Monday, October 27, 2008

The City Drains

In the car to the airport I watch the sky go by—the sky so blue and so big; where I live we’ve let it be that way, we haven’t crowded it with buildings and clamor and people. Wide and unhampered, I feel its joy. Sunlight plays off the leaves, vibrant green, deep red, smoky orange, highlights dancing as we whoosh by, trees and trees and trees. The mountains tell me they’ll wait, and the lake is still and gray. I ache, thinking about leaving it all behind, missing the rest of the season, every change, every sunrise and sunset. But I can’t let myself feel lost already. I find strength in forcing my mind and my soul to recall that, sustained by God, the leaves will turn colors again next year, every subsequent year, and the sun will continue to rise and set over the mountains, morning and evening, for as long as I can foresee. I may miss many moments, each one unique, but there will be more, and all of them fantastic.

I’m back in the city and right away I feel it: the pressure that constricts my lungs, the noise and the rush and the urgency, pulsing, pulsing, pushing toward a goal. Faster! In the cab I try to retain some of my composure, the blissful peace that a month at home bestowed, but already I feel it slipping. The conclusions that I came to, the slow deliberate consideration of options, the necessary realization that I can, must handle whatever comes next is suddenly replaced by COMPARISON, by COMPETITION, by the feeling that I am BEHIND and INFERIOR and about to LOSE all chance of success. The city yells at me in capital letters. I press my hands to my ears, hoping to erase the sounds with memories of long pinebrown walks through a forest to shul, talks with my father, songs sung with my sister—but the city is relentless.

Back in the dorm I try to forget my troubles as I hug my friends and ask them about their chagim. Yet within minutes I realize that I hardly recognize myself. This loud, giddy person—zany, entertaining—she is not me. For a month I was quiet, sweet, reflective, thoughtful, with a frothy, childlike joy. I return and my personality has shifted, I am a different girl. This manifestation annoys me. She is more shallow and less loved. She feels the pressure, the competition, and tries to drown out the voices with frivolity. She strives for attention, even—especially—among her closest friends. The city life is too rushed for the quiet one to survive. She struggles and thrashes and makes more noise than she cares to hear. I turn away.

I sit in class and try to feel. A month at home restored my ability to discover and accept my emotions. It was elation, pure and clear, to know that my capacity for love and fear and wonder still abides. I felt the emotional nuance of each chag, each Godly encounter, each human interaction, and I reveled in the awareness of it. Without emotion, life skids by untouched, there is no way to grasp hold of a moment. Precious sensitivity allowed me to live each day, to experience and grow. And now I am back, and already I feel a callus forming, my skin thickened, becoming impervious to nicks and scratches and soft caresses. I see opportunity sliding away, I feel loss, I want so much to stop this process. But what can I do? This city eats at my heart and diminishes Truth, but I cannot leave now.

So I will close my door and close my eyes and breathe slowly through my nose until I find my pace again. I will do this today and tomorrow if I must, but each time the equanimity I regain is less. And then the time will come that I will leave this city for a few days or weeks and I will find myself once more. And then, with the inevitability of night after morning, I will return to the city, again and again—until the day that life leads me to a new place, and I am liberated at last.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Still Life in Perpetual Motion

Because I wanted to share this with you:

I walk and walk and walk breathing fast and sharp. The world is one crisp cool leaf-clung wonder spangled red and amber. The wet air fills my lungs with a tangible taste and the gray-blue cloud-dappled sky swallows my fears, lending me its grandeur. How could I hide from a world as large as this? As full of promise and the green living ground that springs back at me under my heels. There is only the earth and the sky and the movement and the music and me, and I know that hope will never be dead, not while the world opens its arms to tell me how little I matter, and how much. And there is water, rippled and creased, holding in it the sky and all its expanse, but deeper still. And where the lily pads gather the moss creeps up soft and a thick slimy cover floats on the dusky surface—there!—behind that rock the frogs hide. The golden brown chips crunch under the toes of my boots and I walk, like a queen, beneath a dark enclosed canopy of stark-stripped twigs woven into an impenetrable archway heralding my approach. It’s quieter here; it could have been a century ago or more, and perhaps it is. My steps echo slower until I reenter the open world and there are people again and I’m heading toward some goal. The sun peeks out for a moment to remind me of its presence and its reflection off the water dazzles my eyes. And then I’m moving, recalling that these boots were not made for walking, with the exquisite ache of each solid step as the hard ground refuses to yield to my worn heels. The air still bites cool, but I feel heat, my own heat, because I am alive, alive, alive—and while that fact is true, and while the mountains wait on the horizon in shady blue silence, and while the fallen leaves dust my loosened hair—I will keep moving forward.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Hilchos Chol Hamoed

In the interest of practicality, and courtesy of the fantastic services of, my notes on a shiur by R' Baruch Simon on hilchos Chol Hamoed. Hope they can be of use! (Or, if you prefer, you can listen to the shiur here.)

What exactly is Chol Hamoed? What is its status?

