Tag Archives: jewish tradition

Fighting Words

Teshuvas Minchas Yitzchok was asked about people who daven in the summer in a field, how far apart they could be spread and still constitute a minyan. Does the matter depend upon whether they could see one another, whether they could all hear the sh’liach tzibbur or perhaps they have to stand within four amos of one another since the pasuk (Devarim 23:15) indicates that a person’s camp is four amos. He responded that combining for a minyan depends upon two factors. The first prerequisite is that everyone must be able to hear the sh’liach tzibbur. This is based on Shulchan Aruch’s ruling that if nine people do not listen to the sh’liach tzibbur it may be that the berachos recited by the sh’liach tzibbur are berachos l’vatalos. The second prerequisite is that the participants in the minyan have to be capable of seeing one another. This is based on Pri Chadash’s ruling that when two groups of people are in different rooms they combine to make a minyan if some of them could see one another. Although there are authorities who disagree, in the case of an open field all opinions would agree since there is no wall dividing the group into two that seeing one another is sufficient for them to combine.

Our Mishnah teaches that animals combine for tithing if they are in an area “as large as an animal’s grazing range.” This is defined by the Mishnah as an area of sixteen mil. Rashi explains that this refers to the size of an area in which animals could spread out but still be watched by a single shepherd. Sefer Imrei Devash also wondered whether the discussion in our Mishnah has bearing on the question of how far apart a group of people may be spread out and still constitute a minyan. Perhaps they can be as far apart as sixteen mil since they should be able to see one another but perhaps forming a minyan follows a different set of rules. He leaves the matter unresolved.

Daf Yomi Digest
Halacha Highlight
“Forming a minyan in a field”
Bechoros 54

I recently wrote an article about tradition and how our religious traditions add context and meaning to our worship of God. This is true in any religion I believe, but especially true in Judaism. Perhaps for that reason, Christianity tends to give Judaism a really hard time because of all its “man-made traditions.” The problem for most Christians, even those who otherwise find great beauty in Jewish religious practice and study, is that Jewish traditions are given the weight of authority and even appear to override the plain meaning of the Torah text, seemingly positioning the Rabbinic sages above God. While Judaism doesn’t have this perspective, the ability of most Christians to see from a Jewish point of view is extremely limited, which produces a lot of misunderstanding and, to my way of thinking, unjustified criticism.

I’ve been involved in conversations regarding tradition and Talmudic rulings at a number of blogspots recently including those written by Judah Himango and Derek Leman. Derek especially has been vocally dynamic in this area, writing two subsequent blog posts answering specific questions posed by individuals: Answering Dan and Answering Peter. Although most if not all of the people involved in the discussions on these blogs are in some way attached to the Messianic Jewish and Hebrew Roots movements, there is a great deal of difficulty in understanding and accepting how tradition and rabbinic authority work in the Jewish world and particularly within Orthodox Judaism.

For some people, it’s not enough to understand that, if you don’t belong to an Orthodox community (and especially if you’re not Jewish), you do not have to consider yourself bound by their rulings and traditions. You can choose your own traditions and make them as flexible and non-binding as you’d like (though you probably shouldn’t imagine that your own traditions create a formal “Judaism”). For some of these individuals though, it is important to prove that Jewish tradition is “wrong” and goes against God. The presumption for the other side of the coin is that their own interpretation of the Bible is “right” and can be used to manufacture a “true” Jewish or Hebrew Roots religion more in line with God. Scriptures such as Mark 7:1-23 are often cited to support how Jesus disdained Jewish man-made traditions and supposedly taught only from the “pure” Word of God (although we have a good indication in John 10:22 that Jesus celebrated the tradition of Chanukah).

I specifically quote the “Halacha Highlight” above because of the following line:

Perhaps they can be as far apart as sixteen mil since they should be able to see one another but perhaps forming a minyan follows a different set of rules. He leaves the matter unresolved.

The collection of talmudic rulings and judgments and their associated commentaries are vast and it literally requires years of study to become even somewhat proficient at understanding their wisdom and meaning. Here we also see that these rulings and commentaries are not always definitive. That is, they don’t always take the force of “thou shalt not” or “thou shalt” and many discussions on halakhic matters are left “unresolved.” In fact, the validity of judgments and how (or if) they are to be enacted can be hotly debated to this very day in Rabbinic circles. There is not always absolute agreement about how these “man-made traditions” are to be lived out in everyday Jewish existence. Local authorities often contradict more historic and global sages and typically, a Jew will form their religious practice around the decisions of their Rebbe or local synagogue Rabbi.

