Home Safety is a Mitzvah

Image: Life preserver hanging on a wall. Photo by tookapic.

When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, so that you do not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone should fall from it. -Deuteronomy 22:8

We often think of spirituality as a high and lofty subject, but Jewish spirituality can be a gritty pursuit. At its best, it permeates our daily lives, for the mitzvot [commandments] often address very practical matters.

The commandment above is one of my favorites. It addresses the question of home safety: put a railing on your roof so that no one will fall off. The rabbis extended this to include the principle of all home safety matters: if I have a loose stair, or an unlighted entry, or a tricky throw rug, the Torah commands me to fix it, lest someone be injured.

I’m engaged with this mitzvah right now, because I’ve begun my Passover preparations. Every year at this time I check my “earthquake supplies” (really, emergency supplies) to make sure that I can take care of myself, my family and my two elderly neighbors should a big earthquake hit or some other disaster complicate life in the Bay Area.

I do this as part of my Passover prep because it’s very convenient time to do it. One of the things I do is cart last year’s canned tuna and peanut butter to the Food Bank. It’s all still good, and someone will benefit, but when/if there’s trouble, I won’t be stuck eating ten year old peanut butter for a month. I promptly sell the renewed supplies to my non-Jewish son, who is the official owner of my emergency stash, so I can still observe a kosher Passover.

Silly? Nope. I have vivid memories of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, which was not “The Big One” but was certainly the Bad Enough One which wrecked our home and disrupted our lives for more than a year. The next big quake may very well cut me off from water and food for an extended period, so I prepare.

If you don’t live in earthquake country, you still need to be ready for emergencies. Should something bad happen in your neighborhood, can you lay hands on these things?

  • Clean (probably bottled) water (1 gallon per day per person)
  • Nutritious food (high in protein and/or calories)
  • Can opener
  • Flashlight, with extra batteries
  • Battery-operated or crank radio
  • First aid kit
  • Prescription meds
  • Emergency blanket or wrap
  • Shoes
  • Copies of essential personal documents (whatever you’d want to have if the house burned down, God forbid)
  • Chargers for electronics like your cell phone
  • Phone numbers and contact information
  • Copies of passports and driver’s licenses
  • Cash in small bills (ATMs may not be working)
  • Baby supplies (if needed)
  • Pet supplies (if needed)

I also have a roll of duct tape, a multi-tool knife, a bottle of detergent, a whistle, my ham radios, spare eyeglasses and a spare bottle of propane.

There are also things I don’t keep around, because they decrease the safety of anyone in my house: guns and cans of gasoline top that list.

I hope that we’ll never need this stuff. I hope you will never need your emergency supplies, either. But if you need a push to update your kit, now you’ve got it: it’s a mitzvah!

 

 

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Meditation on a Tallit

Image: A young boy puts on a tallit. He is wearing tefillin as well. Image by 777jew.

One of my teachers, Rabbi Dr. Rachel Adler, wrote to me after I published the post Why a Prayer Shawl?, suggesting in her very gentle way that there is also a poetic side to the tradition of wearing a tallit, a prayer shawl, for morning prayers.  A tallit is much more than a holder for the ritual fringes, the tzitzit.

I knew this, but I was so busy giving the basic facts that I forgot the poetic side, which is just as important, perhaps more important. So here I offer to you a poem I wrote and gave as a bar mitzvah gift some years back. For its imagery, it draws upon the psalms and prayers one traditionally says before donning the garment. If you are curious about those connections, click the links within the poem.

Meditation on a tallit

In honor of Jesse Benjamin Snyder, Bar Mitzvah, 20 Cheshvan, 5764

 The psalmist tells us that before God made the world
God wrapped Godself in a robe of light, a bright tallit:
Light before the dawn of the world, light before the making
Of the first day, the first ray to split the darkness forever.

Like a mother wrapping a newborn, the wings of Shechinah
Envelop us: soft as silk, warm as wool,
All colors, all together, white light. We will wrap the mitzvot
Around our frail shoulders, against the winds of the world.

Touch the tzitzit: Notice the cord
that winds around, binding the fringe together.
Finger the knots. So may we wrap ourselves and our lives
Together in wholeness, together in holiness, strengthened in covenant:
Touch the tzitzit.

Arrayed in the majesty of the Holy, we are robed like royalty:
Tasseled front and back, in folds of rich fabric. We are commanded
To wear tzitzit, so that we will remember and we will act:
We are a nation of priests, working to mend the world.

The psalmist tells us that before God made the world
God wrapped Godself in a robe of light, a bright tallit.
God has woven me a tallit, to match:
I will wrap myself in mitzvot, to do God’s work.

