On the roof of the Aish center looking down at the Western Wall with Chevra & Davai in 2011

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Saturday, October 29, 2011

Jewish Law Question - How do I start keeping kosher?

Nine years ago I went on out of town for Shavous with a friend of mine.  I was having a meal with some new friends.  They were probably on the same level as me... new B.Ts.  Somehow we started talking about the laws of kashrut.  Keeping kosher is complicated and there are a lot of laws to learn... And some misconceptions too.  We were talking about how long one must wait to eat dairy after they've eaten meat.  I commented how confusing it was.  I knew several different people whom I respected who did several different things and I didn't know which one was right.  The Rabbi that I had been learning with for a while waited 6 hours.  Another Rabbi whom I had just met waited until the 6th hour, which is actually 5 hours and 1 minute after eating meat.  My new girlfriend, whom I later married, waited 3 hours which was handed down as her family’s tradition from her parents and grandparents.  My new friend told me that "the Torahs says that you have to wait 6 hours after eating meat and that's it." in a Know-it-all B.T.fashion  I didn't know that much, but I was pretty sure the Torah never clearly stated any time limits.  I told him to go get a Chumash and point out the verse that backed up his claim.  He got up to go find his proof.  After a few minutes I saw him speaking to one of the Rebbetzens (Rabbi's wives) in the corner.  She was explaining to him that the Torah never clearly stated a time limit and there are many different opinions.  He looked a little disappointed, but hopefully he learned a valuable lesson.   The most widely held opinion is to wait 6 hours and please don't use this as permission to do otherwise.  If you have any questions about what's right for you, consult your local Rabbi. 

Keeping kosher is a very rewarding decision, but it can also be very overwhelming.  There are books and books that deal with all of the intricate laws of what Jews can eat and when.  Considering the availability of information out there, I'm not going to deal with the question "How do I keep kosher?”, but I am going to deal with "How do I start keeping kosher?"

Just like most things that you're learning, Kosher is not an all or nothing proposition. 

When starting to keep kosher, there's nothing wrong with starting slow.  If like me, cheesesteaks were a staple of your diet (I did grow up in Philadelphia), its ok to take it slow.  There can be levels, especially at the beginning to help you get started.  You can move as quickly or as slowly through the levels and set backs sometimes happen.  Taking this process step by step will help you incorporate your new beliefs from our old traditions into your new life.

The first thing that we have to cover is the degrees within Jewish law.  It will become clear later why this is important.  From the most serious on down is as follows:

1. Torah Law: G-d said the "though shalt" or the "though shalt not" right in the Torah
2. Traditional Law: We have a tradition that Moses taught the law orally at Mount Sinai or in the desert.
3. Rabbinic Law: Decrees from our sages
4. Customs: Something that the Jewish people took on without being told.
5. Stringency: Going beyond the letter of the law in service of G-d.

Level 1 -  "Blatant Traif": "Traif" means not kosher food & for better or for worse, there are certain things that are not kosher under any circumstance.  Example: pork, shell fish & meat with dairy.  These items are prohibited directly from the Torah.  A first step on your quest to eating kosher, should probably be to eliminate these things from your diet.  What about cheeseburgers?  Sorry.  They have to go.  You can try a real beef burger with fake cheese or a vegi burger with real cheese.  It won’t be the same, but after a while you won’t miss the real thing anyway.

Level 2 - "Non Kosher Meat":  I believe this falls under a "Traditional Law", but all animals and birds that we eat must be slaughtered according to our tradition.  A good Level 2 step is to only buy kosher meat when you go to the supermarket, and when you go out to restaurants, order dairy or vegetarian.  Another Level 2 activity would be to start waiting 6 hours between the time you eat dairy after meat.  The good news is that you can eat meat after dairy without too much restriction.  Just wash your hands, rinse your mouth out with water and go ahead.  Practical Example:  You want to eat a hamburger (yes you’re eating kosher meat and yes you left off the cheese) and then an ice-cream sunday right afterwards.  I love ice-cream as much as the next person and don’t like waiting 6 hours either.  Practical Solution: Eat the ice cream first.  J

Level 3 – “Cold & Separate”:  A good Level 3 activity for outside the house would be to either limit your restaurant activity to only kosher restaurants.  You’ll soon learn that there are a lot of different agencies that say restaurants and other things are kosher.  Unfortunately, there isn’t a general standard among all of Judaism.  For Level 3, eat at anyone that you feel like.  If you do eat at a non kosher restaurant, stick to salads, fruit cup, sushi or cold uncooked foods.  Most domestic beers along with most alcohols are kosher, so you can still have that social drink with your old friends or coworkers.  At home, a good level 3 activity is to start buying foods with kosher symbols only and to buy new sets of dishes for meat and dairy.  When buying anything for the kitchen, it’s best to stick with glass or metal if possible.  With a glass dish, it’s much easier to correct a kosher mistake then with ceramic.  In Level 3, we’ve entered the realm of Rabbinic Laws and you’re making great progress

