A Question of Jewish Law

May 5, 2017

35. Between Day and Night (Part 1)

Filed under: Festivals,Jewish Law,Prayers and Blessings — chaimweiner @ 8:20 am

Question: What is the earliest time for counting the Omer?

Answer: There is a commandment to count the days between the 2nd day of Passover and Shavuot. To fulfil the commandment, each day is counted on the appropriate day. Therefore, the earliest time for counting the Omer is the beginning of the day.

When does a day start? The Babylonian Talmud says that the day starts in the evening, based on the verse: “And there was evening, and there was morning, day one”. [Gen 1:5] Even so, determining when evening falls and the next day starts is not easy.

Day and night are astronomical phenomena. As the earth turns on its axis it appears to us that the sun moves across the sky. As the sun dips beneath the horizon it becomes dark. At some point between the light and darkness lies the border between day and night.

If we were sitting on a boat on still waters at sea level, near the equator, with clear skies, in a remote area with no light pollution – we would be able to discern several stages in the process of day becoming night. First, we would see the sun start to move down towards the horizon, its rays gradually weakening because of its angle in the sky. We would then see the moment that the ball of the sun first touches the horizon followed several minutes later by the moment that the last sliver disappears beneath the horizon. The sky would still be light, but as the sun continues to sink beneath the horizon it gradually darkens until the stars appear.

To further complicate matters many external factors can change our perception. If we are at a higher altitude the sun would appear to go down later. If we are in a valley surrounded by mountains, the sun would appear to have gone down earlier. The length of time it takes for the sun to go beneath the horizon changes according to our position on the globe. And if there are clouds or air pollution or artificial light in the background, we may not see the stars until much later, if at all.

This gradual transition from day to night provides several potential moments that could count as the beginning of the next day; the sun starting to go down, it reaching the horizon, it disappearing beneath the horizon, the appearance of the first stars. In fact, the Rabbis were unable to determine an exact moment for the beginning of the day. Instead, the period of time during the transition from day to night is called twilight [in Hebrew – Bein HaShmashot  בין השמשות – literally, “between the suns”]. Twilight is of doubtful status. The Sages taught: Twilight is a period of uncertainty, [both] day and night, uncertain it is completely day,  uncertain completely night. [Therefore] impose the stringencies of both days upon it. [BT Shabbat 34b]

What is the exact definition of twilight? The Talmud states:

And what is twilight? From when the sun sets, as long as the eastern face is reddened. If the lower has lost its colour, and the upper has not yet lost its colour, twilight. If the upper has lost its colour and equals the lower, it is night; the statement of Rabbi Yehuda. Rabbi Neḥemya says:  The time for a person to walk half a mil after the sun sets. Rabbi Yossi says: Twilight is like the blink of an eye: This enters and that leaves, and it is impossible to calculate it. [BT Shabbat 34b]

Following this, the evening can be divided it into 3 distinct periods. Up to sunset (defined as when the sun disappears beneath the horizon), it is day. After the stars appear (from a halachic point of view this means 3 medium-sized stars) it is night. Twilight falls during the time between sunset and the appearance of the stars. Exactly when it falls depends on the opinions of the various Rabbis.

Therefore, the ideal time to count the Omer is after 3 stars appear in the sky. Then you can be sure that you counted on the right day. If you count between sunset and nightfall you may have filled your obligation, and you can continue counting.

But is it possible to count any earlier? This is a serious question for those living in northern localities. As the counting of the Omer falls near the summer solstice, sunset can be very late – sometimes near midnight. For this reason, Rabbis have tried to stretch the time that counts as being night as much as possible. I will look at some of the ways this can be done in my next post.


Rabbi Chaim Weiner

Iyar 5777












October 31, 2016

34. When Is a Festival not a Festival?

Filed under: Festivals,Jewish Law,Prayers and Blessings,Shabbat — chaimweiner @ 10:17 am

Question:  After reading the Haftorah on the intermediate Shabbat of the festivals, does one recite the blessing for Shabbat or the blessing for the festival?

