Categories
Holiday Rituals spirituality

Always in God’s Sukkah

You shelter me in Your sukkah at a not-good time…
in Your solid presence I am uplifted.

— Psalm 27:5

Your sukkah, God, I am sure, does not look like mine.

You need no beams or boards, no tubes or trestles,

no Velcro or duct tape or twine to hold the parts together.

You create with words all the structures and shelters, 

all the connections and interconnections,

the gravity and the glue to keep 

our bodies breathing, our planet spinning, our universe expanding.

Of course, the decorations of Your design are stunning in their beauty.

Constellations, maple trees and quaking aspens,

even the matrix of molecules that fuel a deadly virus, 

each unique and awe inspiring, like You.

We too are Your decorations—works of beauty in Your sukkah—

shining light on a dark day and into the night, 

finding words of praise to sing or whisper to each other and to You, 

feeling alone and afraid, and then brave and patient, and then not.

Ever hopeful.

With my feet on the ground I feel you, solid as concrete, like a rock beneath me; 

with my fingers outstretched I sense You in the air around me;

with my head raised high, above the chaos that swirls all around me, 

without my own sukkah, I celebrate in Yours, 

and with abundant gratitude for the harvest that is my life, I offer blessing:

Blessed are You Adonai, Ruach of the Universe, for the obligation to sit in Your sukkah.

Rabbi Debra J. Robbins serves Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, Texas. She is the author of Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27: A Spiritual Practice for the Jewish New Year, published by CCAR Press. 

From Mishkan T’filah for Youth Visual T’filah

Categories
Conversion General CCAR Healing Rituals spirituality

Handwashing Ceremony for Online/ Virtual Conversion

As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on and social distancing remains in effect here in New York City, we are still faced with many rituals we cannot complete in person. One of these rituals is the Beit Din/Immersion process for our conversion students, which we usually would convene at the mikvah. Given that our community had a number of students who were ready to complete their conversion studies, but no solid estimate as to when we could safely return to the mikvah, we wanted to give these students an option to ritualize their conversions virtually. (It should be noted that all of our students will have the opportunity to go to mikvah in the future, should they wish.)  

Clearly, we could conduct the Beit Din via Zoom, but what ritual could we employ to mark the moment?  I had two basic criteria: 1.) The ritual must be comfortably completed while in quarantine. 2) It must incorporate water, thereby echoing the mikvah though not necessarily approximating it. As such, I created this handwashing ceremony to accompany the virtual Beit Din. The bonus with this ritual is that the handwashing blessing can be woven quite seamlessly into these students’ lives going forward. Please feel free to use this ritual and/or adapt as you see fit.

Items needed: 
-Ritual Hand Washer or Pitcher or Cup
-Towel

  1. Take a moment to consider this water ritual. Think about the waters that have flowed through the history of Judaism, and continue to flow through us still. God created the earth by separating the waters. God remade the Earth with the flood generations later in the time of Noah. God redeemed the Israelites from slavery and ushered them to freedom, as they moved through the parted waters of the Red Sea. Our Patriarchs and Matriarchs often met at the well.  Relationships were initiated by the water, marriages made in its reflection. Isaac dug wells to connect to the memory of his father.  Jacob discovered his inner strength at the well.  It is said that Miriam was accompanied by a well of water, and it is said that water sustained our people through those long days and nights in the desert.  Water renews. Water revives. Water nourishes the body, mind and soul. Today, this water bridges past to present, as you immerse your hands in its flowing stream.

  2. Take the ritual washer in your hands. Think about its significance for this moment, and then reflect on a time when you might use it again.  How are the two connected? How will this washer tell part of your unique Jewish story? 

  3. Fill up the washer with water. (Ensure you have a clean towel nearby).

  4. Close your eyes. Breathe in this moment. Honor the work, the time, and the energy you have expended to reach this milestone. Honor your agency in this process. Recall your journey. Let the memories flood your mind as you think of those who have joined you on this path, those who have supported you, and those who have served as your guides.  Acknowledge them in your heart.

  5. Now, as you prepare to wash, recite these words from Ruth (Ruth 1:16, 17): “Ruth said: Entreat me not to leave you, or to return from following after you.”

  6. Lift up the washer in your right hand.  As you pour from right to left, recite these words (from Ruth) with each pour:

    -Pour 1: “For wherever you go”
    -Pour 2: “I will go”
    -Pour 3: “Wherever you lodge, I will lodge.”

  7. Now move the washer to your left hand.  As you pour from left to right, recite these words (from Ruth) with each pour:

    -Pour 1: “Your people will be my people”
    -Pour 2: “And your God my God.”
    -Pour 3: “Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried.”

  8. With your hands wet, lift them up and allow the water to drip freely from them. (Our prayer is called “n’tilat yadayim” for the lifting of the hands). One way our handwashing prayer has been interpreted over the years is through the lens of action; we wash to remind ourselves that the work of our hands is essential to the work of repairing the world. Our hands have the power to do good. Our hands have the power to build bridges. Our hands have the power to help and heal and comfort.   