Why a Prayer Shawl?

Image: Air Force Jewish Chaplain (Capt.) Sarah Schechter leads Jewish Services, wearing traditional Jewish prayer shawl at 332 AEW Jt. Base Balad, Iraq. Public Domain.

If you read the Torah all the way through, nowhere will you see mention of a tallit, or prayer shawl. And yet that is one of the most ubiquitous symbols of Judaism, so much so that it was the basis for the design of the Israeli flag! What’s the story?

Tzitzis_Shot
Tzitzit fringe. Public domain.

The first thing to know about the tallit is that it is primarily a holder for a mitzvah. The “business end” of a prayer shawl are the long fringes hanging from its corners. They are called tzitzit (tzeet-TZEET). There may be other, smaller fringes, but those don’t count; only the multi-knotted fringes affixed to the corners of the garment are important. Those fringes are commanded in two places in the Torah:

Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them that they make for themselves throughout their generations fringes for the corners of their garments, and that they put with the fringe of each corner a thread of blue.  And it will be to you a fringe, that you may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Eternal, and do them; and that you will not go about after your own heart and your own eyes, which may lead you astray. [Do this so] that you may remember and do all My commandments, and be holy unto your God.– Numbers 15:38-40

and

Make yourself twisted cords upon the four corners of your clothing, [the clothing] that you [use to] cover yourself.– Deuteronomy 22:12

There was a time, in the distant past, when all Jewish men wore tzitzit on any four-cornered item of clothing. Nowadays our clothing is more complex, so it is necessary to fashion clothing that has just four corners.

Man_wearing_tallit_katan
Man wearing tallit-katan (see fringes.) Photo by Gilabrand at English Wikipedia.

Most Jews fulfill this commandment by wearing a special four-cornered garment, the tallit, for morning prayers. Some Jews choose additionally to observe the mitzvah at all times by wearing a four-cornered undergarment, a tallit-katan, with fringes that they may choose to leave hanging out or may choose to tuck in privately. A tallit-katan is usually made of knitted or woven cotton fabric, much like a tee shirt. It looks like a little poncho, with the fringes falling from the four corners. (See photo to the right; alternatively, search for “tallit-katan” and you can see photos of the garment alone for sale.)

Historically both the tallit and the tallit-katan have been garments worn by men. In the latter half of the 20th century, more and more women have adopted the tallit, since they, too, understand themselves to be obligated to remember all the commandments. Very few women (so far) have adopted the practice of wearing tallit-katan.

The tallit itself may be made of any fabric, provided it is not shatnez (a mixture of wool and linen.) The tzitzit may be made of wool, or of the same material as the tallit.  Most people use specially-spun woolen yarn for the tzitzit.

To sum up:

  1. A tallit [prayer shawl] is a holder for its ritual fringes [tzitzit.]
  2. We are commanded to wear tzitzit to remind us of all 613 commandments.
  3. The commandment to wear tzitzit appears twice in the Torah.
  4. Historically the tallit was seen as a male garment.
  5. Today many Jewish women express their understanding of commandedness by wearing a tallit with tzitzit.
  6. A tallit may be made of any permitted fabric, and the tzitzit must be wool, or the same fiber as the tallit.

Do you wear a tallit? A tallit-katan? What are your reasons for wearing or not wearing it? Do you identify as male, female, or other?

Do you have any other practice that reminds you of the commandments?

Save A Life! (Save a World!)

Until September 22, 2015, I was a regular blood donor. That’s the day I was admitted to the ER gasping for breath. The doctors concluded that for reasons unknown, my blood had begun clotting more often than needed, and my lungs were full of clots. I left the hospital on a regimen of blood thinning drugs, and they recommended I stay on them, lest another clot stop my breathing, or my heart, or my brain.

Not long after, I found out that this life saving drug made it impossible for me to donate blood safely.  The Red Cross no longer can accept me as a donor.

One blood donation has the potential to save as many as three lives.  I’m posting today to encourage you, if you are able, to donate blood. Yes, it takes a little time. Yes, a needle stick is uncomfortable. But there are few things a person can do that can give so much to the world.

Some facts:

  • Today, fewer than 4 of every 10 people in the U.S. are eligible to give blood.
  • Fewer than 1 in 10 actually donate.
  • Approximately 40,000 pints of blood are used each day in the United States.
  • 3 teaspoons of blood can save a baby’s life.
  • Most whole blood donors can give every 8 weeks.
  • Blood lasts only 42 days.

– info from www.bloodsource.org

Want to do a mitzvah that will cost you nothing but a little time? Use this website to find a blood donation center or drive near you.

Whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.

— Tractate Sanhedrin 37a.

 

Organ Donation: A Jewish Take

Not every Jew is a reliable source of general information about Judaism. Not all of us have had extensive Torah education, for starters. Some Jews will say, “I don’t know, ask a rabbi” and others will tell you what their bubbe [grandma] told them on the subject. For them, that might be more authoritative than any rabbi.

One of the subjects where there are a lot of bubbe-meisers [grandma stories] going around is organ donation. The fable you might hear is, “NO! If you allow someone to harvest organs from a body, it can’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery!”

The question of organ donation is complex. If we are talking about a donation from a brain dead body, and it will almost certainly save the life of the recipient, then Reform, Conservative, and many Orthodox sources agree, this is not only a permitted donation, it is a mitzvah. The principle involved is pikuakh nefesh – saving a life.

Since the onset of the modern era of organ transplantation in the 1950s, leading rabbinic authorities from throughout the religious spectrum have seen in this new technology a new and effective means of fulfilling a divine mandate to save life – an obligation first expressed in the Torah itself: “You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” Organ donation is a new means to fulfill an ancient, eternal religious duty: a mitzvah of the highest order. – from Synopsis of Teshuvah on Organ Donation, by Rabbi Joseph H. Prouser (Conservative Movement)

However, that’s the big picture. What about the donation of corneas, which give vision to the blind but do not technically save a life? What about donations that will extend medical knowledge, but not immediately save a life? In such cases, I’m going to say this: talk to your rabbi. Not some random rabbi, not some rabbi on the Internet, but YOUR rabbi. Don’t have a rabbi? If you are serious enough about being Jewish to have such questions, then you are serious enough to need your own rabbi. Get one.

Know that the Internet is full of “authorities” who make all sorts of pronouncements. You can likely find someone who says anything you want to hear, whether that’s “anything is OK, don’t worry” to “no organ donations from a dead body ever, under any circumstances.” The Internet is the Wild West: anyone can call themselves “rabbi” but that doesn’t make them one, nor does it necessarily make them the right rabbi for you.

Questions like the ones above require conversations. You may say, “It’s a simple yes or no!” but no, it isn’t. A lot depends on how you understand Jewish law or tradition (and as much as some folks would like you to think there’s one proper way, no there is not – not even among Orthodox communities and rabbis) and a lot depends on the fine details of a situation. So you need to talk to a rabbi.

And now I hear it coming in the Comments: What do you think about the fine points, Rabbi Adar? What’s on your organ donation card? And here, because I so badly want you to get your own real live actual rabbi, I’m going to say,  “None of your business.”

Bottom line: Judaism does not have a blanket condemnation of organ donations. In some situations, organ donation is a big mitzvah. For more than that, talk to your rabbi.

Fifth Night: Dedication

To what shall I dedicate myself this Chanukah?

Time is growing short. There are only three unlit candles on the menorah tonight.

To whom shall I dedicate myself this Chanukah?

Once upon a time, and still in too many neighborhoods, Jews are despised among all the peoples of the earth. There’s a rich irony there, since our Torah is emphatic about a command to love the stranger, to be fair with the one who is not like us.

This command, like many of the mitzvot in Torah, runs counter to human nature. It is natural for us to love those like ourselves. It is easiest to hate and mistreat those who are different. We have suffered from this psychological fact not just in Egypt, but in Europe and America as well. We who have suffered from difference know it all too well.

Tonight I read an article in the Los Angeles Times that reminded me of the mitzvah. The headline reads “After terror attacks, Muslim women say headscarves have made them targets for harassment.” I found the headline alone very interesting: do we know this only from Muslim women? Are there no police reports? Is no one gathering data? Does anyone care?

As a feminist and as a Jew, I am horrified by this news, but I am not surprised. After all, hijabi women (women who wear head coverings) are noticeable in a way Muslim men are not. It probably doesn’t help that photos of one of the San Bernardino murderers show her wearing hijab. However, Westboro Baptist Church members wear crosses and carry crosses and we manage to distinguish between them and Christians who mean us no harm.

