Including these examples here shouldn’t be taken to imply that there’s anything wrong with the practices, but instead to emphasize just how much Orthodox Judaism has changed since the start of the modern era.
Why Do We Say Selichos?
Here, perhaps, is a related manifestation of this approach. While there’s certainly no clear evidence to prove it, I think one could argue that the sheer length of our modern Ashkenaz selichos is the result of a mechanistic (“recite-the-words-and-change-the-universe”) mindset.
For the longest time I’ve struggled to understand the selichos recited in Ashkenaz shuls. I don’t mean that I’ve struggled to translate their difficult words: that’s a problem shared universally by everyone I’ve met and it’s hardly unique to me. Rather, I mean that I’ve never been able to fully understand the role that certain parts of selichos are supposed to play in my teshuva efforts.
Let me be more specific. The extended passages filled with familiar verses from Tanach (like שומע תפלה) or that closely reflect patterns already suggested by Chazal (like מי שענה, clearly based on Taanis 15a) are all straightforward. Likewise, the confession (אשמנו) and the thirteen midos. What we’re supposed to draw from all those sections is pretty obvious.
The trouble begins in the paragraphs commonly known as “סליחות.” Why were so many of them written using such obscure and difficult language? I’ve written a book of essays on the navi Yeshaya and given shiurim on Kinnos, so I’m certainly not unfamiliar with poetic and challenging Hebrew. But the selichos included in the Ashkenaz versions for עשרת ימי תשובה are, as the אבן עזרא famously noted in his commentary to קהלת, in an entirely different league.
Thinking about these things led me to other questions: Who wrote those selichos? Who was their original intended audience? Who decided to include them in the order of selichos and what did the Jewish community look like at that time?
I’ll note that I believe there’s essentially no value whatsoever in just reading the words without any understanding. That there might be some magic powers contained in the words that invisibly shift individual and national fortunes at some cosmic level simply by being uttered – and overriding G-d’s will in the process – is, in my understanding, so foreign to traditional Jewish thinking that I won’t even address it here. If you’re not being inspired to change by the content of what you’re reading, you’re not really participating.
Growing up, as they have, in a generation blessed with easily available translations and commentaries, my kids might find it hard to imagine a time when even a casual understanding of selichos was, for most people, simply impossible. But until thirty years back, that was where we all lived. So what really lies behind this minhag?
Enough generalities. I’ll illustrate my point by taking a look at just a few lines from the first selicha (אין מי יקרא בצדק) from the first night of selichos:
אין מי יקרא בצדק
איש טוב נמשל כחדק
“There is no one who can justly call You: a good man is compared to ‘chedek'”
The word חדק might be referring to a thorn (as used in מיכה ז:ד and משלי טו:יט), in which case the gemara (עירובין קא) referenced by the Artscroll commentary would make some sense…except that ר’ יהושע בר חנניא who was, in that source, insulted with the expression, responded that it should actually be seen as a great praise. In the context of our selicha, that seems out of place.
But could the word not also be a reference to the river חדקל and, by extension, to one or more ancient Jews of Babylonia or even to אדם וחוה in גן עדן? Suddenly, even a healthy familiarity with relevant sources leads us to ambiguity and confusion. What did the original author mean? Are we supposed to make our own choices from all the possibilities? And how are we supposed to even think coherently about it if we’re speeding through the text at upwards of 20 syllables per second (don’t laugh: I’ve timed it).
בקש רחמים בעד שחוקי הדק
בשום פנים אין בדק
“Seek mercy for those ground to dust: there is nothing searched”
The word בדק is vowelled to rhyme with צדק and חדק above. But are we to parse the word literally or, as the Artscroll would seem to have it, ignore the vowel and understand it as though it was “נבדק”? Or – as a separate commentary suggests, might it be a reference to בדק הבית, implying that there’s no one among us willing to stand up and support G-d’s holy work (which is a much better fit with the vowellization)?
In some cases, you might argue that “either way, the general sense is clear.” But I don’t believe that’s quite true in this instance, because neither reading feels like a good match with the actual words in their larger context. After all, it’s not clear whether the איש טוב above refers to someone who is genuinely good but misunderstood, or to someone who is revealed to be undeserving. What then, should the subject of אין בדק actually be?