    With your hands raised before you:

    -Reflect on the power and capability of your own hands.  
    -Reflect on your evolving identity and how your Jewish identity will impact the work of your hands.  
    -Reflect on the tradition and heritage you now officially carry.  How will your acceptance of Judaism inform your choices, your priorities, and your perspective?


  9. Recite N’tilat Yadayim:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה, יְיָ אֱלֹהֵינוּ,
מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם,
אֲשֶׁר קִדְּשָנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו
וְצִוָּנוּ עַל נְטִילַת יָדָיִם.

Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav vitzivanu al n’tilat yadayim.

Blessed are Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who has sanctified us with Your commandments, and commanded us concerning the washing of the hands.

10.  Dry your hands and rejoice in the moment!

Together we will offer the Shehecheyanu, our prayer of gratitude for having reached this milestone:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה, יְיָ אֱלֹהֵינוּ,
מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם,
שֶׁהֶחֱיָנוּ וְקִיְּמָנוּ
וְהִגִּיעָנוּ לַזְּמַן הַזֶּה.

Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, shehecheyanu, v’kiy’manu, v’higiyanu laz’man hazeh.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this season.



Rabbi Sara Y. Sapadin
 is a rabbi and mother of four. Sara currently serves Temple Emanu-El in New York City as an associate rabbi. She is a contributor to
 The Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate (CCAR Press). 

Categories
chaplains congregations Death member support Prayer Rabbis Rituals

Holding a Digital Shivah Minyan in the Age of COVID-19

For as long as I can remember, I have begun every shivah minyan by saying something like this: “The measure of a community’s strength is not how they gather for celebrations, but how they show up for each other in moments of sadness and pain. It’s easy to show up for something fun and joyous, but when we make our presence felt at the low points, we demonstrate our connection and commitment to each other.” So, what do I say now when it is impossible to be physically present even for our closest relatives and friends? To be honest, I don’t change the script much other to acknowledge that if we could, we would be there. It is essential that we acknowledge the unique nature of the moment we are in. No matter where you live in this world, no matter how hard the COVID-19 pandemic has hit your community, we are all suffering. We are all separated from those we love, from our regular routines and from the Jewish rituals that structure so much of our professional lives. At the same time, we are grateful for the ability to innovate our rituals to meet the moment we are in, just as Jewish leaders have done for thousands of years.

Zoom and other video conferencing platforms have been a God-send at this moment of social distancing. But they are also cause for stress, confusion, and mishap if not used adeptly. Here are some insights I have gathered from leading shivah minyans on Zoom.

  1. Create a Zoom meeting with a simple password. New security features on Zoom create an automatic numeric password. Change the password to make it easy to remember. When sending the link, either highlight and bold the link and password or edit the invitation to include only the link, the password, and relevant phone numbers. 
     
  2. Make sure the immediate circle of mourners is comfortable with the platform. Determine whether they will be using a computer, a tablet or a phone. Insist that they download the software or the app to their device beforehand. Offer to help them do a test run or suggest that they connect with someone in their circle who has experience with the program. Avoid comments such as, “It is really easy to use,” or “You should have no problem at all.” I have found that less tech savvy people, particularly seniors, find Zoom to be confusing. There are many prompts that don’t feel intuitive for everyone. 
     
  3. Advanced Zoom features to consider: The waiting room function allows you to get on early with the immediate family and make sure they are set. It can also protect against Zoombombers. Mute folks upon entry as well. It’s best to maintain control of people’s mute function in general. Offer to record the service. It is easy to upload and send as a link to the family afterwards. On the other hand, I would encourage people to leave their cameras on, but remind them that they can be seen. It is very comforting to see all those faces together. 
     
  4. How do we lead a technically successful shivah minyan on Zoom? There are several options. The CCAR has graciously given us free access to the flipbook version of Mishkan T’filah for a House of Mourning . If you share the flipbook link, prepare ahead of time to give the digital page number (which is different from the print book pagination). If you plan on using the screen share option, displaying pages as needed, it is ideal to have a second person in charge of that function. Plan ahead to cut and paste the link to the flipbook into the chat feature of Zoom:
    https://www.ccarnet.org/publications/mishkan-tfilah-for-the-house-of-mourning/ 
     
  5. How do we lead a spiritually and emotionally successful minyan service on Zoom? This is the easiest part! People are grateful to be together. People are moved to see each other’s faces. People are incredibly forgiving of any technical awkwardness. In leading the service, I start by explaining all the technicalities listed above. I let people know that they will be muted for most of the service. And then we begin. Keep the service as concise as possible. All Hebrew should be read or sung so people can keep up. All English readings should be communal. (All this is done with the participants muted.) However, when it comes to Kaddish, I have followed the advice of others and unmuted all the participants. It is awkward and clumsy with the time delay. But it is also incredibly moving to hear everyone’s voices. It is a great source of comfort to the mourners as well. 
     
  6. One final note. The most important part of an in-person shivah minyan is the gathering before and after. The sharing of stories and memories is so cathartic. There is an option on Zoom to make someone else  co-host of the meeting. Plan this ahead of time with a member of the immediate family. This will enable the group to stay on after the service and allow you to leave the meeting. People can linger and share stories about the person they have lost for as long as they like. Just remember to finish recording before you get off or it won’t save.

