Ask the Rabbi, Part 18

(This is the third year that I am answering questions in the Jewish Press forum entitled, “Is it Proper?” All the rabbinic responses – and more – can be read at Jewishpress.com)

Is it proper to have a shorter seder so guests will not have to struggle to stay awake or is it better to have a longer seder filled with divrei Torah that ends very late? What about when young children are involved?

I have often marveled at people who measure a seder (or for that matter, the Rosh Hashana davening) by its length. “We finished at 11:00 PM…at midnight…at 3:30 AM,” as if time is the essence and the substance ancillary.

The fundamental mitzvah of the seder is to transmit the narrative of the Exodus to our children, the background, the story, and above all the implications for today. It is to convey to them the grandeur of the night on which we became Hashem’s eternal and chosen people. How that is done varies with every family – but that is what must be done.

Thus, the length of the seder should be organic, not forced, and depend on the age and knowledge of the guests, and especially the children. It is as foolish and counterproductive to send children to sleep after they ask the Four Questions as it is to sing Chad Gadya with most of the company already sleeping on the floor from the lateness of the hour and the effects of the wine. And I have never much seen the value in having children read rote divrei Torah that they copied in school without fully understanding what they are reading.

Every family strikes it own balance but there are certain prerequisites. Each child, on his/her own level, must be informed of the events of this majestic night, and the purpose of the maror, matzah and the wine. All guests should ponder the implications of exile and redemption, of enemies rising in every generation to destroy us, and of Hashem’s watchful hand that has preserved us until today.

Often the most meaningful discussions will occur at the meal. Sometimes it is necessary to speak privately to the youngsters who will not remain awake for the meal. But clearly the length should be natural and secondary to the quality of this exalted evening.

Is it proper to go on a Pesach program in a place like Dubai, United Arab Emirates?

First things first: Pesach was meant to be celebrated in the land of Israel. That is the Torah’s clear intention, and even if there is no formal mitzvah of aliyah l’regel today, nonetheless there is still a virtue in being in Israel and experiencing the fifth kos – that Hashem will bring us to the land He promised our forefathers.

If one is not celebrating in the land of Israel, there is certainly a value in celebrating Pesach at home. The transformation of the Jewish home from its normal state into its Pesach mode is truly magical. The impression made on children – of parents and grandparents, of cousins and extended family, of traditions unique to each family – is indelible. Even Bubby’s special Pesach dishes will be cherished forever, unlike those of some anonymous chef. And although it is understandable that some families feel compelled to go to a hotel because of the inability to accommodate large numbers of relatives in one house they should still be mindful that the advantage also has some disadvantages.

Once a decision has been made to observe Pesach outside the home it doesn’t really matter in what country it is being celebrated. I remember that before the first Pesach after Israel signed a peace treaty with Egypt there were enterprising hoteliers who advertised about observing Pesach in Egypt, “back where it all began.” Thankfully it didn’t catch on.

Dubai is much friendlier and genuinely appreciates Jewish and Israeli visitors, which is a very heartwarming change in this part of the world. But to fly over Israel to celebrate Pesach elsewhere? There is something odd about that. At least stop in for a visit either before or after Pesach. Chag Kasher v’sameach!

Is it proper to ask someone to leave your makom kavuah in shul?

The old joke just happened to me. A few months ago I was somewhere in northern Israel, found a shul for Mincha, walked in ten minutes early, and saw one person sitting already. The shul contained about 150 seats. I sat down in the middle of the shul. Two minutes later, a fellow walked in – now the third person in shul – approached me and said (in Hebrew): “you are sitting in my seat.” I burst out laughing – and graciously moved over two seats.

There is certainly a value in having a makom kavuah, which is derived from no less a personage than Avraham. It helps our kavanah and it also stamps a particular hallowed place with our personal commitment. Yet, too much is made of it. In our shul, I instituted a rule that a makom kavuah would be honored up to one minute past the start of davening. After one minute (allowing for watch discrepancies), you were no longer entitled to “your” seat, which, if it meant so much, you would have graced with your presence in a more timely fashion.

Underlying this conclusion was the halachic reality that makom kavuah does not necessarily mean a particular seat but rather a particular area. And within four amot (roughly, seven feet) of that seat is still considered your makom kavuah, as the Mishnah Berurah (Orach Chaim 90:60) notes. So it is not necessary to be so insistent on a particular seat, and certainly not to be aggressive or abrasive about it.

As it is, the aforementioned shul in northern Israel did not assemble a minyan for Mincha that day until 12 minutes after sunset, by which time I had already davened. I wondered that, perhaps, if the members were less adamant about their personal spaces they might attract more people.

Is it proper to learn during chazarat hashatz?

No, and I plead guilty with an (inadequate) explanation.

The Mishnah Berurah (Orach Chaim 124:17) exhorted us to be careful not to learn during chazarat hashatz. The repetition of the amida is intended today not so much to fulfill the requirements for those who can’t read (a rarity) but instead to enable us to focus on this communal tefilah given the difficulties we all have in concentrating during our private tefilot. To learn Torah is not only a wasted opportunity (even if we still answer amen) but engenders the idea in others that the repetition is not that important. For every one person who will learn, five others will be checking emails on their cell phones and ten others will be conversing.

The prohibition seems straightforward and years ago I made a conscious effort to stop. I failed, for several reasons, but was bolstered in my waywardness when I came across a teshuvah of Rav Menachem Azariah of Fano (102:8) who wrote (in the 16th century; this is not a new phenomenon) that learning Torah during chazarat Hashatz is improper but most Jews are not careful about this because they have already fulfilled their obligation of tefilah and so grab whatever mitzvah they can during this period.

Most later poskim rejected the contention of the Rema miFano but nevertheless conceded that the issue was usually not framed as an outright prohibition but rather as inadvisable given that the less learned will then do what brings them pleasure – idle conversation and the like.

Rav Kook generally noted that divine service requires orderliness. It is as sensible to learn while davening as it is to daven while learning. Each element of avodah demands our utmost attention and is the commandment of the moment that must be fulfilled. The temptation for Talmud Torah is enormous – but even that temptation, I tell myself, must be controlled. It is undeniably true that the greatest of our Torah sages were meticulous in not learning during chazarat hashatz.

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