Flora and Pfingsten

My weekly פרשה lectures and הלכה column for the past פרשיות אחרי מות-קדושים discussed the Biblical prohibition against “walking in the ordinances” of the Gentiles. As I discuss, a debate over the scope and parameters of this prohibition is apparently behind the controversy over the custom (or family of customs) of the arraying of trees, grasses and flowers in synagogues and homes on Shavuos. I also recently published a detailed article focusing specifically on this custom, its history and its attendant controversy:

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See also Flowers on Shavuos in Ami Magazine 2 Sivan, 5776 [June 8, 2016] pp. 66-70 and שטיחת עשבים ופרחים והעמדת אילנות בחג השבועות, in והנה רבקה יוצאת – עיונים במדע היהדות לכבוד רבקה דגן, pp. 211-17, both by my friend Eliezer Brodt, and Trees and Flowers on Shavuot: Is it a Pagan Practice or not? (audio) and Flowers and Trees in Shul on Shavuot in Torah To-Go, Shavuot 5777, both by my friend R. Ezra Schwartz.

My column:

In both parashiyos Acharei Mos (18:3) and Kedoshim (20:23), we are prohibited from “walking in the ordinances” of the non-Jews. This prohibition is the basis of a controversy over the custom of decorating synagogues and homes on Shavuos with grasses, trees, and flowers. The Maharil (Hilchos Shavuos) records that (fragrant) grasses and flowers (shoshanim) were arrayed on synagogue floors “for the joy of the holiday”. The Magen Avraham (siman 494 s.k. 4) records the placement of trees in synagogues and homes, which he suggests was intended as a reminder that on Shavuos we are judged regarding the fruits of the trees, and that we should pray for them.

The Gaon of Vilna reportedly opposed and abolished (at least locally) the custom of trees (and perhaps also that of grasses), since in contemporary times, the non-Jews have a similar custom on their holiday of “Pfingsten”, i.e., the Christian Pentecost, which occurs fifty days after Easter Sunday, thus paralleling, and occurring around the same time as, Shavuos, the Jewish Pentecost (Chayei Adam 131(130):13, Chochmas Adam 89:1, Aruch Ha’Shulchan OC 494:6, Shut. Igros Moshe YD 4:11:5).

But while a number of important halachic authorities, particularly within the “Lithuanian” / yeshivah tradition, follow the Gaon’s position, other major authorities reject it, in reliance upon the doctrine that non-Jewish practices are not forbidden as long as they have a rational, legitimate basis. R. Yosef Shaul Nathanson relates that he queried the non-Jews about their reason for the custom, and received a response from “their elder” that it was merely for the purpose of “honor and adornment with beautiful trees”. It therefore has a rational basis and is permitted (Divrei Shaul / Yosef Daas YD #348). R. Shalom Mordechai Schwadron justifies the custom based on the fact that we have a legitimate rationale for it, as a reminder of the judgment regarding the fruits of the trees (Orchos Chaim siman 548 os 8 – see there for an additional basis for leniency). [R. Asher Weiss notes that the Gaon is on record as rejecting the doctrine that the existence of a rational basis legitimizes non-Jewish customs (Biur Ha’Gra YD siman 178 s.k. 7), which explains his stringent position with regard to grasses and trees on Shavuos (Minchas Asher Vayikra 33:2).]

My lectures are available at the Internet Archive. Previous lectures I have given on this topic are also available there: here and here.

De Gustibus Non Est Disputandum

My weekly halachah column for this past פרשת שמיני:

Toward the end of parashas Shemini (11:43), the Torah admonishes: “Ye shall not make yourselves abominable with any creeping thing that creepeth, neither shall ye make yourselves unclean with them, that ye should be defiled thereby.” Although the context of this verse, at the end of the Torah’s lengthy exposition of the laws of kashrus of animals, fowl, birds and crawling things, might suggest that it refers to the consumption of those species that the Torah has already forbidden, the halachic tradition understands it as a more general prohibition against engaging in any sort of “abominable” behavior, such as holding in one’s waste (Makos 16b). [There is some debate, however, whether this general prohibition is Biblical, or Rabbinic, i.e., based on an extension of the verse beyond its plain meaning (asmachta – Beis Yosef YD #116; Pri Chadash YD 84:3; Tevuas Shor 13:2; Shaarei Teshuvah OC 3:7).]

One major category of behavior forbidden under this general prohibition is the consumption of “abominable” material. But ultimately, taste is at least somewhat subjective – as the saying goes, “al ta’am va’rei’ach ein le’hisvakei’ach”. Is the standard of “abominable” in this context determined by the eater’s subjective preferences, or by some sort of general consensus? The Pri Chadash promulgates the principle that “the standard of “revolting” is not determined by ‘most of the world’ but rather by each individual”. He therefore rules that one may eat something that most people consider revolting provided that he himself is not revolted by it, and conversely, one may not eat something that revolts him even if most people are not revolted by it. Even the Pri Chadash, however, apparently agrees that there is some level of objectivity involved here, since he concedes that something that “everyone” is revolted by may not be eaten by anyone, even one who is not revolted by it, since “his opinion is null in the face of everyone [else’s opinion]” (batlah da’ato eitzel kol adam – this is the Sedei Chemed’s (Kelalim, Ma’areches ha’Beis #79) interpretation of the Pri Chadash’s position).