We rabbis are perfectionists by nature, yet this is definitely not a time when we can expect to be perfect. But by leaning into our compassion, our patience, and our creativity we are still able to offer comfort and connection to our people in their time of sorrow and loss.


Rabbi Mara S. Nathan is the Senior Rabbi at Temple Beth-El in San Antonio, Texas. 

Categories
member support Prayer Rabbis Rituals spirituality

Prayers for a Time of Separation from Loved Ones and A Ritual of Farewell from Afar

In the current reality of social distancing due to COVID-19, it has become clear that we need new rituals. Just like the transition from sacrifice to prayer after the fall of the Temple, we yearn for new practices to cope with this unprecedented time. As rabbis, not doctors, our expertise lies in finding words. We create sacred moments to bring comfort and offer solace to weary and frightened souls and hope you find peace in these prayers.


T’filat HaDerech – A Prayer for an Uncharted Journey While Being Separated from Loved Ones in Need of Care

מַאי דְּכְתִיב (דברים יג, ה) אַחֲרֵי ה’ אֱלֹהֵיכֶם תֵּלֵכוּ וְכִי אֶפְשָׁר לוֹ לְאָדָם לְהַלֵּךְ אַחַר שְׁכִינָה … אֶלָּא לְהַלֵּךְ אַחַר מִדּוֹתָיו שֶׁל הקב”ה: מַה הוּא מַלְבִּישׁ עֲרוּמִים…אַף אַתָּה הַלְבֵּשׁ עֲרוּמִים הקב”ה בִּיקֵּר חוֹלִים … אַף אַתָּה בַּקֵר חוֹלִים הקב”ה נִיחֵם אֲבֵלִים …אַף אַתָּה נַחֵם אֲבֵלִים

What is the meaning of that which is written: “You shall walk after Adonai your God?” Is it possible for people to walk in God’s ways?…Rather, the meaning is that we should imitate God’s attributes: Just as God clothes the naked…so too you should clothe the naked. Just as God visits the sick…so too you should visit the sick. Just as God comforts mourners…so too you should comfort mourners….

–Jerusalem Talmud, Sotah 14a:3–4

But what if we cannot, in the way that we would want to?  

טֶרֶם אֶקְרָא אֵלֶיךָ אַתָּה תַּעֲנֶה … Terem ekra eilecha Atah taaneh, Hear our cry Adonai, that You might answer us even before we cry out to You.  May we know that God hears our cry.

.וַיִּשְׁמַע אֱלֹהִים אֶת נַאֲקָתָם וַיִּזְכֹּר אֱלֹהִים אֶת בְּרִיתוֹ אֶת־אַבְרָהָם אֶת־יִצְחָק וְאֶת־יַעֲקֹב
.וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיֵּדַע אֱלֹהִים

God heard their moaning, and God remembered the covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.

–Exodus 2:24–25

.יְהִי רָצוֹן מִלְפָנֶיךָ יְיְ אֱלֹהֵינוּ וֵאלֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵינוּ וְאִמּוֹתֵינוּ 

Y’hi ratzon milfanecha, Adonai, Eloheinu v’Elohei avoteinu v’imoteinu.

May it be Your will, Eternal One, our God and God of our ancestors, that You will support our footsteps on this uncharted journey. 

Guide us and our loved ones toward peace and wholeness and help us reach our destination committed to life, joy, and peace, and unbroken by our new reality. 

Help us to know that our loved ones, whether near or far, are with us. Their love for us will sustain us wherever our journey might lead. As circumstances arise that had been previously unimaginable, help us to know that their love for us, and ours for them, is an unbreakable bond. 

May those caring for them in our absence be blessed and held in this holiest of work. Though separated from them, we affirm that we are present with them through You, wherever our journey might lead. Like the Pillar of Cloud dwelling upon the Israelites as they wandered in the desert (Exodus 13:21–22), You are ever-present. We shall not fear.  

May You hear the sound of our prayers, because You are the God who hears prayers and supplications. Blessed are You, Eternal One, who ever hears our prayers.

By Rabbi Sara Rich and Rabbi Ilene Harkavy Haigh, 2020

Seder P’reidah—A Ritual of Farewell from Afar

This ritual is intended for close relatives or friends who cannot be at the bedside of their dying loved one because of distancing measures. It is intended to replicate and facilitate saying goodbye in order to provide a sense of closure and peace for the loved ones. The ritual can be performed with an individual or group in one home or with a small group over the phone or video conferencing. There is an option to light a candle during this ceremony and to extinguish it at the conclusion in grape juice or sweet wine to represent the emotional mixture of grief and happy memories.

1.      Psalms of Comfort

“Because you are devoted to me, I will deliver you; I will keep you safe for you know My name. When you call on Me, I will answer you; I will be with you in distress; I will rescue you and make you honored.”

–based on Psalm 91:14–15

“God will guard your life. The Eternal will guard your going and coming, now and forever.”