So why should you care?

If you’re not Jewish, you don’t have to. Even if you are Jewish, if you don’t consider any rulings of any Rabbis anywhere, including what we have recorded in Talmud, as authoritative, then you don’t have to care either (unless you suspect that somewhere inside those rulings is the will of God). There are plenty of atheist Jews who work on Saturday, eat ham sandwiches and shrimp scampi, and who have never worn a tallit (let alone prayed to God). They apparently don’t care about what the Talmud says and if you are a Jewish person who is religious but not in a traditional Jewish manner, then you can also decide not to care.

That doesn’t mean the Rabbinic sages don’t have authority within their communities, it just means you choose not to consider them having authority over you and your community. God will sort all that out at some point and then we’ll know for sure. Right now, there’s enough doubt to result in their being many different ways to live as a religious Jew let alone as a religious Christian (including Gentile Messianic and Hebrew Roots). Either God accepts the variations we have created with the patience of a kind Father toward small and confused children or He’ll show us all where we “got it wrong” in the end of days.

However, human nature says we’re going to continue to jockey for position, so to speak, and attempt to establish our own authority and “correctness” relative to the people and groups with which we disagree. We see that happening all of the time, even within the context of the Talmud itself. Judaism isn’t always about “getting it right” but rather, it’s sometimes about struggling with the Torah, other Jews, and God. It’s not a crime to disagree in Judaism (but don’t try it in Christianity or the “Messianic” worlds unless you want to get into the spiritual equivalent of a bar fight), it’s expected, and on just about any subject.

A few days ago, I was talking with my wife about a topic on which I was emotionally sensitive and she started arguing with me. I have to admit, I got kind of put out by her attitude and started to walk away when she stopped me. She reminded me that we’ve been married for almost 30 years and that she’s always argued. She then said something like, “I’m Jewish. I argue. That’s what we do.” In other words, she was saying, “Don’t take it personally.” I like a good debate every now and then (though obviously, not on every possible occasion) and one of the things I try to promote is being able to disagree without personalizing conflict. This is quite possible, even outside of a Jewish context. I’ve seen a prosecuting and a defense attorney practically come to blows in open court during a trial only to become best friends and make dinner plans together after the trial was over and the jury left the courtroom.

It’s tough not to take religious arguments personally because our faith is the most personal thing about who we are. When someone disagrees with how we perceive our faith, we hear that disagreement as “them’s fightin’ words”, to employ an old, Western TV show phrase. In fact, they aren’t “fightin’ words” unless we choose to make them such. Still, the best many of us can do is “agree to disagree” and drop the conflict as “unresolved” (see my opening quote at the top of the page). Like it or not, that’s the way we are going to have to leave many of our questions and disagreements…until the time of Messiah’s return.

Until then, may we all find the ways of peace with each other, no matter how differently we see ourselves and God.

The blessing Jacob gives Judah concludes with the words: “his eyes will redden from wine, and his teeth white from milk.” Rabbi Yochanan says homiletically (Kesubos 111b) that you can read it as “teeth whiter than milk” — to give a smile to a friend is even greater than giving him nourishment.

When someone comes collecting charity, it is a difficult and often thankless job. Rejection can break a person’s spirits and keep him or her from continuing, no matter how important the cause. So, as it happens, a smile may be one of the most important things you can give — you can brighten that person’s spirits and enable him or her to persevere.

Closer to home, there is no one who doesn’t have a “hard day” now and then. There are great people who have tremendous internal reserves of happiness, so that no matter what, it seems like they are always happy. Even people like that need an encouraging word now and then — much less the rest of us, who sometimes just want to crawl back into bed and start over tomorrow, if not next week!

To be generous of spirit is at least as important as being generous with money — and when it comes to smiles, the more you give, the more you have!

-Rabbi Yaakov Menken
“Brother, Can you Share a Smile?”
Commentary on Torah Portion Vayechi


Because of our traditions, we’ve kept our balance for many, many years. Here in Anatevka, we have traditions for everything… How to sleep, how to eat… how to work… how to wear clothes. For instance, we always keep our heads covered, and always wear a little prayer shawl that shows our constant devotion to God. You may ask, “How did this tradition get started?” I’ll tell you! I don’t know.

But it’s a tradition… and because of our traditions… Every one of us knows who he is and what God expects him to do.

Fiddler on the Roof (1971)

Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach answered, “Although there is no source in the poskim, this is the custom and it has been the custom for quite a while.”