Answer: The Haftorah is a passage from the prophets which is read after the Torah reading on Shabbat and Yom Tov. There is no Haftorah reading on the intermediate days of the festivals. For this reason, our first instinct would be to say that since the Haftorah is being read only because of Shabbat, it is a ‘Shabbat Haftorah’ and therefore only the blessings for Shabbat should be recited. However, although the Haftorah is definitely a ‘Shabbat Haftorah’ the day is still a ‘festival day’! Why shouldn’t the festival also be mentioned? Shouldn’t the festival be acknowledged wherever the day is mentioned in a blessing, regardless of whether the activity specifically belongs to the festival or not?

Although the Talmud does not discuss this question directly, it does discuss a related question. In Tractate Shabbat [24 A and B] the Talmud asks whether the special addition for Hanukkah [Al HaNissim] should be added during the Musaf prayer of Rosh Hodesh Hannukah. There is no Musaf for Hanukkah and the prayer is only a ‘Rosh Hodesh prayer’. After some discussion, the Talmud concludes that the Hannukah paragraph is added. We also mention Shabbat in the Neila prayer on Yom Kippur. Although there is no Neila prayer for Shabbat, the day is still Shabbat. Shabbat is mentioned on all the prayers of Yom Kippur whether they are Shabbat prayers or not. This suggests that the Haftorah blessings of the intermediate days of festivals should mention the festival regardless of whether we consider this to be a ‘festival Haftorah’ or not.

But does an intermediate day of a festival count as being enough of a festival for the purpose of mentioning it in the Haftorah blessing. Although the intermediate days have some features of festivals, they are essentially weekdays. It is possible that they are simply not ‘festival’ enough to justify changing blessings.

Surprisingly, in normative Ashkenazi practice, there is a difference between Pesach and Succot. Our practice is that on intermediate Shabbat of Pesach we recite the Shabbat blessing but on the intermediate Shabbat of Succot we recite the festival blessing. The intermediate days of Succot are considered more of a festival than the intermediate days of Pesach.

The roots of this can be found in the Torah. When describing the festival of Succot the Torah dedicates a full paragraph to each of the days of the festival. For this reason, each day is considered a festival in and of itself, and therefore the festival blessing is recited. However, when describing the festival of Pesach, the Torah simply states “you shall eat unleavened bread for seven days” [Lev 23:6] including the intermediate days in this general statement. For this reason, the intermediate days of Pesach are not considered to be separate festivals. Therefore, we use the festival blessing for the Haftorah on Succot but for not for Passover.

This perhaps explains another difference between the two festivals. During the festival of Succot, we recite the full Hallel on each of the days of the festival. But during Pesach, we recite the full Hallel on the Yom Tov at the beginning of the festival, but not on the intermediate days.

Rabbi Chaim Weiner

Tishre 5777

October 19, 2016

Standing by my Brother …

Filed under: Jewish Law,Life Cycle,Prayers and Blessings — chaimweiner @ 12:15 pm

Question: Is it permitted to call two siblings, or a parent and a child, one after the other to the Torah?


Answer: When reading the Torah in public it is the custom to divide the Torah reading into sections and to call different people to read. The number of people who are called up depends on the day. On a regular weekday 3 people are called, on Rosh Hodesh – 4, on Yom Tov – 5, on Yom Kippur 6 and on Shabbat 7. There is also a custom not to call close relatives one after the other. This restriction can make it difficult when there is a family event, such as a Bar or Bat Mitzvah.

The Shulchan Aruch states: Two brothers are allowed to read from the Torah one after the other, and a son after his father, but we do not permit this because of the “evil eye”. Even if one [brother] is called for the 7th Aliya and the other [brother] for Maftir, the second brother should not read because of the evil eye. [OH 141:6]

From this, we see that in principle it is permitted for family members to be called one after the other, but we do not allow it because of superstition. Two members of the same family standing next to each other on the Bimah was considered dangerous and in previous generations, this was a serious consideration. The modern equivalent is the custom of some families not to fly together on the same aircraft in case there is a crash.

Is there any way around this restriction? What if a person says that they are not superstitious and not concerned about the evil eye? Rabbi Chaim Benbenishti (Izmir, 17th Cent.) rules that if a person says that he is not concerned about the ‘evil eye’ we try to dissuade him. [Knesset Hagdolah ad loc.]. From this, we understand that we do not usually allow individual preferences to override communal customs.