The gemara in Chagiga (yud ches amud aleph) discusses various limudim of how we know there is an issur melacha on Chol Hamoed. Then it says: if the Torah doesn’t tell you exactly what to do, the chachamim fill in the details for us. Such is the case with Chol Hamoed.

There’s a machloket whether the issur melacha on Chol Hamoed is derabanan or deoraisa; and the Beis Yosef holds in between: that the klal is deoraisa, and the pratim are derabanan. Of course, the nafka mina is whether we’ll hold l’chomer or l’kula. Regardless, there clearly is an issur melacha on Chol Hamoed.

A famous Yerushalmi quoted by Tosfos in Chagiga: R’ Yochanan said: if it were up to me, I would do away with the issur melacha on Chol Hamoed. Why? Because its purpose is to allow for more Torah study, but I see people taking off from work and engaging in frivolous activities instead. Some rishonim quote this as a proof that the issur is only derabanan—how else could R’ Yochanan even talk about repealing it?

The Sefer Yereim and the Ra’aviah give us a perspective to understand how to apply the issur melacha for halacha l’maaseh.

Sefer Yeraim: the yesod is melacha sheyesh ba torach—in principle, chol hamoed has an issur melacha, and the 39 melachot should really apply. But we don’t hold this: we only hold that melacha that causes tircha is assur. So immediately, a few nafka minas come about. For instance, turning on a light is mutar, and we wouldn’t worry about washing our hands over the grass (as we do on shabbos).

The Ra’avia explains: the whole point is “k’day sh’yismach b’moed,” so anything that isn’t a tircha isn’t going to detract from the simcha of the moed.

Categories of melacha that are exceptions to the issur:

  1. Tzorech hamoed – e.g. if you want to go on an outing and you drive to get there, it’s permitted. However, the qualification for this is that it must be a maseh hedyot, not a maseh uman – a non-professional action, not specialized. For instance, having a mechanic fix your car is assur (assuming you’re at home, before you’ve started the trip). Even amirah l’acum for such a melacha is assur. What about taking a picture? Is it maseh hedyot or uman? It’s a machloket—because even though the action is easy to do, the result is a professional type of product. So it depends whether you base it on the action or the quality of the result. The minhag of most is to be makil on this issue, and most people take pictures.
  2. Ochel nefesh – even a maseh uman is muttar for this purpose. For instance, if you needed to get your oven fixed, you could do so.
  3. Tzorech haguf -- Rif: women can do their cosmetic processes on the moed – tzorech haguf, to beautify the body, also has the same status as ochel nefesh and is permissible even with a maseh uman. So what about doctors’ appointments? R’ Moshe says unless there’s a pressing need, you shouldn’t schedule the appointments for Chol Hamoed, because it isn’t tzorech hamoed or tzorech haguf. But getting your glasses fixed, for example, would be ok, if there’s a need.
  4. Davar ha’avud – if you’re going to lose out a lot if you don’t do the melacha, it’s muttar, even with a maseh uman. What’s considered davar ha’avud? E.g. if you don’t go to work, you’ll lose your job. It only applies to something you already have that you’ll lose—not getting a gain is not davar ha’avud. However, if by not being open a store will not just lose the potential gain of the business from that day, but will permanently lose regular customers (something that the storeowner already had), it’s considered a davar ha’avud. The Yerushalmi says that if you have the chance to buy goods for a cheaper price than usual, you may. It’s a machloket whether this refers to buying goods to resell for a profit later (Rambam), or buying for your own needs (Ramban). So you shouldn’t go shopping unless there’s a sale you’ll otherwise miss.

Writing on Chol Hamoed:

The Bach summarizes the mishna: the ikkur issur of Chol Hamoed is the type of writing in a sefer Torah. Our regular writing is not a maseh uman, so that’s not really the writing that the chachamim were concerned about on Chol Hamoed. So strictly speaking, writing on Chol Hamoed is fine, unless it’s professional writing. (The shinuyim we use with our writing are added chumras.) The gemara says you can write a friendly letter to your friend (this also applies to an email).

Laundry and Shaving:

At first glance, laundry should be muttar, because it’s maseh hedyot and it’s l’tzorech hamoed. However, there was a gezeirah that you shouldn’t do laundry, lest the thought that you’ll do laundry on Chol Hamoed prevent you from doing laundry before yom tov, causing you to wear dirty clothes on yom tov. And they prohibited haircuts and shaving for the same reason. Rabbeinu Tam, quoted in the Tur, has an important kulah: if this is the reason for not shaving/having haircuts, if you did shave beforehand but now need to shave again, you should be permitted to do so. The Tur disagrees, but R’ Moshe held that here in America where everyone shaves daily, the gezeirah shouldn’t apply as long as you also shaved before yom tov. So among people who have to go to work, the minhag is to shave, but most “yeshiva fellahs” who are just hanging around and aren’t around goyim don’t shave. Heteirim regarding laundry: bigdei katanim—for little kids who are always getting dirty, where you constantly have to wash their clothes, you may launder the clothes on Chol Hamoed. R’ Scheinberg holds that once you’re doing laundry for the little kids, you may throw in a few things for the adults as well, but others disagree.