גבר תמים ונבר אפס
גמר חסיד וצדיק נרפס
“There is no uncorrupted or pure man: the chasid is completed and the tzadik is ‘nirpas'”
It’s certainly true that גמר could mean “gone” as the Artscroll has it. But I’m at a loss on נרפס, which Artscroll translates as “trampled.” That would be נרמס, not נרפס. One commentary evokes the talmudic expression “מרפסן איגרא” but that would be strange in the context of the Hebrew prefix (the נ in נרפס) it uses here.
Its use in תהלים סח:לא suggests the word here might mean “muddied” (or, perhaps, “humbled”). But if the person we’re talking about is indeed a צדיק, how are we to take his apparent fall? Or could the meaning be that the people we consider צדיקים are all fakes?
At any rate, these are certainly not ideas that should be decided carelessly – and certainly not at breakneck speeds.
Was there ever a generation whose members were so well versed in the full range of Torah literature and Hebrew grammar that they could be reliably expected to come up with cogent and inspiring interpretations on the fly at each time they recited these selichos? Were these poems even intended for use in such a context?
Of course, there’s nothing stopping us from properly preparing by investing many hours of serious study of all the text that’s read throughout the days of selichos. We could at least work out enough possible interpretations to make a go of it. Well, there’s nothing stopping us besides the fact that very few of us have enough time in our busy lives. The two to three weeks of selichos covered each year probably contain thousands of lines and countless unusual word conjugations, many of which leading to deep ambiguities of meaning. Besides, I’d suspect that relatively few individuals have the background and resources to “make a go of it.”
What Does Modeh Ani Mean?
מודה אני לפניך מלך חי וקים שהחזרת בי נשמתי בחמלה רבה אמונתך
Those 12 words mark the start of each day for many Jews. It’s a beautiful prayer and an expression of the many debts we owe to God. But three of those words might, on reflection, represent a significant theological innovation.
Here’s the whole thing translated:
“I acknowledge before you, the living, eternal God, that you returned to me my soul, with grace and good faith.”
The three words in question are: שהחזרת בי נשמתי – “that you returned to me my soul.” Where’s the innovation in that?
Well for God to have returned our souls first thing each morning, He would have had to have first taken them. And, while relevant but ambiguous language can be found in a few midrashim (see עיון תפילה לספר אוצר התפילות) I’m not sure we should be so quick to assume that death and rebirth is what literally happens each night.
A similar prayer is mentioned in the Jerusalem Talmud (Berachos 4:1 – 29b in the Vilna print):
בשחר צריך לאדם לומר מודה אני לפניך ה’ אלקי ואלקי אבותי שהוצאתני מאפילה לאורה
“In the morning a man must say: I acknowledge before you G-d…that You took me out from darkness to light”
But that makes no mention of the soul and its travels.
So where did the idea come from? As far as I have seen, the first reference to the text of מודה אני itself would appear to be ספר סדר היום, written by the 16th Century kabbalist, Rabbi Moshe ben Makir of Tzfas. As Tzfas during that time was famous for its culture of innovation, it would seem reasonable to assume that Rabbi Moshe himself is the prayer’s author.
But isn’t the idea that our souls are taken each night itself common in traditional Torah literature? Not that I’ve seen. In fact, The Bais Yosef himself (אורח חיים ד), while quoting a Zohar on the subject of washing hands in the morning, testifies that it’s “not found in halachic sources (פוסקים).”
Here’s the Zohar itself (1:184b):
הכא דלית בר נש בעלמא דלא טעים טעמא דמותא בליליא ורוחא מסאבא שריא על ההוא גופא. מאי טעמא? בגין דנשמתא קדישא איסתלקת מיניה דבר נש ונפקת מניה, ועל דנשמתא קדישא נפקת ואסתלקת מניה שריא רוחא מסאבא על ההוא גופא. וכד אהדרת נשמתא לגופא אתעברת ההוא זוהמא…
“There is no man on earth who doesn’t taste the taste of death at night, (as) an impure spirit rests on his body. Why? Because his holy soul …leaves a man and because his holy soul has left, an impure spirit rests on his body. And when his soul returns to his body, the impurity is removed.”
So it’s certainly true that the Zohar associates the concept of a departing soul with the laws of washing hands in the morning. But it’s equally true that, according to the Bais Yosef at least, it’s not an association that finds an easy home within the halachic tradition.
