Ask the Rabbi, Part 17

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

Is it proper to reject a shidduch candidate because he or she is Sefardi while your family is Ashkenazi or vice-versa?

Shidduchim should be made in the first instance based on shared values and commitment, as well as complementary personalities. In fact, those should also be the criteria for the second and third instances. And those values stem from the Torah that is the mutual heritage of all Jews, no matter their background or country of origin.

From my vantage point in Israel, the question itself sounds peculiar because almost half the marriages in the country involve couples from different ethnic backgrounds. Most young people today are broad-minded enough not to distinguish between Ashkenazim and Sefardim or Jews who hail from Ethiopia or Asia. If we want to be precise, the differences between various groups of Ashkenazim (Hasidim, Mitnagdim) and various groups of Sefardim (Turkish, Syrian, Moroccan, Yemenite Jews et al) can be just as sharp as that between Ashkenazim and Sefardim.

That is the beauty of modern Israel and the reality of Kibbutz Galuyot. Not only is it improper to reject a shidduch on that basis, it is foolish, and not just because marrying outside one’s ethnic heritage broadens the gene pool. It is primarily because it is sorely lacking in Ahavat Yisrael – love of our fellow Jews.

Certainly, navigating the different cultural backgrounds and customs can be a small challenge – but it is also immensely rewarding. Additionally, it reverses the destructive pattern of the exile that divided us geographically, and hastens the redemption in which we will again be one people.

What should one do if family or friends use curse words in conversation?

What are we, a nation of sailors? We are a kingdom of priests and a holy nation!

People usually curse in order to attract attention when they feel they will otherwise be ignored or to underscore a strongly held point. It is like using an exclamation point in the middle (!) and at the end of every sentence! But cursing has become so common that it has lost its shock value – except, of course, in the polite and refined society where Jews should strive to live. Indeed, it has become so prevalent that, in Israel, curse words are frequently uttered on live television and radio, or in ordinary conversation, because they are perceived as American slang, like “OK” or “shopping.” They are not OK, even when stuck in a long shopping line.

Rambam wrote (Moreh Nevuchim Part III, Chapter 8) that Hebrew is called “the holy tongue” because it has no original expressions for the bodily parts, functions and secretions that comprise most of the vulgarity in use and so utilizes figurative language. As such, one who resorts to these words is making constant reference to the animalistic side of life, which does not speak well of where his or her thoughts are. Moreover, the Gemara (Shabbat 33a) states that due to the sin of vulgar speech, troubles proliferate and harsh decrees are renewed. That alone should resonate today.

Children should be admonished. I recall when the threat of having one’s “mouth washed out with soap” did the trick, as I remember hearing people protest that “there are ladies present.” The latter seems unfortunately quaint today. Even family and friends should be gently rebuked as to what is acceptable discourse. We should guard our tongues and our language. Since there are people who preface their vulgarity with “Pardon my French,” I have stopped speaking French.

A holy nation is typified by purity of speech.

Is it proper to name your child after a Biblical figure who is portrayed in a negative light?

There was a time in Israel not long ago when children were routinely named Nimrod or Omri, demonstrating their parents’ awareness of biblical names but little about the nature of the individuals who bore those names (although Omri did have some merit, as he added one city in Israel). Using such names is certainly improper, and thus we do not find Jewish children named Korach or Haman, Datan or Aviram.

Yet there are names that have beautiful meanings but are associated with wicked people. Yishmael is an uncommon name for Jews, even though he repented and even if there was a great Tanna named Rabbi Yishmael. But it means “G-d will hear,” an inspiring thought, and, after all, he was named by Hashem. Similarly, the Gemara (Yoma 38b) notes that the names of the wicked will decay, since no one should use them. It cites the name Do’eg (the tormentor of David) as an example, properly so because otherwise many Jews might be inclined to name their children “worrier.” Tosafot there justify someone named Avshalom, one of the rebellious sons of King David, because he was really Avishalom.

Therein lies the conundrum: what if the name expresses a spiritually meaningful idea but is associated with an evildoer? In such a case there is no prohibition, and as we see, the name Avshalom is widely extant in Jewish life.

In modern times, since Ashkenazim generally name after deceased relatives, it is quite possible to arrest the use of the names of biblical villains, and rightly so. That would be an act of piety. Certainly we should never name a child after the rasha himself but if the name is used because of the idea it represents or because it was used by a virtuous ancestor, it is not prohibited.

Is it proper to brag about your children/grandchildren’s accomplishments to friends or is it better to keep it within the family? What about sharing on social media?

The simple answer is no, and even from Israel I can hear the incredulous wailing of parents and grandparents who view their offspring as “nachat machines” spawned to produce limitless opportunities to gloat over their achievements. Of course, when the ancestors boast, they are not so much taking pride in the child’s successes as they are taking credit for having brought such progeny into the world. It is their accomplishment that demands the notice of others, and many unfailingly (and tediously) insist upon it.

Both my father and grandfather a”h were fond of quoting the verse from Mishlei (27:2) “Let another man praise you, and not your own mouth; [let a] stranger, and not your own lips.” Once we internalize that we are primarily boasting about our offspring because they are extensions of ourselves, the ethical harm is patently clear. The Chayei Adam wrote (in his introduction) that a person should never praise himself for his deeds because it will lead to haughtiness and other execrable traits. The same should apply to those within our family.

Social media is particularly detrimental in this regard because it magnifies the arrogance a thousand fold. Generally, this type of casual bragging reinforces to the child that the most important and worthwhile objective is to be noticed, to receive public acclaim for something – and if not, it is as if it never happened and has little value. That is an appalling message to teach children.

It is best, and more rewarding, when others tell us the accomplishments of our offspring, which we accept humbly and graciously. Even among immediate family, it is preferable not to boast as such will invariably lead to jealousy. Positive reinforcement should be offered privately.

Of course, I am tempted to carve out an exemption for my children and grandchildren… But it is bad form, practice and midot.

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