Tag Archives: Orthodox Judaism

The battle between Rebecca and halachic stringency

1 Oct

The battle between Rebecca and halachic stringency:

Final result: Halachic stringency 10 – Rebecca 0 (Halachic – pertaining to Jewish laws governing all religious festivals and rituals.)

Nothing like the solemnity of Yom Kippur,  the most awe-inspiring of festivals in the Jewish calendar, when we fast from dusk until sunset the following day and spend the day in prayer, to bring out the halachic OCD lying latent deep within, it seems.

Although still living a Modern Orthodox life, liberal (with a small ‘l’) me likes to feel that I have left the ever-expanding list of stringencies required to live a strictly halachic life far behind in my murky past. I hope that I succeed in existing in a reasonably moderate “grey zone”, following a Jewish lifestyle, keeping to standard halacha and ignoring the multitude of more obsessive details.

Apparently not.

After 25 hours of fasting, no food, no water, feeling parched, exhausted and dehydrated, I would have expected someone  – me in this case – to gulp down some victuals the very second the clock struck 7.30pm, heralding in the grand end of the Day of Atonement.

But no. In lieu of this obvious and reasonable dénouement to the fast, I got my knickers in a right old halachic twist about whether I could make havdala (a blessing recited over wine and a lit flame to conclude the Sabbath or a festival) on a newly lit candle, rather than the customary pre-lit candle which should have been burning throughout the fast – which I had forgotten to prepare.

Haunted by memories of a dear, very religiously observant parent howling with disapproval when we were little and did not wait for them to return from the house of prayer to make the havdala blessing in order to commence our scoffings, I, as a grown woman, became wracked with indecision as to how to make a truly kosher havdala. And as such, refused to break the fast until I had solved this conundrum.

Before I knew it, I had dragged a close relative (known as “SK”) present into a fevered debate about the intricacies of this halachic quandary. 7.30pm came and went but no one was doing any scoffing of any kind.

If we were allowed to use a newly lit candle, could we then make the appropriate blessing over the flame (“boreh meoreh ha’esh” for those in the know), or should this particular blessing be omitted? Would the fact that Yom Kippur had fallen on a Shabbat this year mean that the halachic requirements of the ritual were altogether different? Did we need to make the blessing over the traditional spices or not?

I had a moment of inspiration as to how to resolve our issue, grabbing at the very textual embodiment of humourless Orthodoxy – the inimitable ARTSCROLL machzor (prayer book for the festival). If there was to be a resolution to my dilemma, surely it would be found somewhere deep within that compendium of intricate laws listed in painfully small-print at the back of the Artscroll Yom Kippur machzor.

I pored over Laws #148 – 154 of said manuscript along with SK.


Law  #150 sent us on a rollercoaster of hopes raised then dashed then raised again.

The minutes ticked by and still no one was eating or drinking.

Finally, it seemed that Law #152 was going to provide our happy answer. Yes, one COULD kindle a new flame for havdala….:

“If on Motzei Shabbos such a flame is not available, it is preferable to kindle a new flame…”

BUT…of course with halachic OCD, the answer is never as simple as that. Read on to the end of that sentence:

…and then to use that one TO MAKE A SECOND FLAME. The Havdalah should then be recited over the SECOND FLAME.” (my emphasis)

Not in my wildest dreams would I ever have come up with that most wild of halachic resolutions. Of course it wasn’t going to be as simple as just light a new flame and on yer bike.

Yes you MAY use a newly kindled flame BUT THEN use it to light A SECOND FLAME! There’s your obvious halachic solution!

(Don’t even start to ask WHY – I’m warning you.)

I happily and obediently lit flame number 1 followed swiftly by flame number 2.

And the Havdala blessing to finally put an end to that 25 hour PLUS 15 EXTRA MINUTES fast was finally recited.

A mighty breath of relief was expired, and eating and drinking and merriment were finally given the kosher seal of approval to go ahead.

In conclusion, it seems that sadly, I am a lousy failure at being a failed Jew.



A tale of two shuls

16 Sep

Today I went shul-hopping on the streets of north-west London.