–based on Psalm 121:7–8

“O Eternal, God of my deliverance, when I cry out in the night before You, let my prayer reach You; incline Your ear to my cry. I call to You, O Eternal, each day; I stretch out my hands to you.”

–based on Psalm 88:2,10

2.      Sharing Personal Memories

Each person present (in person or remotely) shares a memory or blessing of the loved one. If desired, each person can light a candle at the start of their remarks.

.יִהְיוּ לְרָצוֹן אִמְרֵי פִי, וְהֶגְיוֹן לִבִּי לְפָנֶיךָ, יְיְ צוּרִי וְגֹאֲלִי

Yih’yu l’ratzon imrei fi, v’hegion libi l’fanecha, Adonai tzuri v’goali.

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable to you, my Rock and my Redeemer.

–based on Psalm 19:15

3.      ViduiConfession on Behalf of the Loved One 

Adonai, God of our ancestors, all is now in Your hands.
Forgive and release any hurts or wrongdoings 
done consciously or unconsciously.
Lift up all ______’s worries and fears. 
Wash them away.
Let goodness flow over {him/her/them} and surround {him/her/them} now.
Help {him/her/them} as {he/she/they} readies/y for {his/her/their} next passage.
May {his/her/their} worries for us be eased. 
Let {him/her/them} know You will walk alongside, and be present for us, for {his/her/their} soul is entwined with ours. 
As {he/she/they} comes close to You, bathe {him/her/them} in Your light.
Love {him/her/them} 
and carry {him/her/them}.
Shelter {him/her/them} under Your wings.
Into Your hand we trust {his/her/their} soul. 
Gently, lovingly, tend {him/her/them} now.

By Rabbi Vicki Hollander, printed in L’chol Z’man V’eit, © 2015 CCAR Press, Mourning, p. 6

4. The Priestly Blessing

[Masculine:] 

.יְבָרֶכְךָ יְהוָה וְיִֹשְמְרֶךָ
.יָאֵר יְהוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ וִיחֻנֶּךָּ
.יִשָֹּא יְהוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ וְיָשֵֹם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם

Y’varech’cha Adonai v’yishm’recha.
Ya-eir Adonai panav eilecha vichuneka.
Yisa Adonai panav eilecha v’yasem l’cha shalom.

[Feminine:]

.יְבָרְכֵךְ יְהוָה וְיִשְׁמְרֵךְ
.יָאֵר יְהוָה פָּנָיו אֵלַיִךְ וִיחֻוּנֵךְ
.יִשָֹּא יְהוָה פָּנָיו אֵלַיִךְ וְיָשֵֹם לָךְ שָׁלוֹם

Y’var’cheich Adonai v’yishm’reich.
Ya-eir Adonai panav elayich vichuneich.
Yisa Adonai panav elayich v’yasem lach shalom.

[Plural:]

.יְבָרֶכְכֶן/ם יְהוָה וְיִֹשְמָרְכֶן/ם
.יָאֵר יְהוָה פָּנָיו אֲלֵיכֶן/ם וִיחֻנְכֶן/ם
.יִשָֹּא יְהוָה פָּנָיו אֲלֵיכֶן/ם וְיָשֵֹם לָכֶן/ם שָׁלוֹם

Y’varech’chen/m Adonai v’yishmarchen/m.
Ya-eir Adonai panav aleichen/m vichun’chen/m.
Yisa Adonai panav aleichen/m v’yasem l’chen/m shalom.

Adonai blesses you and watches over you.
Adonai’s Presence shines upon you andsheds grace all around you.
Adonai garbs you in light and bestows peace upon you.

–Numbers 6:24–26 

5. Calling upon God

!שְׁמַע ,יִשְׂרָאֵל, יְיְ אֱלֹהֵינוּ, יְיְ אֶחָד

Sh’ma, Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad! 

Hear, O Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is One!

.בָּרוּךְ שֵׁם כְּבוֹד מַלְכוּתוֹ לְעוֹלָם וָעֶד

Baruch shem k’vod malchuto l’olam va-ed.

Blessed is God’s name whose glorious dominion is forever and ever.

. יְיְ הוּא הָאֱלֹהִים

Adonai hu HaElohim. 

Adonai is God. 

6.      Final Verses

In God’s hand I entrust my spirit, when I sleep and when I am awake. As long as my soul is with my body, the Eternal is with me, I shall not fear.

Lech/L’chi/L’chu l’Shalom.

Go in peace.

(The flames are extinguished.)

By Rabbi Sara Rich and Rabbi Ilene Haigh, 2020


Rabbi Sara Rich, NY’11, is the Executive Director of Hillel of Buffalo.
Rabbi Ilene Haigh, NY’12, is the rabbi at the Woodstock Area Jewish Community/ Congregation Shir Shalom, in Woodstock, Vermont.

Categories
Books Ethics General CCAR Holiday lifelong learning omer Rituals Social Justice

The Custom to Learn Pirkei Avot during the Omer

Rabbi Yanklowitz is the author of Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice CommentaryIn this post, he reflects on the custom of studying Pirkei Avot during the Omer.