Mishna Berufa Yomi Digest
Stories to Share
“A Sign of Mourning”
Rema Siman 131 Seif 2

Powerful and moving as study can be, Judaism has to do more than challenge us intellectually. If it is to help us search for spirituality and quest for a sense of God’s closeness, Jewish life has to give us opportunities to express hope and fear, joy and grief. It has to connect us not only to tradition and to our history, but to family and community. It has to create moments in which we touch the innermost parts of who we are, when we can appreciate the miracles of everyday living and when we can reconnect to the dreams we have for ourselves, our families, and the world. Judaism, if it is to provide Jews with something that will truly shape their lives, has to make room for the soul no less than for the mind. That is why in addition to the world of words and text, Jewish life also revolves around ritual.

-Rabbi Daniel Gordis
“Ritual – Creating Space for Spirituality” (pp 102-3)
God Was Not In The Fire

As I make my way through Rabbi Gordis’ book, I find myself falling in love with Judaism all over again. I know people can stab and poke at Jews and Judaism and find fault, but I suppose that’s because Jews are human and not perfect and the rest of us are human and not perfect. But there’s something so beautiful and calming about the traditions in Judaism. There’s an order and a “centeredness” about a devout life, from saying the Modei Ani upon awaking to reciting the Bedtime Shema before retiring. People, whether secular or religious, who do not have a tradition from which to draw and add meaning to their lives, must experience existence in such a colorless dimension. It seems rather sad when religious people disdain tradition, because it’s part of what gives context and meaning to a life lived for God. Tradition and ritual also provides direction and form to trust and faith because without them, the Bible does not say in precise detail how we are to even worship.

Shabbat is not the only ritual in Jewish life that fosters relationship and connection. While each life-cycle ritual (the bris, naming ceremonies for girls, weddings, funerals, and the like) has its own symbolism and its own message, and each holiday on the annual calendar cycle (Rosh Ha-shanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Passover, Shavuot, and the others) celebrates a different value or event, what ultimately makes them powerful is the sense of community that they provide. Sharing many of these holidays and life-altering moments together somehow creates the connectedness that many modern Jews desperately want but have not found elsewhere. When they finally find that connection, they find spiritual richness, a sense of intimacy. They find meaning (Gordis, pg 108).

I think this is part of what makes Judaism so attractive for some non-Jews. I know it’s what attracts me but I recognize the inherent limits as well. Ritual does not a community make, at least not right away. It’s not as if I could simply enter a synagogue on Erev Shabbat and gain an immediate sense of belonging. I would have to stay, perhaps for many years, and allow my life to be molded by the rituals and ceremonies of the community. I would have to allow myself to become connected and the community would have to be willing to allow that connection. Rabbi Gordis wrote this book primarily for a Jewish audience longing to return to or to discover the spiritual meaning in their Judaism. I think Goyim like me just get hooked and taken along for the ride without the author’s full intention.

After all, it’s not like other religions don’t have traditions and rituals, even if they don’t recognize their behaviors by those names. Consider the rituals and traditions of the church. We’ve just finished the Christmas season and many believers in the church find deep meaning, both personal and as families, in celebrating the birth of Christ. It’s not important to them that Jesus was probably born no where near December 25th or that the origins of the modern celebration are attached to ancient, pagan festival practices. The meaning is found in tradition, not the history books. This is true for the other important Christian calendar events and rituals such as Easter, but also includes marriages, funerals, the ritual of communion, baptisms, and a myriad of other activities that define Christian living and life. People outside those traditions may not agree with how the church constructs its rituals and some folks are even vehemently opposed to Christian traditions, but traditions are the structure and the building blocks from which we construct our faith and relationship with God and our fellows.

But there are so many traditions, both within the church and the synagogue. I remember, many years ago, sitting in the local Reform shul when a woman asked the Rabbi (I’m paraphrasing, since I can’t remember what she said word-for-word), “Why do we have so many traditions? It’s like every country we were kicked out of, we took their traditions with us. We have so many. I can’t remember them all.”

It was kind of humorous, and kind of frustrating, and kind of sad the way she asked (you had to have been there…her vocal inflections and pacing gave a wealth of meaning). All of those traditions and rituals are what makes Jewish living uniquely “Jewish”. Not that there’s just one way of being “traditionally” Jewish, as Rabbi Gordis relates (pg 104):

As we examine the world of Jewish ritual, we should not anticipate one authoritative reason for each ceremony or custom. Just as each Jew who studies classical Jewish text reaches different conclusions about its meaning and is touched in profoundly personal ways, so, too, each person drawn to Jewish ritual is drawn by something slightly different. The wisdom of Jewish ritual is that it works on many different levels. Often, it functions in different ways for even the same person.