There are other approaches, based on the idea that it is sometimes possible to confuse the ‘evil eye’ and reduce the risk. Aaron Samuel ben Israel Kaidanover, (Belarus, 17th Cent.) writes that we are only concerned in a place where they call people to the Torah by name. [Emunat Shmuel 47] However, in a community where names aren’t used, we need not be concerned. [Note: Many communities call people to the Torah simply as ‘Rishon’, ‘Sheini’ without using personal names.)  R. Yakov Shalom Sofer [Budapest, 19th Cent.] writes that it is permitted to call two brothers one after the other in a place where the first brother goes down from the bimah before the second comes up, so that they are not standing next to each other at the same time. [Torat Chaim 141:4]

Another approach is to increase the metaphorical distance between the two siblings and thus decrease the risk. They allow one brother to be called for the seventh reading and the other for Maftir because a Kaddish is recited between the two. Others, such a Yosef Caro quoted above, feel that this not enough of a break, but they would allow two brothers to be called where the second reading is from a separate Torah scroll. This is the case on the High Holydays and festivals. Still, others are more lenient on Simchat Torah, where many people are being called to the Torah. The feeling is that this reading is more of a celebration than a formal legal requirement.

From this, we can see that while there are some limited ways to increase the number of members of the same family who can be called up, the Rabbis were very reticent to reject the prohibition or enable an easy way to get around it.

Many of us are uncomfortable with such superstitious ideas and would happily ignore this rule. It could be that in the past the Rabbis were more superstitious than we are and therefore less inclined to compromise. It could also be that the Rabbis intuitively felt that one family should never be allowed to dominate the public space. Even on our special occasions, the Bimah belongs to the whole community, and families need to respect that.


Rabbi Chaim Weiner

Tishre 5777

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May 18, 2016

Keeping in Sync

Filed under: Festivals,Jewish Law,Prayers and Blessings,Shabbat — chaimweiner @ 7:54 am

Question: This year the 8th day of Pesach in the Diaspora landed on Shabbat. This caused the reading of the Torah in Israel (which doesn’t have an 8th day) and the Diaspora to go out of sync. Why didn’t Diaspora Jews catch up with the reading in Israel on the following week by combining the readings of ‘Achrei-Mot’ and ‘Kedoshim’, which are frequently read together? Why do we wait almost 2 months, when we combine the readings of ‘Matot’ and ‘Masay’, before coming back together?


Answer: Keeping the reading in Israel and the Diaspora in sync was not a priority for the Rabbis. Over much of history most Jews would not have been aware that the Torah readings in Israel and in the diaspora are sometimes different. In both Israel and the Diaspora we follow the same set of rules for deciding when to combine readings, but because the festival calendars are not the same, the readings are sometimes different.

The Torah is divided into 54 different sections known as Parashot. Each week we read a different section from the Torah. Only one Parasha, VeZot HaBracha, is not read on a Shabbat, rather it is reserved as the reading for the festival of Simchat Torah.

The number of Shabbat readings that are required in any given year varies according to the calendar from a minimum of 46 to a maximum of 53. The number of readings that are needed depends on 2 factors; whether it is a leap year (which adds an extra 4 weeks to the year) and on how many festivals during the year land on Shabbat (thus displacing the normal Torah reading and reducing the number of readings that are needed). Altogether there are 14 readings that can potentially be combined, resulting in a maximum of 7 double parashot.

The division of the Torah into weekly readings and the system for combining them to match the calendar is not mentioned in the Talmud. It emerged over time. At the time of the Mishna the weekly reading of the Torah was fluid. There weren’t set readings for each week but rather, there were rules that were followed to make sure that the reading was finished at the appropriate time. For example:

‘Rabbi Simeon ben Elazar says: Ezra established that the curses in the Book of Leviticus should be read before the festival of Shavuot and the curses in the book of Deuteronomy before Rosh Hashanah.’ [BT, Megillah 31b]

Over time these rules became more complicated. Maimonides writes in his code:

“The common custom is that the portion ‘Bamidbar’ is read before Shavuot, ‘Va’etchanan’ after Tisha b’Av, ‘Niztavim’ before Rosh Hashanah. In a regular year (i.e. not a leap year) ‘Tzav’ is read before Pesach. [MT Laws of Prayer 13:2]

The system we now follow for deciding when to combine the readings follows the guidelines set out by Maimonides. The general rule is that we read one portion each week until we come to one of the signposts for correcting the reading. If at that point we are too far ahead in our reading, we double the nearest pair of potential parashot that come before that signpost in order to keep on schedule.