There is a traditional Jewish custom during the Omer—the seven-week period between the holiday of Passover and the holiday of Shavuot—to study Pirkei Avot on Shabbat afternoons. Some have the custom of studying Pirkei Avot past Shavuot, all the way until Rosh HaShanah.[1] This custom first appears in the period of the Geonim, dating roughly between the sixth and eleventh centuries CE. The practice is opportune because there are enough chapters of Pirkei Avot (six) to study just one chapter each Shabbat of the Omer (also six) and complete the teachings. This custom is also quite fitting since the Omer is traditionally a time when we focus on the refinement of our character traits (middot), which is the primary ethical purpose of Pirkei Avot

The Sages of the Talmud knew that Shabbat days were longer in the summer months and therefore wanted to utilize that time for further Torah study.[2] While some Sages of the time suggested that we should avoid studying Torah on Shabbat afternoon in mourning for the death of Moses, who died on a Shabbat afternoon,[3] the Geonim, due to the length of summer Shabbat afternoons, overrode that prohibition.[4] A different suggestion[5] on the timing posits that we should study Torah on steamy Shabbat afternoons to wake ourselves up, both physically and spiritually. 

Another possibility for why we study Pirkei Avot on Shabbat might be that Pirkei Avot reminds us of the power of the oral tradition, which is how we learned to celebrate Shabbat. The Karaites, on the other hand, rejected the oral tradition and thus rejected Shabbat as developed in Rabbinic Judaism. Reinforcing the living, evolving Rabbinic tradition could best be achieved on Shabbat itself, a living manifestation of the nonliteral Rabbinic interpretive enterprise. 

Yet the idea of studying Pirkei Avot on Shabbat seems more practical. At Passover, we look out at the external world with messages of freedom and liberation, but then we transition back to the inner world with Shavuot and Rosh HaShanah focusing on introspection and reflection. Pirkei Avot does the opposite, focusing on society and fostering justice in the world but starting with our character and personal behavior. Shabbat afternoon, historically, presented the easiest opportunity to bring ethics to the masses, as it is a time to gather, pause, reflect on the past week, and recharge for the upcoming week. Just as we re-enter the toil of a week of hard work, we come together to reflect on our ethical lives. 

Many of the mishnayot, the early Rabbinic literature in the Talmud, deal with rituals, sacrifices, and points of nuanced theology. Pirkei Avot, however, is unique in that it draws upon the Jewish ethical tradition and expands these teachings in simple and clear ways. The Sages credited with the teachings emphasized how important it is to study continuously and to work to fulfill the lessons found within Pirkei Avot.[6]

It is remarkable that Pirkei Avot is free of discussions of religious procedures, as most Jewish texts from the era are primarily concerned with ritual and legal practices. The text’s objective is not to focus on studying religious rules. Instead, this is a work consisting purely of timeless life wisdom. Each of the Talmudic Sages had multiple points of wisdom to share, but only one or a handful of their teachings were recorded in Pirkei Avot. It is humbling to think that after a life of teaching profound wisdom, one’s existence may be remembered through only one sentence. 

Pirkei Avot Cover

Studying and writing my commentary on Pirkei Avot, which was published by CCAR Press in 2018, helped me realign my thoughts toward the relationship between humanity and the Divine as well as interpersonal relationships between individuals. I realized that internal character development is significantly more important to me than acquiring new things and skills, freeing me from the futile rat race of success in contemporary society. I wanted to be more reflective about my moral and spiritual choices and to strive to live wisely. I wanted to feel the burning challenge every day to strive for intellectual, spiritual, relational, religious, and moral growth. 

Pirkei Avot is the work that continues to keep me focused on this journey. I hope that my commentary inspires you to find that place within yourself to propel the world toward reconciliation and spiritual enlightenment. The ability to study the words of our sages during the Omer is a reminder that wisdom is ageless, applicable, and available to anyone who seeks it. It’s a beautiful flower that continues to bloom for the Jewish people and, indeed, all those in need of inspiration. 

Interested in counting the Omer? Omer: A Counting by Rabbi Karyn D. Kedar, published by CCAR Press, is available in print, ebook, as an app and in daily Omer cards.


Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President and Dean of Valley Beit Midrash in Phoenix, Arizona. He is the author of Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary and the forthcoming The Book of Jonah: A Social Justice Commentaryboth published by CCAR Press.


[1] There are other customs as well. Rabbi David Golinkin records sixteen different customs on when to study Pirkei Avot throughout the year: https://schechter.edu/when-should-we-study-pirkei-avot-and-when-should-we-recite-barekhi-nafshi-and-shirei-hamaalot-on-shabbat-afternoon/

[2] BT Bava Kama 82a

[3] See the Zohar (Parashat T’rumah 548): “Moses passed from this world at the hour of Sabbath minchah prayers, which is a time of grace.” The Zohar says there that it was not only Moses but also Joseph and King David who died on Shabbat. It should be noted, however, that there is a dissenting view that Moshe did not die on Shabbat but on Friday afternoon. See, for example, the Tosafot on Tractate M’nachot 30a. Rabbenu Mordechai bar Hillel Ashkenazi also wrote in Sefer Mordekhai on Tractate P’sachim 37: “Moreover, as it is said in Sifre, on the day that Moses died he wrote thirteen scrolls of the Law, one for each of the tribes and one that was placed in the Ark; if it had been the Sabbath, how could he have written them?”