Indeed, the traditional explanations for hand washing in the morning make no mention of our souls. The Rosh (ברכות פרק ט סימן כג) wrote that we should wash because:
לפי שידים של אדם עסקניות הם ואי אפשר שלא ליגע בבשר המטונף בלילה
“A man’s hands are busy (i.e., always moving) and it’s impossible that they didn’t touch unclean parts of his body during the night.”
And the Rashba (שו”ת הרשב”א א סימן קצא) attributed the rule to our need to recognize the spiritual rebirth we have just experienced:
בשחר אחר השנה אנו נעשים כבריה חדשה
“In the morning, after sleep, we become like a new creation.”
…None of which hints to any association between sleep with death. Now, as I’m sure you’re already wondering, the Gemara (Berachos 57b) does state that “sleep is one sixtieth of death.” But it would be hard to see a connection between such a general comparison and the claim that our souls leave our bodies when we sleep.
In fact, as I’ve written on more than one occasion, drawing logical or legal proofs from aggadic sources is virtually impossible: their language and context is just too ambiguous. This would most certainly apply to a passage in that most ambiguous source of all: Zohar.
Just how difficult is it to understand the meaning of the Zohar by reading its words? Let’s see what one of the undisputed giants of Kabbala, Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Bagdad (the Ben Ish Chai), wrote in his halachic work, Rav Poalim (Vol 1, Responsum 56). He was explaining why one should never translate Idra or other Zoharic works into Arabic or any other language. It’s fine, he wrote, to translate the Tanach (even though no translation can capture the full, inner meaning), because the Tanach also has a simple meaning…
משא”כ דברי האדרא וזוה”ק אין להם פשט כלל ובעל המאמר לא כיון לפשט הדברים כלל ועיקר ויש מקומות שהפשט יהיה חירוף וגידוף ואם אתה מתרגם הדברים ללשון אחר נמצא אתה עושה הפשט אמת כי התרגום הוא יהיה כפי הפשט ולפי האמת אין הפשט של דברים אלו אמת…
“Which is not true of the Idra and the Zohar: they have no simple meaning at all. And the author never intended a simple meaning for the words at all. And there are passages where the simple meaning is pure heresy! And if you would translate these words to another language, you will have elevated the simple meaning to ‘truth,’ because a translation is (assumed to be) true. But in truth, the simple meaning of these words is not true.”
The bottom line is, that we really can’t know exactly what the Zohar meant. But we should hesitate before taking this fairly modern prayer as a literal expression of mainstream Jewish belief.
Why Black Hats?
Every now and then I try to understand the thinking behind various policies enforced by modern Torah schools. Here, I’ll discuss some educational and social implications related to the rules governing hats for bar mitzva boys. That’s not to say that such policies are objectively harmful or wrong. Rather, that it’s always worth assessing them with fresh eyes.
First of all, so we can start off with a clear baseline, let me present some possible benefits of such policies:
- Wearing yeshivishe hats is part of an important mesorah and it’s valuable to get boys into the habit of following such practices.
- Wearing yeshivishe hats promotes an elevated self-image that should lead to better behavior.
- Yeshivishe hats are key elements of a kind of yeshivishe uniform that expresses discipline and loyalty to community standards.
- Wearing yeshivishe hats is in itself a higher halachic standard.
Now I’ll explore each of those benefits individually.
While maintaining loyalty to a genuine mesorah is important, I find it difficult to understand how wearing black, snap-brim fedoras qualifies. My own rebbi, HaRav Naftali Friedler זכרונו לברכה, once told me how upset he was that the yeshiva world felt themselves so dominated by chassidim that suddenly only black hats were acceptable. In fact, just fifty years ago you would not have seen anyone wearing anything remotely similar to what’s currently popular – the material, crown shape, and brims from those days would be ridiculed today and, of course, back then all colors were accepted.
Something this new that’s so deeply dependent on fast-changing fashion trends can hardly be called a mesorah.
Perhaps it could be argued that there is, indeed, a mesorah to wear any kind of respectable head covering. But I doubt that’s how it’s commonly understood: how many yeshivos would allow a clean, logo-free baseball cap?
Ok. So maybe it’s the fact that a black, snap-brim fedora is so easily identifiable as a Jewish levush. But then so is a yarmulka.