Particularly for a Jew, ritual and tradition connects them to the study of the sacred texts (Talmud torah), to other individual Jews, to the larger Jewish community, and to the wonder of God. It also connects the Jew to himself and his own personal identity as a Jew beyond an ethnic definition. When a Jewish man davens in the morning wearing a kippah, talit gadol and laying tefillin, feeling the siddur in his hands, singing prayers that are hundreds and even thousands of years old, how can he not feel inside of his soul that he is a Jew?

I, of course, am looking in from the outside, but even to me, this is abundantly apparent. It is no wonder that those who chose to try and destroy Jewish life over the long march of time have burned thousands of copies of the Talmud and siddurim, and forbidden Jewish families from lighting Shabbos candles or praying in synagogue. Even with the threat of certain death, under the most horrible conditions possible, Jews have refused to give up the rituals that say to the world that they are Jewish.

Consider the testimonies of Jews who survived the Nazi death machine and who told of Shabbat in the camps. They spoke of inmates who violated the Nazis’ law, risking immediate death by hoarding their bread from Thursday so that they could have two pieces on Friday (symbolic of the two loaves of challah that tradition requires on Friday evening and Shabbat afternoon). Why would people on the verge of starvation, in which Shabbat could scarcely be celebrated, take this risk? What was to be gained?

What they stood to gain was a chance to reassert their denial of Nazi Europe as an ultimate reality. Honoring Shabbat, even in a murder camp, was their way of saying, “I believe in the possibility of a better world. I deny that you are the real ruler. Despite you, I insist that I am human, that I am created in God’s image, and that one day, a world will arise when good will triumph over evil, when God will triumph over you.” (Gordis pg 120)

I know of no other religion or religious people, not even those Christians who have suffered terribly for their faith, who have something so powerful in their lives that they could be inspired to defy death for the sake of honoring the Shabbat and God.

Some non-Jews are so turned toward the delight of Judaism in their hearts that they convert and make being Jewish their life, adopting the rituals and traditions as their own. There are others who do not convert but who attempt to integrate at least some of what they see as precious in the Jewish life into their own as a form of worshiping Jesus or Yeshua as Savior and Messiah. This gets a little dicey when you start making decisions about which traditions you want to keep and which you want to discard, and the Gentile Christian (who may not even believe he still is a Christian) finds himself in the uncomfortable position of actually re-defining Judaism to suit his personal and religious requirements. It’s sort of like a person who has lived in Los Angeles all his life deciding to move to a small rural town in Colorado because he is attracted to the beauty of the Rocky Mountains, clean air, and simple living. Then, upon his arrival, he rebuilds Los Angeles all around him, brick for brick, car for car, freeway for freeway, because it makes him feel more “comfortable” with “country living”.

If you are going to change your lifestyle, you must come to the realization that you are the one who must change, not traditions and rituals. You accept them and change, or you reject them and admit that you do not want to live as a Jew (the latter being the wiser course of action for most non-Jews).

There is one “Jewish” ritual Rabbi Gordis describes that I think belongs to all human beings, though. There’s a blessing a Jew says upon seeing a rainbow in the sky.

Blessed are you O’ Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who remembers the Covenant, is trustworthy in His Covenant, and fulfills His promise.

Praying with TefillinHowever, this covenant was made with Noah who fathered not only Shem (the Semitic people including Jews) but all of humanity after the flood. The covenant spoken here is with mankind and all human beings can bless the heart of God in this gentle tradition.

But the vast majority of Jewish traditions are…well, Jewish. If you are going to adopt any of them for whatever reason (and keep in mind, some Jewish people might take exception if you end up imitating or “characterturing” Jews), please try to understand what you are doing and why you are doing it. Lighting the Shabbat candles honors God as Creator but it doesn’t make you a “spiritual Jew” nor does it say that you are now co-owner of Judaism because you are grafted in (Romans 11). It also doesn’t mean that you can declare yourself “Messianic” as if you are totally divorced from Christianity, and redefine the Torah, Talmud, halachah, and ritual, throwing into the trash whatever doesn’t suit you, and believe that you are in a “Judaism”. You may be doing something, but it probably isn’t very “Jewish”.

One of the “Thou shalt not covets” should be not to covet thy neighbor’s religious practices or his covenants unless you convert to your neighbor’s religion or have another compelling reason to take some on them on board, such as being intermarried. I previously wrote another meditation called Dayenu with that in mind.

