For we see that Abraham ate, Issac and Jacob they all ate and endured.  But this tree is a tree of death, whosoever eats it by itself dies…

What was the sin according to this passage?  It seems that sin of adam and chava was not that they ate from the tree, but rather that they ate from the tree of knowledge by itself.  When eaten together, the tree of knowledge was not a problem, when eaten by itself, it was a deadly poison.

Melila expanded on this with the following idea – overdosing on the tree of knowledge was an attempt to fulfill the insatiable desire for knowing (truth).  She pointed out that “insatiable is unsustainable”.  That ultimately the sin of Adam was his inability to take benefit from this world with appropriate caution.  By consuming the tree of knowledge by itself, he overstepped his relationship with the created world and created a situation of insustainability.

All of a sudden the entire garden narrative is placed in a different light.  Not only was Adam permitted to eat from the tree, he was even commanded to do so!  The avot themselves even ate from the tree.  Adam was simply required to eat in the right way.  Unfortunately, he did not take responsibility for his surroundings and the sin occurred.

This also places a responsibility on each one of us to learn to be more sensative to our surroundings.