Tzorech Harabim:

If something is for the communal need (paving the street, fixing the water supply, etc.) the mishna says it’s muttar. Question: does the hetter include meleches uman or is it only for meleches hedyot? The Rosh has a chidush in Moed Katan, where he says that there are two types of tzorech rabim: tzorech hamoed, and for after the moed. For example, if the community needs to go somewhere on the moed, you may pave the street even though it’s meleches uman. But if it’s only l’achar moed, only maseh hedyot is allowed.

Hired Workers on Chol Hamoed:

Gemara Moed Katan: issur of amira l’acum. This means that you can’t hire a goy to work for you over chol hamoed and pay him by the day. But there’s a concept called kablanus, paying a worker for doing a job, not paying by the day. So then theoretically he could work whenever he wants, because you’re not hiring him for a specific day, but to get a job done. However, Chazal prohibited kablanus on shabbos inside the tchum, because of maaras ayin, because people might think he was hired for the day. But outside the tchum kablanus is muttar on shabbos, because people won’t see the worker. Yet, on Chol Hamoed, because there is no issur tchum, kablanus is assur anywhere. (This is the answer to the riddle: on what issue is Chol Hamoed stricter than shabbos?) The Nodeh b’Yehudah has an interesting teshuva. What if you’re in a community where a particular job is never done through schir yom? In that case, he says, the whole din of maaras ayin falls away, and you may hire a worker for kablanus. This is, however, provided that there is no specific expectation that the task will be completed by the time the chag is over.

Cutting Fingernails:

May you cut fingernails on Chol Hamoed? Sefardim, yes; Ashkenazim, no. But the Magen Avraham writes that we can rely on the Rabbeinu Tam about shaving in this case: if you cut your fingernails before yom tov, you may also do so on Chol Hamoed.

Tefillin on Chol Hamoed:

It’s a big machlokes rishonim. The Beis Yosef writes that it was always the minhag to put on tefillin on Chol Hamoed, but then they found that R’ Shimon Bar Yochai said that if you put on tefillin you’re chayav misah, so they stopped. Therefore, the minhag in Sefarad was not to put it on. Minhag Eretz Yisrael (who were mostly talmidei HaGra) was also not to.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Asking for Mechilah

It’s that time of year again—the time when your closest friends awkwardly take you aside and say, “If there’s anything I’ve done this year to hurt you, or…I hope you will be mochel—” and then you cut them off and mutter, “No, no, of course…and I hope that you’ll…” and then they cut you off and then you hug.

Or better yet: your inboxes fill with mass text messages and emails that read, “Have a gmar chasima tova, and if there’s anything I’ve done to hurt you this year, I hope you will be mochel me!”

Right. So about that—I’ve been thinking, and I haven’t really reached any solid conclusions--which is bad considering that Yom Kippur is right around the corner. Maybe you can help me out.

The practice of asking everyone for mechilah is based on the idea (brought by the Rambam and others) that you cannot achieve mechilah from Hashem for aveirot bein adam l’chaveiro unless the person you wronged has forgiven you first. This I understand. However…

How much do these blanket requests for forgiveness really achieve? Is an unspecific appeal or an electronic mass message really all that much better than nothing? The assumption is that the person/people you’re asking are going to say, “Of course!” If that’s the case, do you really have to go through the motions of asking? If you know that the person will forgive you, or has probably already forgiven you, or has forgotten all about any potential wrong you might have done to him/her, do you have to ask?

Also, in a case where the person doesn’t even know that she was wronged—say, for example, that you spoke loshon hara about someone behind her back—is it constructive to approach the person and say, “Hi, I spoke loshon hara about you this year, do you forgive me?” Would it be better to just leave the person in blissful ignorance?

Also, how do these things change if the person is just an acquaintance instead of a close friend? With a close friend you can pretty much assume that she will/has already forgiven you for anything unspecified you might have done to her. But an acquaintance probably hasn’t even though about your existence long enough to contemplate the possibility that you wronged him/her, so what is the proper thing to do? Call the person up and say, “Hi, I’m SJ, you know, from English class? I sit in the third row near the back? Right, so, um, I’m pretty sure I spoke loshon hara about you this year—are you mochel me?” Is that constructive? And, um, how are you supposed to get her phone number in the first place?

All of this makes me feel that perhaps the proper course of action would be to forego all of this meshugas. That would allow you to focus on asking mechilah for specific actions that you know have hurt others, and for which the injured party still bears a grudge of some sort. If you could call someone up and say, “Remember the time I embarrassed you in front of our friends? I’m really, really sorry about that. The action was beneath me, and I feel sincerely awful about it. Will you forgive me?”—that sounds a lot more like a significant, productive conversation that the others I’ve mentioned.

The problem is that limiting requests for mechilah to the situation I’ve just described doesn’t really line up with the Rambam’s idea, because you haven’t been officially forgiven for all of your chataim bein adam l’chaveiro.

Do you see my issue? Do you have any thoughts?

P.S. If there’s anything I’ve done to hurt or wrong you in the past, either with your knowledge or without, I am sincerely sorry, and I humbly request your mechilah.

No, I really really do.