[4] T’shuvot Rav Sar Shalom Gaon #14; T’shuvot Rav Natronai Gaon OH #15; 46

[5] The Midrash Shmuel

[6] BT Bava Kama 30a

Categories
Rabbis Responsa Rituals

New Responsum: B’rit Milah During the COVID-19 Pandemic (5780.3)

The CCAR is pleased to present this responsum on b’rit milah during the COVID-19 pandemic, the newest addition to our historic collection of questions and answers about Jewish living. Find the CCAR’s collection of Reform responsa here.

Please note: This responsa deals with the ritual aspects of b’rit milah. A doctor should always be consulted in regard to the medical aspects of b’rit milah.


Question
What should be the proper procedure regarding b’rit milah during the COVID-19 pandemic?
(Submitted by Rabbi Julie Pelc Adler, Director, B’rit Milah Program of Reform Judaism)

Response
In the midst of the current pandemic, it is understandable that parents and mohalim/ot are confused and frightened. We will examine the issues here carefully, one by one.

1. The importance of b’rit milah

In emphasizing the importance of b’rit milah the Talmud equates it to all the other mitzvot and, indeed, credits it with preserving the very existence of the world.[1]  In Christian lands it was an unmistakable, permanent marker of Jewishness; in Muslim lands, it marked Jewish male children.  Its complex psychological significance in a classically male-centered Jewish spirituality cannot be overstated.[2] It is true that the first generations of Reformers were deeply ambivalent about it; Kaufmann Kohler, for example, called it “a barbarous cruelty,” and recommended its abolition.[3]  It is quite likely that most Reform Jews would have ceased to practice circumcision had it not been for the view that gained currency in the early 20th century, that circumcision conveyed hygienic and health benefits.[4]  Before World War II, lengthy post-partum hospital stays for middle- and upper-class women and their infants made it easy to arrange a hospital circumcision, with or without ritual.  In the postwar era, however, shortened hospital stays led to numerous inquiries about the acceptability of circumcision before the eighth day, or the reality of Jews simply ignoring b’rit milah in favor of medical circumcision.  While Responsa Committee chair Israel Bettan authored a strenuous objection to that widespread practice in 1954,[5] Solomon Freehof was far more accommodating in 1960.[6]  All Reform responsa since then, however, have followed R. Bettan in insisting on the importance of milah on the eighth day as a religious rite.[7]  As a movement we have encouraged Reform Jews to choose b’rit milah  on the eighth day, and have facilitated this by training Reform mohalim/ot.

2. Circumstances for delaying b’rit milah

We are forbidden to endanger ourselves. As Maimonides writes:  “The Sages prohibited many things because they are life-threatening.  And anyone who ignores their words, and says, ‘I can go ahead and endanger myself; what business is it of anyone else what I do to myself?’ or ‘I pay no attention to that’ – they are to flog him for rebelliousness.”[8] We are obligated to preserve ourselves from danger (and, as parents, we are responsible for preserving our children from danger). There is, therefore, unanimous agreement among all halakhic authorities that we delay b’rit milah if the infant is not healthy enough to undergo it.[9] By contrast, there is far less consideration of whether b’rit milah might risk the well-being of an otherwise healthy infant.[10]  However, there is a faint thread running through the halakha that is worth examining in detail. It begins with this Talmudic passage:

Rav Pappa said:  Therefore, on a cloudy day or on a day when a south wind is blowing, we do not circumcise [an infant], nor do we draw blood.  But nowadays, when people are accustomed to ignore [these strictures, we rely on the assurance that] Adonai preserves the simple (Ps. 116:6) [and we proceed on the assumption that no harm will follow].[11]

This statement was never codified in the later halakha, but the Nimukei Yosef cites it approvingly:

The Ritba wrote in the name of his teacher [with reference to this passage]:  From here we learn that whoever does not wish to circumcise on a cloudy day has permission to do so, and is acting with clear justification in not relying on Adonai preserves the simple. And similarly it is appropriate not to circumcise on Shabbat if it is cloudy.[12]

The discussion of this issue by the Arukh Ha-Shulḥan makes abundantly clear that the underlying concern is whether conditions are such that performing the rite could endanger the infant:

…But Rabbenu Yeruham wrote that neither a cloudy day nor a south wind delays the b’rit milah, because Adonai preserves the simple.  However, the strain of a journey – meaning that the infant is ill from the strain of having made a journey, does postpone the b’rit, until he is well.  Another authority wrote that anything other than some illness in the infant himself – such as having to go on a journey – does not delay the b’rit, just as we do not delay it for the sake of blowing winds.