Level 4 – “Blow torches & hextures”: At Level 4, it’s time to break out the blow torch and “kasher” your kitchen.  Do NOT do this on your own.  Call your local orthodox Rabbi and they’ll be able to help you.  Lubavitch Rabbis, especially, have a ton of experience in this area.  When it comes to eating out, start sticking with the orthodox certified restaurants only.  You may also want to start making sure that the food that you’re buying in the supermarket have reliable orthodox certifications.  You should also start washing your vegetables thoroughly and checking for bugs.  Disgusting as it may sound, there are non-kosher bugs all over our produce.  2 days ago, my wife threw out a bunch of asparagus, because she couldn’t get all the bugs out.  There are plenty of books on the subject.  The good news is that, if you do it right, you’ll stop unknowingly eating little bugs all the time.

Level 5 – “Super Jew”: At this point, you’ve covered all the Torah, Traditional & Rabbinic Laws of keeping kosher.  We’re into Customs & Stringencies if you want to go there.  Level 5 is the only level that’s totally optional according to Jewish law.  However if you want to keep pushing the envelope…. The last steps are: 1. Eat dairy only milked under orthodox Jewish supervision (Cholev Yisroael).  2. Eat baked goods only baked under orthodox Jewish supervision (Pas Yisroael).  3. Eat foods only cooked under orthodox Jewish supervision (Bishul Yisroael).

Its not easy to start keep kosher.  You're going to have invitations from friends to go out to dinner, non-kosher weddings, business lunches, not to mention eating at your parent’s house.  Take it slow and be sensitive to your old friends, business associates and family.  Just because you're starting to keep kosher, doesn't mean they have to.  Explain your needs polity and try to make and acceptable compromise.  Most wedding caterers will provide kosher meals.  You can meet clients for coffee instead of lunch.  You can meat friends for a beer instead of dinner and you can bring your own food to your parents.  Don't forget to be sensitive to their feelings.  Its natural for your family to feel rejected when they first find out you won't eat there.  Be easy on them and reassure them that you're doing what's right for you.

I hope that this clarifies some things and makes your Quest for Kosher a little easier.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Torah Thought: Parsha Noach

All week, I’ve been bothered by something in the Torah portion.  G-d told Noah to create an ark that was 3 stories and (depending on your conversion from amos, which is a biblical measurement to feet) over 30,000 square feet per floor.  The lowest floor was created to hold all of the waste & refuge.  The middle floor was designed to hold between 2 – 14 of every type of animal in existence depending on whether they were pure or impure animals.  The upper floor was designed for the human beings who were saved, which consisted of Noah, his 3 sons, and all of their wives… a total of 8 people. 

The question that bothered me is what to 8 people need with over 30,000 square feet of space???

My first house was a 3 bedroom row home in the Queen Village section of Philly.  It was roughly 1,600 square feet.  It wasn’t huge, but it wasn’t tiny either for a city house.  When I think that you could have fit roughly 20 of these houses in a space for 8 people, it seems quite excessive to me.  The sages tell us that since the Torah is G-d’s wisdom, so to speak, then it’s impossible for anything in it to be illogical.  Anything that we cant understand, is above us… not a mistake.  That being said, I still kept dwelling on why such a large space was needed.  I couldn’t find any traditional explanations on the subject.  In truth, because of time constraints, I didn’t really spend that much time looking for one.

After a few days, I came upon an explanation that started to make sense.

In the Ba’al Teshuva world, we often invite people over for a Shabbas meal who, we are know, are not Shabbas observers and are probably going to drive home after dinner.  If keeping the Shabbas is so important, how can we invite these people over in the first place?  Maybe it’s better to not have such Shabbas guests…

As I was once explained, there are Rabbinic opinions that allow us to invite someone over on Friday evening before the sun goes down for dinner, because there’s the possibility that they will find dinner so spiritually inspiring (or get too tired or drunk), that they may decide to sleep over instead of driving home on Shabbas.  Given that possibility, it is not a forgone conclusion that they’re going to violate the Shabbas at all.  The catch is that you need to have a place for them to sleep.  Even though the circumstances are unlikely that your 6 or 60 dinner guests are going to stay over instead of drive home, as a host we need to not only accept them if they do decide to stay over, but hope and pray that they will.

I don’t believe that the extra space in the human section of the ark was son Noah and his sons can have a 2 on 2 football game using a regulation field.  I think that up until the very last moment, G-d was hoping that the generation, or at least some of it, would do teshuva, return to belief and observance in G-d, and occupy a lot more of that space.

Jewish Law question - What if you can't take off work on Jewish holidays?

A Ba'al Teshuva friend of mine approached me a month or so ago and told me that they really needed to talk about something.  They started a new job after a long period of unemployment and did not have any vacation or personal days yet.  He said that he didn't believe that he would get fired if he took off all 6 of the Yuntuf's this year, but he was living hand to mouth and simply couldn't afford the loss.

