Ask the Rabbi, Part 16

(I start a third year answering reader questions in this Jewish Press forum, now renamed “Is It Proper?” Each one, along with my colleagues’ answers, are available at Jewishpress.com)

Is it proper to jaywalk?

It is certainly inadvisable for any person who cherishes life, the preservation of which is a fundamental Jewish value.

From a halachic perspective, there is a principle of chamira sakanta me’issura (Masechet Chullin 10a), we apply greater stringencies to dangerous situations than we do to legal prohibitions. As such, we have to be even more careful of not endangering ourselves than, for example, of avoiding non-kosher food. And we need not even entertain the principle of dina d’malchuta dina, “the law of the land is law,” which generally doesn’t apply when the law in question is not enforced. And jaywalking is certainly not enforced.

Yet, there is an even greater standard that should inform our judgment: the rule of common sense. We are mandated to be a wise and understanding people, a nation that uses its wisdom and common sense to find appropriate responses to life’s questions when the Shulchan Aruch does not address them specifically. This is one such example. Traffic regulations, as irritating as they can sometimes be, are designed for our protection. They generally work. “Crossing at the green and not in between” is not just a ditty we (should) teach children but something that makes sense and saves lives.

It goes without saying (all right, I’ll say it) that far more pedestrians in Israel are killed every year by vehicles than there are victims of terror. Of course, not all these pedestrians are jaywalking but vehicles are such a prevalent danger that we need to take special heed – not only not to jaywalk but even to look both ways before crossing at a green light.

Is it proper? Don’t even think of it.

Should a person stop someone from telling a racist joke?

No one should tell, hear or tolerate a racist joke. But why stop there?

No one should tell a joke about any ethnic, religious or national group. No jokes about blacks, whites, Hispanics, Poles, Turks, Russians or Asians. No jokes about Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists or Zoroastrians. No jokes about parents, husbands or wives, in-laws, siblings, and certainly not children. No jokes about men or women or any other permutation that people with vivid imaginations have today fabricated.

There should be no jokes about occupations – whether rabbis, lawyers, doctors, carpenters, bankers, plumbers, teachers, postmen, soldiers, police officers, fire fighters, first responders, second or third responders and not even jokes about those who don’t respond at all.

No license should be given to members of one group to poke fun at their own. Jews, for example, should not tell jokes about litvaks, yekkes, Polish, Russian, Hungarian, Galician, Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Yemenite, Moroccan, Syrian, Ethiopian, Persian, Iraqi, Egyptian or Libyan Jews.

There should be no jokes about pets. Dogs, cats, hamsters and fish apparently have feelings too. No jokes about inanimate buildings (the builders might take offense) nor jokes about trees, fields or flowers (which, after all, were planted by someone).

Jokes that are intended to be mean-spirited, cruel, humiliating or bullying should never be uttered.

In short, we must ban all forms of humor, lest someone, somewhere, sometime be offended. Perhaps we have arrived at that enlightened stage already? And aren’t we better off for it? Maybe not. Maybe we all need to relax a little, not to be so uptight, laugh once in a while, be kind, sensitive and tolerant, and not succumb to the intolerant word police who are ready to arrest and prosecute anyone even slightly jocular – because tyranny of thought is no joking matter.

Is it proper to play board games on Shabbat? 

The halachic answer is simple, even as the hashkafic answer is a bit more complex. One must always bear in mind that the purpose of Shabbat is to provide us with a day that is set aside for tefilah and Talmud Torah, for prayer, Torah study, time with family and friends and a complete break from the mundane activities of the weekdays. It is not a day to be frittered away in pursuits whose primary purpose is to kill time, even if they do provide moment of pleasure.

That being said, the answer in the first instance must age, background, temperament and spiritual potential. Children will certainly have fewer limitations because they are not yet of age to appreciate the sublimity of Shabbat. Thus, it is horrendous if children, teenagers for sure, find Shabbat boring or stifling because, lacking a mature spiritual sensibility, they cannot find any permissible outlet for their energies. Similarly, there might be adults as well who struggle to observe the laws of Shabbat but persevere. They too need an appropriate venue to provide Shabbat enjoyment.