Shul A: A partnership minyan, where women were singing aloud and melodiously, leading those parts of the service permitted to them according to certain interpretations of halacha (Jewish law). Depending on who you ask, this prayer gathering is Orthodox, heretical, Reform, inspiring or, worst of all – full of those – don’t say the ‘f-word’ – feminists who want to be like men. 

A woman carried the sefer torah around the women’s section, then passed it over to a man to carry around the men’s section. The sky didn’t fall down, I didn’t spot anyone slipping down a slippery slope, and the service continued in much the same way as a regular Shabbat morning service elsewhere.

The same but also different. Different because some of the women were active participants in the service, and were that much more inspired as a result. No hysteria, no one turning into men. Clearly women who were serious about wanting to play an active role in Judaism. As someone who generally finds shul boring, I enjoy being part of the buzz of this minyan.

Shul B: A synagogue where I spent a lot of time in my childhood, a staunchly Orthodox congregation, where the women sit in the “Ladies’ Gallery” up above observing the men doing all the fun stuff (if anything related to shul can be considered fun) in the sanctuary down below. From my recollection, if women joined in any of the singing, it was never louder than a barely audible whisper. No feminists here.

I didn’t actually attend the service, I came at the end to the ‘social hall’, invited by an old friend who was holding a family celebration there. I did feel a slight out-of-body experience at setting foot in this place after many years away, peregrinations into other types of Judaism and many twists and turns in my life journey. However, what struck me immediately was that I still felt at home in this setting.

I may not look like the glossy sheitel-wearing, fancy shabbat-outfit wearing super frum women who bustled around me on the women’s side of the kiddush (nor have I any desire to do so) – but I still know this world, and I was happy that I made the decision to come and say ‘mazal tov’ to an old friend.

It seems that however far you move away from your home setting  – whether physically or emotionally or religiously – when you come back, you can still feel an uncanny sense of familiarity.

The moral of the story:

Today I slipped seamlessly between two Jewish communities with completely different practices and opposing philosophies and guess what, nothing happened. The sky did not fall down. In my own chameleon-like little way, I just ignored the “they” vs “us”, this community speaks the truth vs that community is heretical, we are right vs you are wrong, general dynamic of Jewish communal life these days.

How many people actually do this kind of yo-yoing between different communal settings? Where are all the other chameleons who dip in and out of different worlds, who are able to blend a variety of different Jewish identities and still feel at one with themselves? Why do people seem so stuck on defining themselves using one rigid label and will not venture even slightly to the left or to the right?

How about just picking yourself up and walking through the doors of a community that you’ve never set foot in beforehand, that may represent ‘different values’, and see what happens. Rather than the sky falling down, chances are you’ll probably just be yawning before too long, willing the service to come to an end so you can get your teeth into a good fried fish ball.

Yuval Noah Harari provides brain fodder

19 May
As part of a campaign to encourage my baby brain to retain a modicum of sharpness, I am listening to an audio version of Yuval Noah Harari’s sweeping work Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.
I do keep having to rewind and replay as my sloppy mind wanders and I miss key points, but that notwithstanding, I’m loving the way Harari casually debunks so many accepted truths about the world.
For someone brought up in the Orthodox Jewish community, where God created the world in seven days is an elemental truth, I’m finding it refreshing to be confronted with Harari’s absolute insistence on the fact that all religions are no more than delusional myths that homo sapiens have learnt to tell themselves about the world they inhabit.
Reading Sapiens makes me realise (shamefacedly) that as I’ve got older, I’ve become complacent – or should I say lazy – about my beliefs. When’s the last time I really analysed or even questioned my beliefs about existence?
This complacency is also bound up with becoming a mother. With little children, it’s just convenient (but perhaps also kind of necessary?) to be part of a system and a community (Modern Orthodox Jewish, in our case) that provides clear answers and purports to hold truths about the world.
Is it okay to give ambiguous or philosophical answers to my four-year-old son when he asks his adorable ‘metaphysical’ questions? Or is it not fair to confuse him at such a young age?
Isn’t it hard to be a mum when you are full of niggling doubts and an awareness that you don’t really know what the “truth” is when your child comes to you wanting clear answers?
In any event, thank you, Yuval Noah Harari, for dragging me out of my baby-brained fogginess back into the land of doubt and questioning.
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