[The cited sources can all be found in the typically excellent discussion of the topic at עולמות.]

Thanksgiving Day, Thanksgiving Days, and The Ten Branched Menorah

My weekly parashah lectures and halachah column for this past פרשת צו discussed the establishment of days of thanksgiving, as well as other rituals of thanksgiving. One fascinating practice that I discussed in the lectures is the custom of some Syrian Jews, of Sephardic extraction, to kindle an extra light on each night of חנוכה. Here is R. Haim Sabato’s explanation of the story behind the custom:

[S]he brought out an ancient lamp, many years old, inherited from his fathers and his fathers’ fathers, men of the Spanish exile. It was old and damaged and could not hold oil, or be used for any ritual purpose. He saw that engraved on it was the name Sapporta and the picture of a ship. They went and showed it to the foreign trader, and when he saw it he was overjoyed and offered a generous price for it, enough to keep the sage solvent for months.

And what was special about it? It was made to accord with a custom maintained by many of the people of Aleppo, that rather than light one candle, they lit two, thus on the first day of Hanukkah three candles were lit instead of the more usual two, up to the eighth and last day, when ten candles were lit.

This custom has been vouched for by my father, who saw his late father following the practice, and to this very day, in the Aram Zova community of New York, I have seen many doing this and not knowing why. I have heard it said that this tradition was instituted by exiles from Spain, who arrived in Aleppo at Hanukkah time and were saved from shipwreck by a miracle, and added an extra candle in memory of the miracle. So this ancient menorah belonging to Hacham Sapporta was designed to hold ten candles, and few of its type remained in the world. It was for this reason that the man was so delighted to have it and was prepared to pay so much for it. And he too did not lose on the deal, as it was eventually bought from him by the Louvre, for a substantial sum.1

When I read this some years ago, I was unsure as to whether this was fact or fiction. It is from Aleppo Tales, a novel, but Sabato’s writing is always remarkably meticulous and exhibits a marvelous verisimilitude. I consulted a Sephardic friend, who assured me that this was indeed an actual custom among some Syrians.

It turns out that the custom itself is documented, although I am not aware of a documented source for the reason Sabato gives and the legend he recounts. R. Avraham Adas, in דרך אר”ץ – מנהגי ארם צובה mentions two other explanations (as well as noting that Libyan Jews also have a similar custom, and that contemporary Aleppan custom varies):

בימי החנוכה נוהגים ק”ק ספרדים להדליק נר נוסף בכל לילה, דהיינו בליל ראשון מדליקים שלשה נרות – אחד למצות חנוכה שני נרות שמשים; וכן בכל לילה מדליקין שני נרות שמשים, פרט לנרות החובה, …

וטעם למנהג זה – שמעתי מהרב יצחק טוויל שליט”א, כי בני ספרד היו אנשים מכובדים ורמי מעלה, ובכל ימות השנה היו מדליקים שני נרות כדי להאיר את הבית, וכם כן בחנוכה לא היה היכר כאשר מדליקים בלילה הראשונה שני נרות בלבד – משום כך הדליקו שני שמשים; וממילא בכל לילה מוסיפים נר, ולכן המשיכו בכל הלילות להדליק שני שמשים [על פי השמועה];

ועוד טעם הוסיף מדעתו, והוא שחוששים משום “זוגות” – על פי הגמרא במסכת פסחים [דף קי.], ולכן הדליקו בלילה הראשונה בסך הכל שלשה נרות, [והעיקר שלא להתחיל בזוגות; אך אין חשש במה שמדליקים בליל ב’ ארבעה נרות, שהם שתי זוגות] – עד כאן מדברי הרב יצחק טוויל הנ”ל.

ועיין בספר היכל עבודת השם [חלק שני עמוד ש”ה] שכתב שגם יהודי לוב נוהגים להדליק שני שמשים – [בבית הכנסת].

ולענין מנהג חלב היום – יש מדליקים שני שמשים כנ”ל, ויש המדליקים שמש אחד בלבד, – הרב יעקב עטייה שליט”א, ור’ חיים דאיה נ”י – [היום, כידוע התמזגו הקהילות – ואין “ק”ק ספרדים” לחוד).2

DailyHalacha.com:

There is a custom observed by some Jews with roots in Aleppo to light an extra candle each night of Hanukah. This means that on the first night they light three candles – one for the Misva, and two to serve as the “Shamosh” – on the second night they light four, and so on. This practice is mentioned in the work “Derech Eretz,” which documents the customs of the Aleppo the Jewish community (listen to audio recording for precise citation). The author writes that this custom was observed specifically by the “Kahal Kadosh Sepharadim” – the community of Jews that observed the practices of the Jews of Spain. It appears that there was a particular segment of the Aleppo community that made a point of following the customs of the old Jewish community of Spain, and it was this segment which had the custom of lighting the extra candle.