Before I state my response, let me preface it with saying that I'm not a Rabbi.  Even though I've been learning for 10 years or so, I'm not nearly qualfied to render any final decisions on Jewish law. 

I told this friend the same thing and he told me that he didnt have anyone he felt comfortabel asking. 

Since I was forced to tell him something, I took the following principles into effect:
1. Life and death: If someone really is in a situation where they're life is in jeopardy, then most Jewish laws are suspended if necessary to save the life.  Example: A person is trapped on a desert island, on the brink of starvation and comes across a bacon double cheese burger.  The person should eat it without hesitation.  Once he's on the rescue ship, it's a different story.

2. Torah laws, Traditional laws, Rabbinic laws, Customs & Stringency: A simple explanation is as follows:
A. Torah Law: G-d said the "though shalt" or the "though shalt not" right in the Torah
B. Traditional Law: We have a tradition that Moses taught the law orally at Mount Sinai or in the desert.
C. Rabbinic Law: Decrees from our sages
D. Customs: Something that the Jewish people took on without being told.
E. Stringency: Going beyond the letter of the law in service of G-d.
These are listed from most important to lease important.  The importance in this situation is that the 2nd day of Succas and Simchas Torah are both Rabbinic decrees, while the 1st & last days of Succas along with Rosh Hashannah are commandments straight from the Torah.

3. 2 steps forward, 1 step back... or 1 step forwards & 2 steps back
Just like when exercising, there's a potential for someone to push themselves too hard, injure themselves and have to sit on the sidelines for a while, the same can happen spiritually.  Those of us who spend time among Ba'al Teshuvas have typically seen at least one case, where someone was eager to learn, took on a lot very quickly and ended up spiritually melting down and walking away from Judaism.  This is a definite concern and needs to be in the mind of every Rabbi or spiritual advisor.  If I push this guy guy to do something that he's simply not spiritually ready for, it may send him into overload.

4. Degrees of violation
Maybe there's a way that he can sleep at someones house near his work and walk to work to avoid the problems involved with traveling on a Jewish holiday.

All that being said, I basically explained my thoughts on all 4 of these areas and let him make up his own mind.  I never asked what he ended up doing and he never told me.  As I was walking away, he asked me what I would do.  I told him that I hope and I pray that I'm never tested with such a difficult problem, but I'd like to think that I would take off work and trust in G-d to take care of his end of the deal.

Torah Thought: Parsha Bereishes

I was walking with my 4 year old son on Succas in some strong winds and he asked me why G-d made it so cloudy & windy and that he wished every day would be nice and sunny.  I tried to explain to him that we don’t know why G-d does what he does, but we can be confident that everything is for the best, even though it's often hard to see it.  Several days later, we were driving home from New York on a hot sunny day and my same son complained that the sun was too bright and bothering his eyes.

In the Torah, G-d describes himself using many different names to help us understand how he's relating to humanity with that particular action.  Example: The divine name "Elokim" typically represents our perception of G-d dispensing strict justice to the world.  The divine name "Hashem" typically represents our perception of G-d being kind to the world. 

In the beginning of the Torah, it tells us that G-d created the world and everything in it through his name "Elokim."  We may have expected G-d would have created the world using that name "Hashem", knowing that humanity is flawed and we simply can't exist in a world where strict justice dominated.  Can you imagine if we actually died for every sin that the Torah hands out the death penalty for?  We need the kindness of the name "Hashem" in order to survive.

While this is correct, we also can't live in a world that's dominated solely by kindness.  Can you imagine if a parent only gave a kid ice cream, because that was is favorite food?  Or we let them stay up all night to watch TV or skip school whenever they wanted?  The child wouldn't have a chance. 

Just has the sun is only pleasant when it's filtered down by the clouds, we need Hashem's filter, because G-d's divine light is too great for us to be able to exist in.  That being said, every time that we perform one of G-d commandments or avoid violating one of them, the unfiltered divine light of G-d becomes a little bit more pleasant. 

Welcome to the Ba'al Teshuva's handbook

This blog was designed for Jews who have recently become religious (Ba'al Teshuvas) to help navigate through the changes in life and relationships that they're currently experiencing. 

While it's very important to have a Rabbi, Rebbetzen or advisor who knows you personally and can give you the best advise on how to deal your new found exploration of Judaism, sometimes the people available are inadequate to deal with your most challenging questions or there's simply nobody available in the first place.

As a quick disclaimer, for this blog, I'm going to try to avoid using as many Hebrew or Yiddish words as possible.  Even though "Yinglish" is cute and sometimes can convey messages that is much more challenging in English, I think that it is sometimes overused among newly religous circles and can lead to confusion.

Yinglish example: The bachur doesnt have the cup of a chachim.
English translation: The kid isnt very smart.