I posted the article to facebook, hoping to find ideas for supporting hijabi women (for Chanukah is a festival of religious freedom, is it not?) and was pointed to an article on the subject, also from facebook and reprinted in the Stranger. Sofia Ali-Kahn writes that there are things we can do to support Muslim women. Here are her suggestions, paraphrased a bit:

  1. If you see a someone being harrassed, intervene or call for help.
  2. On public transportation, sit next to the hijabi woman and say asalam ‘alaykum (That means ‘peace to you.’).
  3. If you have a Muslim work colleague, check in. Tell them that the news is horrifying and you want them to know you’re there for them.
  4. Teach your children. Tell them how you feel about this issue, and what to do if they see bullying.
  5. Call out hate speech. This is most important when you are among people who may not know a Muslim.
  6. Learn about Islam, and organize such learning.
  7. Write Op-Eds and letters to the editor.
  8. Call your elected officials, and encourage them to speak out against hate speech in all its forms.
  9. Out yourself as someone who won’t stand for Islamophobia. Speak up. Be public about your support for religious freedom.
  10. Engage the Muslims in your life. Make sure you really feel comfortable standing for and with your Muslim friends, neighbors, coworkers.

There have been times, and still are times, when Jews feel isolated in the world, when people have not spoken up for us. We know what it feels like to be anxious and wary, afraid of what cruelty may come at us out of nowhere.

Torah calls us to treat the stranger with kindness. The Chanukah story reminds us that we have been persecuted for our difference. Let us stand with our neighbors against the voices of darkness. Let us light the fifth candle and dedicate ourselves to love.

Image: The image with this article is by Robert Couse-Baker, some rights reserved. For more information, visit his Flickr page.

 

Giving: Not Just for Tuesday

First there was Thanksgiving, a national holiday established by FDR in 1939. (Yes, yes, there was a feast at Plimoth Plantation in 1621, but it wasn’t an annual feast, much less a national holiday until 1939.)

Then there was Black Friday, a day with complicated roots that sometime in the 1980’s came to mean the day consumers began the American frenzy of holiday shopping.

Cyber Monday came into being in 2005, when a marketing team at the National Retail Foundation decided that online retailers needed an advertising hook to kick off the shopping season.

Finally in 2012 the 92nd Street Y in New York City conceived #Giving Tuesday. They wanted to yoke the power of social media to the energy of the “charitable season,”and it seems to be catching on. (“Charitable season” appears to refer to the combination of the approach of the Dec 31 deadline for charitable donation deductions on U.S. income tax and the “spirit of the season.”)

I am not a fan of the annual consumer madness, but “Giving Tuesday” stands my rabbinical hair on end. It is good to remind people to help others, of course, but the message “Giving Tuesday” sends are the antithesis of Jewish teaching on the subject: it’s not Torah.

Jewish concepts of giving have a complex history, but they are rooted in some straightforward mitzvot. The fundamental idea is that giving is not merely charity (the root of which is the Latin caritas, or love) but tzedakah, a form of justice.

Communal Responsibility – The support of the poor is the responsibility of the community. In ancient times through the middle ages, Jews contributed to the kupah, a local fund for the needy. Maimonides wrote in Laws of Gifts to the Poor: “Any fast where the community eats [at the end after sundown], goes to sleep, and did not distribute tzedakah to the poor is like [a community] that sheds blood.”

Give First, not Last – One of the models for Jewish giving is the terumah, the consecration of a portion of the harvest to the upkeep of communal institutions (the Temple priesthood) in ancient Israel. Trumah came “off the top” – it was separated before anything was sold or consumed. Waiting to give until the shopping is done is a mistaken priority and a bad message.

Serving All Comers – Jewish law specifies that communal resources must serve Jews and non-Jews, locals and foreigners. There is no concept of the “deserving poor” – the only qualifier is poverty.

Everyone Contributes – “Communal responsibility” means that everyone contributes something.  The poor give a little bit and the wealthy are expected to give much more. Maimonides teaches: “Even a poor person who lives on tzedakah is obligated to give tzedakah to another.”

Giving Year Round – Giving is not restricted to a single season. Ideally a Jew makes many charitable contributions throughout the year: before the Sabbath, before holy days, in memory of the deceased, in celebration of life cycle events, and in honor of good people.

For Justice, not for Benefit – The Hebrew term for this sort of giving is tzedakah, related to the word for “Justice.” It is a mitzvah, a sacred duty, to relieve suffering. 

Here’s what I’d prefer:

  • I’d like to see tzedakah come before the feast, not after, and certainly before the orgy of gift-shopping and bargains.
  • I’d like to see more teaching about tzedakah as a spiritual discipline, a holy activity, a way of sanctifying our time and treasure.
  • I’d like to see spirited debates about the ethics of tzedakah among adults in our community. Is Maimonides’ ruling that one must give to any person who says he is hungry out of date in a modern urban environment? What do we owe, if anything, to beggars on the street who ask for pocket change?
  • I’d like to see tzedakah taught and observed not as a fundraising ploy, but as part of the structure of mitzvot that sanctify our community, and beyond it, our world.

 

/end rant