The author of “Derech Eretz” mentions two possible reasons for this custom, in the name of Rabbi Yishak Tawil. One possibility is that the members of the “Kahal Kadosh Sepharadim” were wealthy and would always have two candles lit in their homes at night for illumination. (We have to remember that we are speaking of a time many centuries ago, before electricity, when not everyone had the means to properly illuminate their homes.) Therefore, the two candles lit the first night for Hanukah would not be recognizable as Hanukah candles, and so they decided to add a third candle to make it clear that the candles were lit for the Misva of Hanukah candles. And once they lit an extra candle the first night, they added an extra candle each subsequent night, as well. Another reason mentioned by Rabbi Tawil is that the members of this community were concerned about “Zugot” – dong things in pairs – a concept which the Gemara discusses in Masechet Pesahim, and which is based on the concern that this could pose danger. (Apparently, they were not concerned about having four, six or eight candles, but only two candles.) The custom therefore developed to add an extra candle the first night, and once this was done they added a candle each subsequent night.

My column:

Parashas Tzav discusses the thanksgiving-offering (korban todah). Although the sacrificial rites are unfortunately today in a state of desuetude, various other halachically sanctioned ceremonies of thanksgiving to Hashem for salvation and deliverance from catastrophe remain. One of these is the establishment by individuals or communities of local “Purims” (i.e., “Thanksgiving Days”) – days of celebration and expression of gratitude to Hashem in commemoration of particular incidents of His miraculous salvation from some grave danger.

R. Moshe Alashkar (Shut. Maharam Alashkar #49) endorsed the solemn enactment of the residents of a certain city and their beis din establishing “for them and for their descendants and for all who followed them, in perpetuity” the date of 11 Teves to be “like the day of Purim in all respects”, to publicize a “great miracle” that they had experienced on that day. Although R. Hezekiah da Silva (Pri Chadash OC #496 Dinei Minhagei Isur #14) dissents and rules that subsequent to the destruction of the [Second] temple, the institution of a new holiday is not binding, the halachic consensus apparently follows the view of R. Moshe Alashkar (see Magen Avraham siman 686 s.k. 5). The Chasam Sofer (Shut. OC #191) mentions a permanent “day of rejoicing” on 20 Adar established by the community of Frankfurt am Main in response to a miracle that had occurred there. He reports that he saw that his great teacher R. Nathan Adler, who had been born there, observed the day, and relates that he, too, observed it, even though he was [at the time of writing] living far from Frankfurt.

R. Avraham Danzig (at the very end of Chayei Adam) relates that he personally had established the date of 16 Kislev for his family as a day of commemoration and celebration of their having all survived a terrible (gun)powder conflagration that had claimed thirty one lives in their neighborhood.

R. Ovadia Hedaya (Shut. Yaskil Avdi 7:OC:44-12) ruled that immigrants to Israel from Tripoli, who had previously observed no fewer than three local Purims, must continue to observe them in Israel.

My lectures, along with accompanying handout, are available at the Internet Archive.

Update: My weekly halachah column of two years ago also covered some of the same ground:

Parashas Tzav discusses the thanksgiving-offering (korban todah). Although the sacrificial rites are unfortunately today in a state of desuetude, a formal halachic obligation to acknowledge Hashem’s salvation remains in the form of the “bestowal blessing” (birchas hagomel), recited upon surviving a dangerous situation. R. Asher (Piskei Ha’Rosh Berachos 9:3) explains that this blessing was instituted in place of the thanksgiving-offering. R. Avraham Danzig recommends that one should additionally set aside money equal in value to one of the types of animals brought as a thanksgiving-offering and disburse it as charity to students of Torah, as well as recite the Biblical passage of the thanksgiving-offering followed by a detailed explication he provides of its laws and procedures. He relates that he, himself, did so following a terrible gunpowder fire in which he and his family suffered severe property damage and personal injury, but fortunately all survived (Chayei Adam, Seder Amiras Korban Todah at the conclusion of the work’s first section, and cf. Hilchos Megillah 155:41).

The Talmud (Berachos 54b) declares that “Four are required to give thanks: seafarers, desert travelers, one who was sick and became healed, and one who was confined in prison and left.” The exact definitions of these categories, their applications to scenarios of modern life and the basic question of whether the listed situations are the only ones requiring the blessing, or are merely commonly arising ones, from which we generalize to any situation involving serious danger, are subject to considerable dispute. In practice, the two most common experiences upon which the blessing is recited are airplane trips and illness (or childbirth).

  1. Haim Sabato, Aleppo Tales, pp. 61-62. []
  2. דרך ארץ (עדס: בני ברק ה’תש”נ), סדר הדלקת נרות חנוכה אות א’ עמודים קמג-מד []