This is how it works. The first 4 double portions [‘Vayakhel’ – ‘Pekuday’ / ‘Tazria’ – ‘Metzora’ / ‘Acharei-Mot’ – ‘Kedoshim’ / ‘Behar’ – ‘Behukotai’] are reserved to adjust the reading for a leap year. They are doubled in a regular year and read separately in a leap year. The remaining 3 potential doubles [‘Hukkat’ – ‘Balak’ / ‘Matot’ – ‘Masay’ / ‘Nitzavim’ – ‘Vayelech’] are reserved for years where a festival lands on Shabbat and the reading gets out of sync with the calendar. There are corrections before Shavuot, before Tisha b’Av and Rosh Hashanah to keep everything on track.

Diaspora communities celebrate an extra day of Yom Tov for each festival. Therefore, in the diaspora it is more common for a Yom Tov to land on Shabbat and more doubles are required.  As a matter of fact, in Israel it never happens that all 53 parashot are read separately over the course of a year. Also, the portions of ‘Hukkat’ and ‘Balak’ are never combined in Israel.

Rabbi Chaim Weiner

Iyar 5776

[Note: there are some unique years when, for a variety of factors, the reading is slightly different from that stated above. These are very rare and there isn’t room to address all of the possible variations in this post.]


Based on: Parsha Management, – Doubling, Halving Accuracy, Shekldon Epstein, Bernard Dickman and Yonah Wilamowsky


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April 28, 2016

As Sweet as Honey

Filed under: Festivals,Jewish Law,Kashrut — chaimweiner @ 9:11 am

Question: Do I need to buy special Kosher for Passover honey?

Answer: It is well known that the kosher requirements are Passover are very strict. Special supervision is required for most items that are to be consumed during the festival. However, honey is an example of an item which is pure, undergoes minimal processing and does not have any obviously non-Passover ingredients. So it is legitimate to ask whether special supervision is required.

This question is discussed in the Talmud.

Raba said: The law is: Leaven, in its time, whether [mixed] with its own kind or with a different kind, is forbidden even when there is only a minute quantity, in accordance with Rav; when not in its time, whether [mixed] with its own kind or with a different kind, it is permitted, in accordance with R. Simeon. [BT Pesachim 30a]

This statement establishes an important principle. During the week of Passover even the smallest amount of Hametz can render an entire dish unsuitable. Therefore, if there is any doubt regarding the standards of its preparation, it cannot be used during the festival. However, before the beginning of the festival, small amounts of hametz that may have inadvertently been mixed into a product are lost in the mixture. And as long as the vast majority of the mixture is suitable [less than 1 in 60], it can be regarded as kosher.

On the basis of this statement Rashi rules that salted meat and cheese that were prepared before the festival without supervision are permitted. The Tur and the Shulchan Aruch [Orech Hayyim 447] rule that certain items that were prepared before Passover without adequate supervision may be consumed during the festival. Joseph Caro, quoting earlier authorities, mentions fresh meat, cheese and honey as examples. This is the accepted halacha amongst the Sephardi rabbis.

However, Rabbi Moses Isserles [Poland, 16th cent.], adds that it is not ‘our’ custom [i.e. in Ashkenaz] to eat cheese, salted fish or salted meat that haven’t been specifically supervised for Passover. Presumably this is because the salt hasn’t been checked for possible hametz. But there are still some items that Ashkenazi authorities allow without supervision as long as they were bought before the festival. The most common of these is milk. Many Ashkenazi Jews buy the milk they need for the entire week before festival begins, relying on the fact that if anything unsuitable inadvertently mixed in the milk would become void.

