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Shmita – The Land’s Sabbatical

Well, the year is almost over, and I’ve never blogged about Shmita (pronounced shmee-tah’).  I remember that just after Rosh Hashana, I wanted to write about it, but it didn’t end up happening.  So, what is Shmita?

The background: Every seventh year, we are required to let the land “rest”.  No farming, and no gardening, either.  In addition, everything is “hefker,” free for all.  This means that nothing belongs to anyone, and everyone can come take.  The idea is threefold:

1. Practically speaking, it is good for the land to rest a year, so that the soil does not get depleted.

2. Spiritually, it allows for everybody, once in seven years, to devote a year to spiritual and personal growth, as well as learning, instead of being focused and worried about their livelihood.

3. Perspective: It allows you to remember that what you have is not yours because you deserve it, but because you happen to have it.  By making everything free for everyone, people gain different perspective, and, I would like to think, become more friendly and more accepting towards others.  Also, poor people can take what they want and “stock up” for the next year.

This ideal works, but it is not perfectly fitted to today’s modern world, but rather to the farming society that we used to be.  Today, it’s more complicated, and many of the purposes are not realized, at least not on a national level.

So, what does Shmita mean today?

The short answer: A headache.  The long answer: A lot of things.  First of all, Shmita fruits are holy, and therefore not to be disposed of in the regular fashion.  Second of all, they are not allowed to be taken out of Israel.

If everything is holy, and you’re not allowed to farm, what do Israelis eat the entire year?  And so, there are several solutions:

1. The simplest, but not necessarily the most practical, is to import.

2. “Heter mechira”: A “loophole” in the law that says that if a Jew sells his land to a non-Jew for the duration of the year, the land is not Jewish-owned and can therefore be farmed.  This solves the problem very nicely, and in addition, the fruits are not considered holy.  Hoewver, the non-Jew is usually an Arab, and so these vegetables, as Yitzchak and I sometimes say, have blood on them.

3. “Yevul Nochri”: This is similar to heter mechira, except that the land wasn’t Jewish-owned to begin with.  In other words, instead of a Jew selling his land to an Arab for the duration of the year (kind of like we sell chametz for the week of Pesach), you are buying straight from the Arab.  This kind of vegetable is usually dirty, not good quality, and in general, not something you’d want to eat if you have a choice.  However, among many groups, it is considered the best option, and the most “mehadrin”.  These vegetables have lots of blood on them, but though we prefer not to buy them, we sometimes get stuck.  These are not considered holy and therefore no precautions need to be taken.

otzar beit din, shmita, israel, vegetables, fields, farming, kedushat shvi'it

A sign that says, “This field has been given over to Otzar Beit Din.”

4. “Otzar Beit Din”: Our favorite option.  Kind of complicated, and not available throughout the entire year, but the best you can get while it lasts (though there are some who disagree).  It works like this: Even if you don’t farm the land, many of the plants will continue to grow.  In addition, the farmers who own the land need to eat, and pay for their electricity, during Shmita, and while in the past, they could make do on their crops or others’ , today’s world is different.  The Beit Din makes a deal with the farmers: They pay each farmer a set stipend, and collect all the produce, selling it at a price that covers distribution costs.  This produce is considered holy, and therefore care must be taken not to waste it, not to do unreasonable things with it (like throwing, stepping on, making inedible experiments), and the peelings and other waste either get thrown in a special Shmita bin, or double-wrapped and placed gently into the regular garbage.

5. “Matza Menutak”: Plants that are not connected directly to the ground.  Examples are a greenhouse with a tarp on the floor, flowerpots, etc. “Gush Katif” is a specific type of matza menutak, and during Shmita, they export it less because there is a greater need for the products in Israel itself.

6. Produce grown in areas of Israel that were not settled, and therefore not made holy, during any of the relevant time periods.  Included in this is the Arava, Eilat, and other areas.  Vegetables grown in these areas are considered halachically, to have been grown outside Israel, and therefore can be planted, harvested, and sold as usual.  They are not considered holy.  For instance, the tomatoes that we now have are “Olei Mitzrayim,” grown in a place that those who left Egypt settled, but was not settled when the Jews came back from Bavel (Babylon).  It’s complicated.  But the tomatoes are beautiful, much nicer than the ones we had to make do with when they were Yevul Nochri.  Our sweet potatoes last week were Yevul Nochri, they were disgusting and had mold on the outsides (that disappeared after peeling), but they were all that was available.