Tradition is what gives our faith experience a structure and meaning but what attracts us to a certain tradition may defy logic. Most people love their traditions because it’s what they grew up with and their traditions provide a reminder of childhood comfort, safety, and simplicity. However there are those of us who are drawn to traditions completely alien to our parents for reasons only God knows. Where ever your heart goes and whatever traditions you find yourself practicing, if they belong to someone else, be polite, try to ask permission to join in, and treat the rituals and blessings gently. They may be new to you, but they’ve been precious to others for a hundred lifetimes.

Splinters in the Soul

That same night he arose, and taking his two wives, his two maidservants, and his eleven children, he crossed the ford of the Jabbok. After taking them across the stream, he sent across all his possessions. Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.” But he answered, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” Said the other, “What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.” Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.”Genesis 32:23-29 (JPS Tanakh)

I wrote The Difference Between Night and Day as today’s “morning meditation” but I’m really dissatisfied with it. It’s too long, too unfocused, and just doesn’t say what I want it to say. In fact, I didn’t really know what I wanted to say until I started reading Rabbi Daniel Gordis’ book God Was Not in the Fire this morning. Then in finishing up the first chapter, I read this:

The Jewish tradition recognizes that to be a human being is to perpetually ask questions, to wonder without ever fully satisfying our wondering. Frustrating though many of our deepest and most personal questions are, we cannot put them aside, no matter how hard we try. Judaism teaches, in fact, that we ought to not even try. Jewish tradition suggests that to be human is to wonder and to ask, to dream and to cry. To be human means resigning ourselves to the inevitability of not completely understanding the world in which we live, but at the same time committing ourselves to persisting in trying. Judaism does not demand that we have the answers; instead, it validates our struggles and encourages us never to give up.

Rabbi Gordis is defining not only Judaism but admittedly, humanity. Ironically, this isn’t how I experience Christianity. Christianity is the arrival at the answer that Jesus Christ ends all of our struggles of faith. In becoming “saved”, we are supposed to lay our burden down at the base of the cross and let Jesus pick it up for us. There is no weight upon our shoulders (supposedly) as believers and the church is the answer to everything.

I’ve never found that particularly satisfying. The church might say the reason Rabbi Gordis defines Judaism as he does is because Jews are without Jesus and without Jesus, they will always be missing something. However, I believe that even with faith in Christ, the church engages in a type of denial of experience and pretends that struggles of faith never happen to the “true believer”. If a Christian ever is tempted to “wrestle with God”, it is because our faith is weak and we have not taken our sorrows to the cross and “bathed them in prayer”.

And yet my entire existence as a person of faith is completely captured by Rabbi Gordis’ description, as the proverbial fly in amber (and this isn’t the first time I’ve used Jacob’s wrestling match to illustrate my thoughts). He continues:

Rather, being a Jew is about struggling to understand our place in the world, working to become more fulfilled human beings, and recognizing throughout that the process may be more important than the final product.

I suppose another way of saying that is the old traveling adage, “getting there is half the fun.” Actually, it’s like getting there is the whole point. Arriving will take care of itself. Even Paul, near the end of his life, said:

For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. –1 Timothy 4:6-7

He goes on to speak of the “crown of righteousness” that is awaiting him, but the whole point of his life wasn’t the final reward, but the race he ran against history and religion to carve an indelible notch in the substance of time that would allow the commandment of the Master to make the nations into disciples (Matthew 28:18-20) to be fulfilled. Although Paul’s struggle ended in Rome and he is now at peace, he paved the way for the endless struggles of countless generations of the peoples of the world to become reconciled to the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses.

Anyone who has an encounter with God in any fashion carries on that struggle today as we wrestle with God to try and understand who we are, why we are the way we are, and what we can do about it. The minute you arrive at a final conclusion and say, “this is it” and put down the burden, you have lost something. Sure, you may have established your relationship with God through Jesus Christ, go to church on Sunday, and celebrate Christmas and Easter, but you more than likely have a stale and lifeless existence. It’s like getting married, settling down into a pattern of life, and then completely ignoring your spouse, except for the niceities of asking for the salt across the dinner table or what movie you should see together on Saturday night.

If Christianity could more fit the description of Judaism offered by Rabbi Gordis, would that constitute “revival?” Rabbi Gordis in his book, attempts to re-energize “spiritual Judaism” but I read it as re-energizing “spiritual humanity”.

We are all struggling to find God and for those of us who believe we have had that encounter, we must never stop struggling. It’s the “wrestling match” that defines us, not who happened to win the match on any given day.