The difference between ‘salted meat’ and ‘milk’ is that it is perhaps possible that salted meat and fish could inadvertently have hametz mixed in the salting mixture, whereas the presence of hametz in the production of milk is so uncommon that one does not even need to take this into account. We find this consideration amongst the authorities. R. Simeon ben Zemah Duran [ Tashbetz, Algeria 14-15th cent.] writes that it is permitted to use butter that was prepared by non-Jews without supervision as long as it was purchased before Passover because “… our eyes see that there is no mixture of hametz in it, and even if hametz was mixed in before Passover, it would be annulled by 1 in 60 like all other prohibitions”. And Rabeinu Asher [Germany and Spain, 13th and 14th cent.], a leading Ashkenazi authority, writes: “Concerning honey, I have not seen anyone who considers this forbidden during Passover because of the possibility that flour may inadvertently have been mixed in it, for this is a very uncommon occurrence, and if it happened it would have been annulled before the festival.” [Klal 24:4-5]

In our days, health-and-safety precautions that govern the production of food make the chance of a foreign object accidentally being introduced in the production of honey even more remote. For that reason, unsupervised honey should be permitted.

This raises the question of the suitability of many other non-supervised items. Modern production techniques mean that we can be more sure than ever about the hygienic conditions in which factory produced food is prepared. But, on the other hand, there are many additives and production aids that may be introduced to foods without our knowledge, and in many cases it is impossible to know everything that is in the food that we are eating.

For this reason, Ashkenazi Jews should follow the Ashkenazi custom of being strict in the production of Passover foods. We generally seek reliable Kosher supervision of Passover food. However, pure food items that undergo minimal processing can be consumed during Passover on condition that they have been bought before the beginning of the festival, so that anything that inadvertently mixed in them is nullified.

Rabbi Chaim Weiner

Nissan 5776

Based on Ovadia Yosef, Yechve Daat 1:11


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February 26, 2016

Once a Parent, Always a Parent

Filed under: Jewish Law,Prayers and Blessings — chaimweiner @ 2:42 pm

Question: Should a convert recite Kaddish after the death of their non-Jewish parent?

Answer: The custom to recite Kaddish as a memorial prayer is connected to a story about Rabbi Akiva found in various early sources. We are told that Rabbi Akiva happened upon a lost soul in a cemetery; a person toiling away at hard labour because when he came to the gates of heaven after his death he did not have sufficient merits to enter. Rabbi Akiva asked him what can be done to help? The man told him that if his son would recite Yehe Shme Rabba [the key words of the Kaddish]  in public, it would help redeem his soul and enable him to reach his final destination in peace. [Kallah Rabbati 2:9 and others]

There are many ways to understand the story, but the simple explanation is that when we stand before God on our final judgement day our achievements in life are taken into account. This includes not only the things we did in our lifetime, but also, if we raise children who go on to do good deeds, our children’s accomplishments, which stand to our credit. A child has the ability to tip the balance of life in their parents’ favour. Hence the custom for a child to recite Kaddish after the death of their parent for 11 months.

The legal status of convert is complicated. From a philosophical point of view, a convert’s parents aren’t Jewish and one could ask whether Jewish rituals would act in thier favour or not. From a legal point of view, when a person converts to Judaism it is as if they were born anew. Legally speaking, their parents are no longer their parents.

In spite of these problems, there are powerful reasons to think that a convert is allowed, and perhaps is also obliged, to recite Kaddish for their parent. Philosophically, it is hard to think what could be wrong with reciting a prayer on behalf of our non-Jewish person. There are plenty of precedents in the Bible for prayers being said on behalf of non-Jews. And even if from a legal point of view the connection between a child and their parent has been cut, it does not mean that that person isn’t a parent. It is clear that converts still own a huge debt of thanks to their parents who brought them into the world, nurtured them and took care of them throughout their lives. The way we express our thanks to our parents in the Jewish tradition is by reciting Kaddish. The convert, who is now a Jew, should be expected to show their love and concern for their parents through the practices of the Jewish tradition.

There is some discussion in the halachic sources about whether the needs of the convert should take precedence over the needs of a Jewish person in reciting Kaddish. These date to a time when the number of opportunities to recite Kaddish was limited as only one person recited the Kaddish on each occasion. In those circumstances, it is understandable that there was a debate over whose obligation was greater. But the universal custom today is for all the mourners to recite the Kaddish in unison. Although there is no legal obligation, any convert who wishes to recite Kaddish for their parent should be allowed, and indeed encouraged, to do so.

Based on Obadiah Yosef, Yachave Da’at

Rabbi Chaim Weiner

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January 28, 2016

30 – Father of Many Nations

Filed under: Conversion,Jewish Law,Life Cycle,Marriage and Divorce — chaimweiner @ 10:17 am

Question: What is the proper way to refer to a convert when called to the Torah?