Under those circumstances, games provide a healthy vehicle if they do not involve a violation of halachah. Chess (or checkers) are permitted by many poskim (beginning with Rema in Orach Chaim 338:5), as is Scrabble if the letters remain loose and are not affixed to the board. Monopoly and other games that involve play money or keeping score are frowned upon, although some clever people keep score by using pages in books. More specifics need to be discussed with your local Rav.

It is worth reiterating that playing these games should be a temporary pause from the more spiritual pursuits of the day – and not the focus of Shabbat itself. That focus is properly divine service and the perfection of our souls.

Is it proper to shun traditional fried foods on Chanukah (latkes, sufganiyot) because of health concerns (not due to any specific existing condition)? 

Two points should be made at the outset. Firstly, anyone with particular health issues should discuss them with a healthcare professional before eating any food that might be problematic. Secondly, eating must be done in moderation. Anything in excess has the potential to be harmful. By the same token, abstaining completely from the occasional pleasurable food might, for some people, significantly impair their enjoyment of life. 

Many Jews, in particular, struggle with healthy eating. We sit down to at least two major (Thanksgiving style) meals per week, that is, every Shabbat. And those meals are often supplemented by a sumptuous Shabbat kiddush, not to mention the many smachot to which we are frequently invited at which, in effect, several meals can be served in one sitting. “V’nishmartem me’od l’nafshoteichem” is both a halachic mandate and a major concern. And there are specific times of the year in which the foods that symbolize the holidays and evoke important ideas can pose health concerns.

 The best, and to me the most reasonable, approach is to strike the right balance. Abstention can lead to frustration and even overeating when our willpower weakens. But pure indulgence and a blithe disregard for good eating habits is deleterious in both short term and long term. That “God watches over the simple” (Tehillim 116:6) is true but small comfort when repetitive risky behavior – in defiance of Torah norms – has its inevitable consequence. 

For most people, eating one latke or sufganya is tolerable, will not jeopardize their health, and will add to their enjoyment of Chanukah. Wolfing down mass quantities is inadvisable and is glutttony masquerading as some sort of religious fulfillment. We must learn to exercise self-control in all aspects of life, especially eating. 

Is it proper to embark on a long trip (whether by car or otherwise) on a short Erev Shabbos?

Chazal distinguished between a person who is traveling for a mitzvah or business reasons and one who is traveling for pleasure. The former can generally depart on Erev Shabbat, the latter cannot. Nonetheless, it should be underscored that it is rabbinically prohibited to place oneself in a situation in which Chilul Shabbat is possible. That constraint applies to everyone. Observance of Shabbat is such a fundamental principle of Judaism that forethought is indispensable even before Shabbat so an unforeseen event does not derail us.

Thus, a person who embarks on a two hour journey 90 minutes before Shabbat starts is an obvious sinner. He cannot claim that pikuach nefesh (preservation of life) justifies his subsequent Shabbat violations. Similarly, one who embarks on a two hour journey exactly two hours before Shabbat is reckless and if he doesn’t make it in time, he is also a Shabbat desecrator. Enough time must be allowed even for short trips, not to mention long ones, that the effects of accidents, traffic, delays, storms and breakdowns are considered. In these situations, always be a pessimist and not an optimist, especially since there is also a mitzvah to enter Shabbat with peace of mind, not harried from a frenetic and intense journey.

Just recently, two people flew from South Africa to Israel, landing on Friday, in order to fulfill a Mitzvah. The exaggerated vagaries of the Coronavirus caused a change in the entry regulations while they were en route. When they landed in Israel, they were turned away and forced to board a return flight to South Africa on Friday night. The rejection was despicable, to be sure. But when it comes to Shabbat, never assume! Travel on Thursday – or leave early Friday morning for a two hour trip. The sanctity of Shabbat deserves no less.

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