Obviously, we do not delay the b’rit for the purpose of going on a journey, but rather we carry it out. But it seems to me that it is obviously forbidden to take the infant on a long journey until he has recovered from the circumcision, lest he be endangered. However, it may be permissible to take him in a wagon, since in that case he is placed in one spot and appropriately covered with blankets and pillows. Also, one can see, when they have brought him on a journey by wagon, whether any weakness appears in him. This requires examination by experts in the body and face of the infant. Indeed, we have never heard what the Nimukei Yosef wrote, that on cloudy days it is permitted to delay the b’rit.  In fact, it is because Adonai preserves the simple that we are lenient on optional matters such as drawing blood on the eve of Shabbat…and thus all the more so with regard to an important commandment such as circumcision.  And the proof of this is that not a single one of the authorities saw fit to mention this.  So we learn that we do not use its guidance in fulfilling our obligation. Thus has the custom spread, and there is no changing it.[13]

It is quite obvious that the original authority, Rav Pappa, was expressing a genuine medical concern, based on his best knowledge. As subsequent generations’ medical knowledge changed, however, they dismissed these concerns as nonsense – but did not replace them with their own medical concerns.  This may reflect the tacit trend toward stringency evident in the halakha over time, as seen in other practices such as the discontinuation of hafka’at kiddushinas a way of preventing agunot, or the Ashkenazic invention of “glatt kosher.”


Fortunately, we are under no obligation to adhere to the codified halakha when a minority viewpoint has clear merit.  And as we have stated before, we rely on medical expertise:  “As rabbis, we are not competent to render judgments in scientific controversies.  Still, we do not hesitate to adopt ‘the overwhelming view’ as our standard of guidance in this and all other issues where science is the determining factor.”[14]

It is clear to us that b’rit milah may be delayed when performing the rite would endanger an otherwise healthy infant.

3. Does performing b’rit milah at this time endanger the infant?

The reality in North America is that parents can take many steps to minimize the chances of infection, but under current circumstances it is virtually impossible to eliminate all possibility of infection. Asymptomatic individuals are not being tested; the incubation period can be lengthy; and the virus is extremely contagious.  In many areas, by the time the infant reaches his eighth day, it is already highly probable that he has already been exposed to someone who is carrying the virus, unless he was born at home under conditions of strict isolation, and the medical practitioner(s) who delivered the baby were known to have tested negative for the virus.  In other areas, it appears that this will be the case before too long.

As of this writing, there is not enough science available to stand as definitive research on COVID-19 in infants. Anecdotal evidence continues to mount, however, indicating that infants do not appear to be seriously affected. Infant deaths from the virus are so rare that individual cases are being reported as news. It appears that in each case there were underlying health complications.[15]  It seems counterintuitive, and understandably goes against parents’ instinctive reactions, but so far the evidence is that babies, including newborns, are far less susceptible to COVID-19 than are older adults, unless the infants have some other health problem. It appears that the adults who would be present at a b’rit milah could be at greater risk than the infant himself.

Furthermore, there is no guarantee that this virus will disappear soon.  Experts are saying that it will continue to circulate until there is a vaccine to treat it, with some saying that we will, therefore, require social distancing for 12-18 months.[16] After that much time has elapsed, circumcision will be much more difficult and will carry its own set of risks.

Medical literature regards “newborn” circumcision as routine, requiring only local anesthesia, up to about age six weeks.[17] Beyond six weeks, or when the baby grows larger than twelve pounds, it may be advisable to wait until he is six months old and perform the procedure under general anesthesia. There is a small indication that bleeding is a more likely complication for an older baby. Furthermore, as the baby ages, the foreskin is thicker and less pliable, so it is more difficult from a technical point of view to perform the circumcision using the more traditional Mogen clamp.

It would appear, then, that there is no absolute guarantee of safety for the infant; but he is no more at risk in a b’rit milah performed on the eighth day, even during the pandemic, than he will be at any time in his first year of life. That assumes, of course, that the b’rit milah is carried out in a way that does not add needless risk. It should be in the home, and there should be no one present other than the parents and the mohel/et.  All standard procedures to minimize transmission should be followed, including wearing masks and gloves. It would be advisable to reduce danger to the parents by not having the rite performed by a mohel/et who has been working in a hospital or clinic where COVID-19 patients are being treated.

Some parents will, doubtless, consider a medical circumcision immediately after birth, followed by hatafat dam b’rit at home. We would point out that the most significant risk factor for the virus is the number of people to whom one is exposed at close range. A hospital procedure will bring the infant into contact with at least as many adults as will a b’rit milah performed at home.

Conclusions

  1. B’rit milah on the eighth day is a mitzvah that we as Reform Jews take extremely seriously.
  2. We take seriously the obligation of sh’mirat ha-guf, preserving our well-being, and we therefore recognize danger to an otherwise healthy infant as a valid reason for postponing a b’rit milah.
  3. In keeping with our commitment to taking into account the best scientific and medical advice, given what we know about COVID-19, its transmission, and the danger it poses to infants, we do not find that performing the b’rit milahon the eighth day, with appropriate precautions, poses a more significant risk to the infant than delaying it until the pandemic has passed.

