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.]

פדיון, Paper and Payments

My weekly halachah column and lecture for this past פרשת בא discussed the status of paper money in halachah in general, and its use for פדיון הבן in particular. In the course of my study of the literature, it seemed to me that the vibrancy and pragmatism of the (primarily nineteenth century) פדיון הבן discussion indicates that the actual use of paper money for that ritual was being seriously considered, which struck me as interesting given the universal (at least in my admittedly limited experience) contemporary custom of using silver exclusively. The cursory investigation I made at the time did not indicate one way or another as to the existence of a halachic preference or מנהג to use silver, but I recently serendipitously came across a discussion of this question by R. Shamai Kehas Gross, who indeed concludes that the failure of the commentaries to the שלחן ערוך to mention any such preference indicates that there is no such preference, and rejects the reported position of a certain (unnamed) rabbi who was stringent about using actual silver:

נראה לענ”ד דיכול לכתחלה ליתן שוה כסף לפדיון הבן ואין הידור ליתן כסף יותר משוה כסף.

ובפרט לפי מה שהוכיח בספר דברי יחזקאל (סימן ל”ח) דמה שנתחדש בתורה דשוה כסף הוי ככסף אין הפשט דכמו שמועיל כסף הכי נמי מועיל שוה כסף, אלא דנתחדש דמה ששוה כסף מועיל הוא מטעם דהיינו כסף דהרי יכולים למוכרו ולהשיג עבורו כסף ומחמת זה חשוב כסף ממש עיין שם, (ועיין באבני נזר אה”ע חלק ב’ סימן שפ”ז).

וכיון דהוי ככסף ממש ודאי דאין עדיפות ליתן כסף לפדיון הבן משוה כסף, וכן נראה מסתימת הפוסקים על השלחן ערוך דלא כתבו דיש להדר ליתן כסף לפדיון הבן, שמע מינה דאין הידור בזה. …

ושמעתי דרב אחד החמיר לכתחלה לפדות בכסף ממש, אבל לפענ”ד כמו שכתבתי דאין שום עדיפות כסף משוה כסף.1

My column:

Parashas Bo contains the commandment of pidyon ha’ben. Elsewhere (Bemidbar 18:16), the Torah specifies that the pidyon be performed with five silver shekalim. One may utilize actual silver in the weight of five shekalim, or other property of equivalent value (Shulchan Aruch YD 305:3). There are only three classes of assets that are excluded: real estate, slaves and “shtaros” (documents).

In traditional halachic terminology, “shtaros” generally refers to loan documents. In the nineteenth century, a great debate arose over whether modern “banknotes” are considered ordinary assets, or are actually a form of shtaros, and therefore ineligible to be used for pidyon ha’ben (as well as being treated differently from normal property in a number of other halachic contexts – Shut. Beis Shlomo CM #34). A number of different rationales were advanced for distinguishing between modern “banknotes” and classic shtaros:

  • Banknotes can be universally used to make purchases (Shut. Heishiv Moshe YD #55).
  • Banknotes are traded in robust markets, resulting in clear pricing and high liquidity (She’eilas Yaavetz 1:85. The analysis there actually concerns lottery tickets, but it applies to banknotes as well – Shut. Maharsham 2:100).
  • Unlike shtaros which represent value present externally (in the underlying loan), the value of banknotes resides internally, as evinced by the fact that they will not be replaced even if their holder can prove that they have been destroyed (Shut. R. Meshulam Igra CM #16).
  • Banknotes derive their value from government fiat (refusal to honor the sovereign currency was apparently a capital offense!), and not ordinary market conditions (Shut. Chasam Sofer YD #134).

The consensus is that banknotes are not generally considered shtaros (Maharsham ibid.; Minchas Pitim CM end of #303), although some are nevertheless stringent with regard to pidyon ha’ben, since the son is redeemed from Hashem, and He is not subject to the laws of man (Chasam Sofer ibid., and cf. Chochmas Shlomo CM beginning of #292; Aruch Ha’Shulchan YD 305:18). R. Osher Weiss maintains that in contemporary times, where the value of currency has been completely decoupled from the issuing government’s precious metals reserves, and derives entirely from economic considerations, it is certainly valid even for pidyon ha’ben (Shut. Minchas Osher 1:47).

My lecture, with accompanying handout, is available at the Internet Archive.

  1. שו”ת שבט הקהתי, חלק ששי יו”ד סימן ש”פ עמוד רב []