There’s no doubt that dressing a bit “fancy” can inspire a more restrained and respectful relationship with the world around you. But the downside is that the chillul haShem consequences of misbehavior are much, much higher when ones Jewish identity is more obvious. Confidently weighing the risks and benefits is difficult without access to some kind of reliable historical data.
But here’s one more “data point” that should also be considered. Clothes most definitely affect those wearing them. As an example, Chazal seem to feel that the color red could lead people to arrogance. So let’s not ignore the possible damage caused by encouraging young, maturing bochurim to indulge in an overpriced, fashion-conscious, and hyper-materialistic clothing choice.
I suspect that the possible damage to a young boy’s midos can be greater still when he absorbs the unspoken message that those boys and men who don’t dress this way are defective in their Torah observance (because that is a clear unspoken message in many circles).
Sure, when it comes to halachic observance, we have no choice but to tell our children that Jews who don’t keep Shabbos are wrong at least in that respect. But as we’ll soon see, there are no halachic implications associated with hats.
By the way, I used the term “overpriced” with care. The fact that so many boys continue to insist on purchasing $250-300 hats when comparable versions can be purchased from a fine Jew in Rochester for $55 (see yeshivishhats.com) tells me a lot about what’s driving the fashion. I don’t see any differences between this kind of consumerism and the social forces that drive sales of overpriced brand name eyeglasses and, while we’re on the subject, cars. And I don’t consider either to be particularly healthy.
Those forces – along with the crippling financial pressures they place on families that cannot afford it – should be part of the conversation.
Discipline and loyalty to community standards are certainly valuable but, like “self image” above, their benefits must be carefully weighed against the costs. Ideally, of course, children would happily choose to follow their parents’ minhagim and practices, as their parents happily chose those of their parents. But in the real world, it’s not always like that. Peer and social pressures exert formidable power over communities and families, and there’s no guarantee that the pressures won’t do more damage than good.
Here’s another thought: I’m not currently aware of any source in chazal or rishonim recommending that all Jews dress identically. I do, however, know that Rav Hirsch finds a reflection of the importance of intelligent individuality in Jewish observance in the halachic principle that the tzitzis should be tightly tied for only one third of their length (hinting to our complete loyalty to halacha), but loose for the other two thirds (hinting to the need for independent thought and action).
I also recall once being told by Rav Aharon Feldman (in a very different context) that:
“When sheep have no leader, they huddle together and imitate each other out of fear. And I’m not talking about sheep.”
Widespread blind imitation isn’t the hallmark of a healthy community.
A higher halachic standard
I think that this one is flat out wrong. I don’t believe that there are any halachic arguments for wearing hats. In fact, The Gra (שו”ע או”ח סי’ ח סע’ ב) concludes that there is no halachic obligation of any kind to cover your head at all (except when in the presence of תלמידי חכמים), and it’s only מדת חסידות when davening. Here’s how he concludes that piece:
כללא דמילתא אין איסור כלל בראש מגולה לעולם רק לפני הגדולים וכן בעת התפלה אז נכון הדבר מצד המוסר ושאר היום לקדושים שעומדים לפני ה’ תמיד
And I doubt that the קדושים mentioned by the Gra would have worn our modern hats, as they don’t completely cover the head in any case. They would more likely have done עטיפה of some sort.
That’s not to say that the Gra’s is the only opinion out there, but he doesn’t exist within a vacuum. And I feel that imposing a public policy on maturing children that encourages them to imitate קדושים in the name of halacha would be dangerous.
A Few More Popular Innovations
Including these examples here shouldn’t be taken to imply that there’s anything wrong with the practices, but instead to emphasize just how much Orthodox Judaism has changed since the start of the modern era.
This one is so deeply entrenched in our weekly routines (and so beloved) that it can be hard to imagine that it’s only been around for a few centuries. I’m told that it was actually Rabbi Hirsch who’s responsible for those shuls where the שליח ציבור stands by the בימה rather than the עמוד. This was designed to underline the fact that קבלת שבת is not a תפילה stemming from חז”ל.
All-night learning on שבועות
The earliest reference I’ve found is the של”ה who notes (at great length) the activities of students of the Ari.
Hitting hoshanos against the ground
See משנה ברורה תרס:ח וגם תרס”ד:י”ט.
Reciting לדוד ה’ אורי during Elul/Tishrei
The origin of this custom has been associated with ספר חמדת הימים which is of a relatively recent – and clouded – source.