Answer: The use of family names is a late phenomenon.  Since many people share the same name, to avoid confusion the custom is to refer to a person together with the name of their father.  This is the case when a person’s father is a Jew.  A person who converts to Judaism is seen as one who has been born again.  Therefore, we no longer link them back to their biological parents.

The earliest evidence we have for the naming of converts comes from headstones found in ancient cemeteries.  From these we know a large number of names dating from the Second Temple period, including several people who were referred to by the title ‘HaGer’, meaning ‘the convert’. This is also the case in early rabbinic literature. One of the early translations of the Bible to Greek was done by Akilas HaGerYehuda ben Gerim was a student of Rabbi Yohanan.  One of the leaders of the rebels in the Great War against Rome was Shimon Bar Giyora, which derives from the word HaGer.  Even if the use of ‘HaGer’ was not universal it was certainly not uncommon.

The use of the word HaGer continues into the Middle Ages.  However, starting from the 11th century we find converts being referred to as ‘Ben Avraham’ or ‘Ben Avraham Avinu’.  Two different explanations are given. Gershom ben Yakov HaGozer, a Mohel  [13th century, Germany] writes that when naming the child of a convert, the child should be referred to as ‘Ben Avraham’ because Abraham was the first convert to Judaism. Rabeinu  Asher [14 century, Germany and Spain] writes that when recording the name of a convert in a GET he is referred to as ‘Ben Avraham’ because Abraham was blessed by God as the father of many nations.  There are many other halachic authorities who rule that the proper way to refer to a convert is ‘Ben Avraham’.

There are also authorities who say that a convert should be referred to as ‘Ben Avraham Avinu’.  Rabbi Alexander HaKohen, [15th century, Germany] an expert on Gittin, writes that one should refer to a convert by the name of ‘Avraham Avinu’ and not just ‘Avraham’ in order not to mislead.  Joseph Karo in the Shulchan Aruch rules that in a GET, the title ‘Avraham Avinu’ should be used.  The use of Avraham Avinu is prevalent since the 17th century.

In recent years there are those who have opposed the use of a special name for converts, pointing out that it is forbidden to shame a convert by reminding them of their former life.  However, historically the title ‘convert’ was not seen as a derogatory title. No one felt that the need to hide the fact that they had converted.

Following historical precedent, the correct way to refer to a convert is either ‘HaGer’, ‘Ben Avraham’ or ‘Ben Avraham Avinu’.  In communities where both father’s and mother’s names are used, it is appropriate to refer to both Abraham and Sarah.

In the case where a child’s father is Jewish, there is no reason not to refer to his biological father.  Also, an adopted child should be referred to by his adoptive parents’ names.  This follows the halachic principle that a person who raises a child assumes the status of a parent.

Rabbi Chaim Weiner

Shevat 5776

Based on ‘What is the Proper Way to Refer to the Parents of a Convert?’

Responsa in a Moment 10:4  – Rabbi David Golinkin.

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January 8, 2016

A Rose by Any Other Name …

Filed under: Jewish Law — chaimweiner @ 2:46 pm

It’s been a long time since I have posted on this blog.  I have been busy in the meantime with other projects, particularly my Hebrew Words blog [myhebrewwords.wordpress.com].  I want to say thank you to all the people, particularly my children, who have been urging me to bring this blog back to life.

Question: What is my Hebrew name?

Answer: This question is asked more frequently than you might think.  In our society people have many different names.  What counts as being your real name according to halacha? What name should be used on formal legal documents like a ketubah or a GET, or when being called to the Torah?

The halacha recognises many different kinds of names. A שם עריסה [shem arisa – lit. cradle name] is the name of person was given when they were born, typically in the synagogue on the first Shabbat after birth or at the circumcision ceremony. A שם כינוי [shem kinnui  – lit. nickname] is the name a person is known by on the street or by their friends.  This may be a shortened version of the birth name or something entirely different. A שם ינקות [shem Yankut – Lit. childhood name] is a nickname a person receives in their childhood and is usually suitable only for children.  For example: The name William [shem Arisa] may become Bill [shem Kinui] and Billy [shem Yankut].  Or there may be other names a person acquires that aren’t really names at all, such as ‘Bubale’, ‘Sweetie’, ‘munchkins’.  A person could have a name used in the family and a different name at work; a name in one country and a different name in a different country.  Finally, there is the שם שנשתקע [shem shenishtaka – Lit. a forgotten name] which are names that a person was known by once but over time have fallen into disuse.  So the question of what counts as a real legal name is more serious than we may have first thought.

