Ask the Rabbi, Part 14

For almost two years, I have participated in an “Ask the Rabbi” panel responding to questions posed by the editor of the Jewish Press. Here is the latest installment. This column, including the responses of my colleagues, can be read at Jewishpress.com

Is it proper for an adult to change his/her given Hebrew name?    

Halacha provides for rare occasions when a person is allowed to change his/her name. Most commonly, we add a name to a person who is seriously ill in an attempt to change the decree. This accords with the Gemara’s statement (Rosh Hashana 16b) that a “name change” is one of four acts a person can perform to have a decree overturned.

Rambam included this procedure as one of the “ways of repentance,” that penitents change their names to indicate that they are no longer the same person they were when they sinned. This is not done routinely – the paperwork alone would be too onerous if we did it annually – but it is common for baalei teshuvah to shift from use of their secular names to their given or acquired Hebrew names. This is the most prevalent type of name change.

The Tzitz Eliezer (20:38) also records a case in which a man was named after two aunts – his non-observant parents assumed it would not matter – and was urged to change his name to something more masculine.

Some people change their names because a kabbalist informs them that their given names are somehow inappropriate (even if they are ordinary Hebrew words and have positive connotations). Ain li esek b’nistarot; this type of esoterica is way above my pay grade. Nonetheless, I would suggest extreme caution before following that path. We should recall that a more effective means of changing one’s mazal is “shinui ma’aseh,” changing our deeds, the essence of repentance. Assuming that a name change without repentance will accomplish anything is to assume that we can fool G-d and activate these shortcuts that bypass the normal modes of reward and punishment. It is far better to change our deeds than our names.

Is it proper for children to ride on scooters and bicycles on Shabbos?

This is a hotly debated area of halacha and there are two factors that must be considered beyond the halachic particulars: the age of the child and the standards of the community.

It is appropriate, if not mandatory, for Jews to adhere to the community standards in dress, custom, observance and deportment. Thus it is clear to me that scooters are more prevalently used on Shabbat in Israel than in America, for example, although undoubtedly Jews who return to America from Israel having seen the use of scooters permit them to their children. It is commonplace in Israel, a rarity in America.

Sefaradic communities are much more lenient in this regard than Ashkenazic communities because of the lenient opinion of the Ben Ish Chai (Rav Pealim 1:25) who permitted riding a bicycle where there is an Eruv. There are many who hold that the Ben Ish Chai retracted this opinion. Nonetheless, most poskim (Ashkenazi and Sefaradi) prohibit riding on Shabbat, primarily because of the fear that the vehicle will require repairs, a forbidden act on Shabbat.

Aren’t bicycle repairs quite uncommon? I thought they were, until last year I spent Shabbat in a Sefaradi community (in the US) where cycling is common, went for a walk in the afternoon, saw a teen with a kippah whose bicycle chain had come off, and who was expressing his frustration in extremely colorful ways. I exclaimed, as the Gemara states (Shabbat 12b): “How great are the words of our Sages!”

Notwithstanding the lenient opinion, it is best to be stringent. But this should not apply to young children, certainly not those who ride tricycles. Once a child reaches the age of chinuch, it is best not to ride bicycles, and even use of scooters should halt by age 10.

Is it proper to daven in public in a large minyan (such as at a highway rest stop or in an airport)?

Yes, assuming that the minyan does not interfere with the movement of others and always remains considerate of the rights, needs and purposes of the people who frequent rest stops and airports. Don’t block the sidewalk or concourse!

That being said, there is a tremendous Kiddush Hashem that is brought about by joining diverse Jews in davening, and especially in unusual places. (I once davened Mincha with a minyan in St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City. There was no shul in the vicinity.) It makes a positive impression on passersby and can even induce Jews who would not otherwise daven with a minyan (or daven altogether) to participate. It reminds everyone that, wherever we are, our Torah responsibilities come first and our sense of nationhood is predominant. That is a great lesson for children – and for ourselves.

These days, it is particularly worthwhile to reinforce our Jewish identity in public and to proclaim to all our pride in being Jewish and serving Hashem.  As Rema notes at the beginning of Orach Chaim, we “should not be embarrassed in front of people who mock us for serving Hashem.” We are honored and privileged to be able to serve the King. We must not be aggressive in carrying out our duties but nor should we ever shy away from them.

While traveling once in an Arab country, I noticed that every service station has a little mosque designated for prayer, just as I have seen Muslims in airports and rest stops in America stretch out their prayer rugs and perform their devotions. Obviously, then, we should be proud and fearless in serving Hashem together with our fellow Jews. It is not only proper – it is laudable.

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