Bending the knees at the start of Shemone Esrei
The custom to bow at the waist at the start of Shemone Esrei is a gemara (Brachos 28b). But I believe the earliest mention of bending at the knee in a halachic context is the Magen Avraham (אורח חיים קיג:ד) quoting the Zohar.
Ensuring visible binding hairs on Tefilin
The Mechaber himself (לב:מד), according to באר הגולה, quotes the Zohar:
קצת שער זה צריך שיראה חוץ לבתים
A little of that hair should be visible (even) outside the box (of the תפילין של ראש)
The Magen Avraham (61) qualifies that with (what I assume is) another Zohar:
קצת שער: כתוב בספר יש שכר בשם הזוהר שלא יצא השער כשעורה חוץ לבתים
A little hair: The ספר יש שכר quotes the Zohar that the hair should extend outsode the box.
I, personally, was quite surprised when hearing just how recently this widespread custom had entered the halachic realm.
Reciting chapters of תהלים for the ill
I can’t find any authoritative source recommending this practice, but we do know that: “לא נתנה תורה לרפואת הגוף אלא לרפואת הנפש” See ט”ז ליורה דעה קעט ט.
Associating a mother’s name with prayers
Try to get someone to pray for you without having to first hand over your name and that of your mother. Considering the
Gemara (ברכות לד.): כל המבקש רחמים על חבירו אין צריך להזכיר שמו, that seems strange…and modern.
The Jewish calendar has undergone significant adjustments over the past while. Elaborate rituals and observances now accompany ט”ו בשבט, ל”ג בעומר, ופסח שני in ways that were unknown just a few centuries ago.
Naming children after deceased relatives
This seems to be quite modern (again, though: there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it). The kabbalistic notion of thereby acquiring the “שורש הנשמה” of the deceased is also new.
By way of illustration, when the מקדש stood כהנים expecting to enter the מקדש would probably avoid any growth of hair longer than 30 days (כמה הוא גידול פרע שלשים יום כנזיר – רמב”ם ביאת מקדש א:יא). A כהן גדול faced even greater restrictions (ואינו מרבה פרע לעולם שנאמר את ראשו לא יפרע ואפילו בעת שלא יכנס למקדש אלא מספר מערב שבת לע”ש – כלי המקדש ה:ה-ו).
I can’t prove this, of course, but I’m doubtful that a style of hair growth that’s forbidden to כהנים would become fashionable among the general Torah-loyal Jewish population. At any rate, I’m aware of no pre-modern sources that promote long payos and beards.
Growing long beards
Many kashrus organizations reject shochtim who don’t dress according to chassidic fashion or who trim their beards. My understanding is that this practice began in the early years of the 20th Century in North America as an effective way to filter (mostly Lithuanian) shochtim of deeply objectionable beliefs and practices.
That particular risk is long past, but the policy – in direct conflict with שו”ע יו”ד סימן ב – is still enthusiastically embraced. The COR “Kosher Corner” publication from Passover 2020 (https://cor.ca/view/959/cor_passover_magazine_20205780.html) tells us:
“Premier (a kosher poultry production facility) boasts a chassidishe shechita, which means that the shochtim use the mikvah regularly, do not trim their beards, and hold by various other halachic stringencies, both in their personal and professional lives.” (page 92)
Those fashion standards are said to contribute to the יראת שמים of the shochtim. Some sense of the real-world connection between such dress codes and יראת שמים can perhaps be seen by touring New York state penitentiaries and noting the number of untrimmed beards and longer peyos on view.
I’d say it’s also reasonable to conclude that thinking mikvah use improves יראת שמים (rather than being the result of morally free-willed choices) could also be considered a modern, Tzfas-inspired innovation.
While teaching Torah is all about accurately transmitting what we’ve received to our children, the ways we go about doing that are constantly changing. Most of the innovations have little or nothing to do with the Tzfas culture, but they do illustrate just how easily far-reaching change can be adopted. Was there, for instance, ever a cheder in the pre-war years anywhere in Eastern Europe where they:
- Didn’t hit misbehaving children?
- Examined student achievement through written tests?
- Ran emunah programs?
- Employed social workers?
- Taught in English (or Polish)?
- Used lesson plans?
- Required teacher training?
- Included למודי חול curricula?
I probably wouldn’t have sent my kids to a cheder that didn’t make use of those innovations. but we can’t deny that they were, indeed, innovations.