As we wrote recently, the COVID-19 pandemic constitutes a genuine emergency situation (sha’at had’ḥak). “In an emergency situation a bet din is responsible for taking action for the welfare of the community, and may issue a temporary ruling (hora’at sha’ah) to prevent the kahal from going astray.”[18] People can “go astray” in all sorts of ways, including by allowing  self-preservation and concern for our families to turn into irrational fear and panic. We pray that this pandemic will pass, and that as many lives as possible will be spared, and that people’s livelihoods will not be destroyed; but in the meantime we will – we must – continue to live our lives.

Joan S. Friedman, chair
Howard L. Apothaker
Daniel Bogard
Carey Brown
Lawrence A. Englander
Lisa Grushcow
Audrey R. Korotkin
Rachel S. Mikva
Amy Scheinerman
Brian Stoller
David Z. Vaisberg
Jeremy Weisblatt
Dvora E. Weisberg


[1] Nedarim 32a.

[2] See Lawrence A. Hoffman, Covenant of Blood: Circumcision and Gender in Judaism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), and Shaye J.D. Cohen, Why Aren’t Jewish Women Circumcised? Gender and Covenant in Judaism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).

[3] “Authentic Report of the Proceedings of the Rabbinical Conference Held at Pittsburg, Nov. 16, 17, 18, 1885,” in Walter Jacob, ed., The Changing World of Reform Judaism:  The Pittsburgh Platform in Retrospect (Pittsburgh:  Rodef Shalom Congregation, 1985), 101.

[4] See David Gollaher, “From Ritual to Science: The Medical Transformation of Circumcision in America,” Journal of Social History vol. 28, no. 1 (Autumn 1994): 5-36.

[5] ARR #55, “Circumcision on a Day Other Than the Eighth Day of Birth.”

[6] RR #21, “Circumcision Before Eighth Day.”

[7] ARR #56, “Circumcision Prior to the Eighth Day” (1977); CARR #28, “Berit Milah” (1978); CARR #100, “The Pressured Mohel” (1988).

[8] Yad, H. Rotze’aḥ 11:5.  See also Isserles’ gloss to ShA YD 116:5.

[9] Yad, H. Milah 1:16-17; ShA YD 262:2, 263:1.

[10] This question did arise in connection with metzitzah b’feh.  The majority opinion is that metzitzah is a hygienic matter, not an integral element of the mitzvah, and therefore any technique that makes it safer is permitted.  Isaac Klein, A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice (NY: Jewish Theological Seminary, 1979), 424.

[11] Yev. 72a.

[12] Nimukei Yosef, Yevamot 24a, s.v. ve-ha-id’na.

[13] Arukh Ha-Shulḥan YD 263:4-5.

[14] RR21, vol. 2, 5759.10, “Compulsory Immunization.”

[15] For example, see this news story: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/29/coronavirus-illinois-governor-announces-rare-death-of-baby, accessed 10 April 2020.

[16] See, e.g., https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/federal-government-18-month-plan-life-return-normal/story?id=70046439, accessed 10 April 2020.

[17] For the research that provided the information in this paragraph I thank Dr. Bryan Hecht, M.D., Division Director of Reproductive Endocrinology, Obstetrics and Gynecology, MetroHealth, Cleveland, board certified in Obstetrics and Gynecology and Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility, and a certified Reform mohel.

[18] Yad H. Mamrim 2:4, cited in 5780.2, “Virtual Minyan in Time of COVID-19 Emergency.”

Categories
Rituals

Differentiating Time and Space: Spiritual Advice for Those Working from Home during COVID-19

As my colleagues are well aware, Jewish tradition makes a very big deal of drawing distinctions, at least in the earthly realm in which we currently reside. I’m not sure I’ve ever understood as fully the vital importance of that capacity as now, when most of us seem to be living in undifferentiated time and space; in time, in response to seemingly unending information about and need to respond to COVID-19, and in space, most of us are now relegated, to shut-in status (and what a rare opportunity for growing compassionate understanding!).

We eat, sleep, work, play, laugh and cry all in the same space. Perhaps you too have read advice suggesting that during this time of working at home, it is wise to pick a designated space—not the bedroom, if possible—set aside for work. I invite us to experience this as an act of mitzvah for performing the work of mitzvah to which you are committed. Make a space, sacred to the work and, equally, designate the rest of your space as sacred to non-work. After all, that too is holy (think Shabbat). And, while thinking Shabbat, to the extent possible, you may find it helpful to draw similar distinctions in time—again, to the extent possible. We need a little Shabbat, in space and time, every day.

Finally, consider the possibility of ritualizing the entry into and out of work space/time; a havdalah of sorts, in which to prepare yourself for what is required and offered distinctly in each of the two spaces. Perhaps take a moment to meditate, or offer a kavanah or a blessing—something that will help you to remember the sacred space/time of work and the sacred space and time of laying down that work and allowing yourself…to breathe. And may you be strengthened in and for all the good you are and you do.


Rabbi Rex D Perlmeter, LSW, is the CCAR Special Advisor for Member Care and Wellness.