The basic principle is that your name is the name you use in everyday life.  If people call you something and you respond to it – that becomes your legal name.  If a person has only an ‘English’ name, then that name is transliterated in Hebrew characters. There are many complicated rules about how to do this, but in any case, as the name that is most frequently used – this is your legal name in Jewish Law. The exception to this rule is when a person is called something which isn’t considered a name at all.  No matter how often a person is called ‘idiot’ or ‘shorty’ it still doesn’t become their name.

The reverse of this is that if you were once given a name, even in a legal context, and you no longer use that name – it stops being your name.  If you were given a name at birth but have not used it since, from a legal point of view that is no longer your name.

If you have a name that is only used infrequently, but you still consider it to be your name, then that name continues to be your secondary name.  This occurs with people who have a secular name in everyday life and a Hebrew name they use when being called to the Torah.  They consider this to be their Hebrew name and it is still occasionally used. Therefore it remains their name.

There is no formal ceremony for a adopting a new name.  The way you get a new name is to start to use it.  After a name has been in use for 30 days it becomes your legal name.

Some documents are more important than others.  When writing a GET it is very important that all of the names are correct.  The common practice is to list all the names that a person is known by, using the formula’ X who is known as Y and who is known as Z’.  In some communities the custom is to write after this list of names the line ‘and any names he/she is known by’.  This catch-all phrase is intended to make sure that no names were inadvertently omitted.

So what is a name?  Shakespeare said that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.  But not in Jewish Law.  A rose by any other name would be a misnamed rose.  And getting the name wrong could make all the difference in the world.

Rabbi Chaim Weiner

Tevet 5776


Based on: Shulchan Aruch. Even HaEzer 129.

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March 11, 2012

A Sabbath Blessing

Filed under: Festivals,Prayers and Blessings,Shabbat — chaimweiner @ 6:26 pm

Question: Should the Priestly Blessing (Birkat Kohanim) be recited on a festival that falls on Shabbat?

Answer:  The obligation to recite the Priestly Blessing is found in the Torah. “Speak to the sons of Aaron: Thus shall you bless the people of Israel. Say to them …” [Num. 6:22-23]. Of all of the positive commandments directed at the priests, it is the only one that is not dependent on the existence of the Temple – and therefore the only one that is still practised today.

According to the Shulchan Aruch, [OC 128] the Priestly Blessing is recited daily during the repetition of the Amidah in the morning service – corresponding to the time it was recited in the Temple. It is also said during the Musaf prayers on the Sabbath and Festivals.

However, amongst the Ashkenzi communities in the Diaspora, it is a long established custom to limit this observance exclusively to the Musaf prayers of the festivals. Rabbi Moshe Isserlis [Poland, 16th century], the major codifier of Ashkenazi practice, writes:   “It is the custom in these countries to only recite the Priestly Blessing on festivals, for that is when one is immersed in the joy of the festival. … and they recite it in the Musaf prayer, before they leave the synagogue engrossed in the joy of the festival.”

Isserlis connects the Priestly Blessing to the concept of joy. There is a special joy on festivals which is different from weekdays and Shabbat. In the Shabbat Amidah, Shabbat is described as a time of love – in the equivalent Amidah for the festivals they are described as a time of joy. The Birkat Kohanim is recited at the end of Musaf, because the joy of Yom Tov is greatest at the end of the service – when one is about to go home to partake in the festive meal.

There are other explanations for the Ashkenazi custom. Some commentators connect the recitation of the Priestly Blessing to the service of the Priests in the Temple. Although the Priests no longer serve in the Temple – the closest we come to Temple service are the Musaf prayers which recount the offerings on the altar, so this is the most appropriate time for reciting the blessing.

Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein [Aruch Hashulchan, 128] [Lithuania, 19th century] rejected this custom. He writes: In our countries we do not recite the Birkat Hakohanim [daily] but there is no good reason for this. He goes on to say that ‘it is a bad custom’. מנהג גרוע הוא There is anecdotal evidence that Rabbi Elijah of Vilna [the Vilna Gaon] wished to reintroduce the daily recitation of the Priestly Blessing – but was prevented from doing so.

Although the custom in the Diaspora is to only recite the blessing on festivals, the custom in Israel is to recite it daily. The reason is probably historical. Amongst the earliest settlers in Israel in the modern period were the students of the Vilna Gaon. They probably brought the Gaon’s practice with them when they came to Israel, and it has remained the custom there to this day.

Many communities refrain from reciting the blessing when a Yom Tov falls on the Sabbath. Rabbi J. Soloveichik challenged the custom. It is reported that when he was a young Rabbi, he sought to introduce it in his synagogue and was subsequently dismissed from his pulpit. [Nefesh Harav]

In summary, although the Ashkenazi custom is to limit the recitation of the Priestly Blessing in the diaspora to Yom Tov, there is no good reason not to recite it when a festival lands on Shabbat. If an Ashkenazi community wishes to reintroduce it, there is nothing to prevent them from doing so.

Rabbi Chaim Weiner

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February 6, 2012

Standing or Sitting

Filed under: Prayers and Blessings — chaimweiner @ 4:04 pm
Tags: ,

Question: How should one recite the Amidah on an airplane, train or in other circumstances where it is difficult to stand?

Answer: The Amidah is one of the central parts of our daily prayer. In the Mishnah it is known as the tefillah – literally the prayer, because it is the prayer par excellence. It is also known as the Amidah which means standing. This is because we stand when reciting it. When we recite the Amidah we feel that we are standing in the presence of God. The Shulchan Aruch states: A person should stand with his legs together as if they were one, to appear like the angels … a person should bow his head and look towards the floor … like a servant in the presence of his master, in a spirit of fear, awe and trepidation … [Shulchan Aruch, OC 95].

It is also important to concentrate during the Amidah and to focus on the words being said. One does not stand to pray except with serious concentration. The pious ones of old used to wait an hour and then pray, in order to direct their hearts to the Eternal One. Even if the king asks about one’s welfare, one does not reply. Even if a snake is curled around one’s ankle, one does not interrupt. [Mishnah Brachot 5:1].

There are times when these two requirements – the fear of God and total concentration – conflict with each other. Praying while travelling is such a situation. The problem of finding an appropriate place to stand and pray while travelling is already reflected in the Mishnah. It rules that if a person was riding a donkey at the time of prayer he should get down from the donkey.  [Mishnah Brachot 4:6] It also rules that persons on a boat, a wagon or raft should stay in their seats and direct their hearts towards the Holy of Holies.  It is simply impossible to stand and concentrate in these situations.

The Talmud [BT Brachot, 30a] further qualifies the obligation to get down from the donkey for prayer. Rabbi Judah the Prince, the editor of the Mishnah, rules that even if a person is in a position that he could get down from his donkey to pray he is not required to do so. The reason is that in any case he will not be able to concentrate on his prayer – and it is therefore better for him to sit. [Maimonides, – Commentary on the Mishnah) We are also told that Rav Ashi [according to tradition, one of the editors of the Talmud] used to pray while sitting down during his lectures at the Kallah convention in Babylon. According to Rashi he did this because it would cause too much commotion if he left the lecture room to go outside and pray. Later, he would repeat the prayer standing up once the lecture was finished.

Based on this, most authorities rule that concentration takes priority over posture, and if one is not able to stand and pray with concentration, it is better to say the Amidah while sitting. Some authorities rule that one should repeat the Amidah standing when it is possible. Joseph Karo rules that there is no need to do so – since there is no guarantee that one will have greater concentration second time around. [Beit Yoseph, OC 94]

Therefore, one should avoid praying in an airplane wherever possible. On a short journey one should pray either before or after the flight, which is usually possible. Otherwise, it is preferable to recite the prayer undisturbed while sitting in one’s seat. A person should only pray standing in the aisle if he is certain that this will not block the way and that he will not be disturbed during the prayers.

Rabbi Chaim Weiner

This study sheet is sponsored by Jewish Journeys Ltd: Currently booking trips to Provence  (The Pope’s Jew’s).

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