7. “Shishit”: Produce leftover from the sixth year.

One of the problems with Shmita is that these issues continue not only during the Shmita year itself, but also during the year afterwards.  The Jewish new year, Rosh Hashana, is in the fall.  Therefore, what grew last summer and is eaten now, is “Shishit,” which, obviously, is practically gone, except maybe for the potatoes and onions.  However, the flip side is that what is growing now is “Shvi’it,” and we will still be eating it until the middle of next year (around January).  In addition, fruits are only Shvi’it if they ripen during the Shmita year.  So, as long as we are eating last year’s fruits, we are fine.  But now we are starting to see this year’s fruits, and we will continue to eat this year’s fruits well into next year.  So, we deal with Shmita issues for about a year and a half – all of the seventh year and half of the eighth.

One thing that you do not have to worry about during Shmita is t’rumot and ma’asrot: the tithes that are separated from the fruits and vegetables in Israel.  Usually, you need to check if these tithes have been taken off.  You can buy produce that was not tithed, and tithe it yourself, but it’s slightly complicated.  However, during Shmita you do not have to worry about this; all you have to worry about is that your produce has been purchased using one of the solutions mentioned above (and there are farmers who choose to ignore the commandment and keep selling as usual, just like there are farmers who choose not to tithe; although the Chief Rabbinate usually tithes everything under its supervision, there is always the option not to get supervision).  In a way it’s easier, in a way it’s harder.

Another issue with Shmita is that because there’s less to go around, the prices go up.  Oh, well.

I know I have put in a lot of Hebrew words that are not on my dictionary page; I will try to update the dictionary sometime soon.

One thing that I forgot to mention was “Shmitat Kesafim,” a monetary Shmita.  During the Shmita year, all debts are canceled, unless a document called a “pruzbul,” is signed, that allows the person to collect his debts during the Shmita year.  This document was instituted so that people would not stop lending money in the years just prior to Shmita, because they were worried that they would not be able to get it back.

Honestly, as a kid, I always thought it would be cool to live in Israel during a Shmita year.  I remember that we used to buy Gush Katif lettuce, and it was hard to get, and expensive, during Shmita.  Then, I thought it was because they weren’t supposed to be selling it; now, I realize it’s because the market for it here grows during Shmita, so they choose not to export.  I’m not sure why I thought it was cool as a kid (or a young college student; during my first Shmita here I still thought it was cool), because now it’s just a headache. Hey, I’ve been living in Israel for seven years!  I think I made aliya during the last Shmita.  Wow, that’s a looong time.

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The Best Purim

I think Purim was always the holiday I liked least, for the simple reason that too many people get drunk.  I will note here that despite what most people think, if you read the Shulchan Aruch, you will find that the vast majority of Ashkenazi poskim who commentate the book (rabbis who tell us what the halacha, or Jewish law, is) forbid getting drunk.  The Beit Yosef, a Sefardi rav and the author of the Shulchan Aruch, does not advocate getting drunk, either.  In the Shulchan Aruch, he writes the language of the Gemara, “a person is required ‘levisumei’ [ed: commonly translated as getting drunk, but it is not certain that that is the only understanding of the word] until he cannot differentiate [between ‘cursed is Haman; blessed is Mordechai’].”  In his commentary on the Shulchan Aruch, called the Beit Yosef, he opines very strongly against getting drunk.

In other words, people who get drunk on Purim should learn halacha.  Tipsy, maybe is okay, IF (according to Jewish law) you know that you will still be in charge of your faculties.  Drunk – absolutely not.  Most people do not know this; I am not sure why.  Probably for the same reason that most people don’t know that a baby’s gut doesn’t fully close until around six months, so anything they eat dribbles directly into the bloodstream.  We expect people to be educated and know the things that are important to proper living, and are basic to the values that they claim to hold dear.  In reality, it doesn’t work that way.

Israelis also have an odd habit of using firecrackers around Purim.  We will simply say that this is a nasty practice and Yitzchak and I both hate it.  Thankfully, where we live now, there are fewer firecrackers, and hardly any drunks.

Now that I have fully explained why other Purims were worse, let’s go back to the title of this post: Why was this Purim the best?

First of, all, we did all the shopping beforehand.  Second, the mishloach manot that we prepared were simple: yogurt, some cherry tomatoes and cucumber sticks, and a pita, placed in a disposable bowl and wrapped in cellophane.  We froze the pitot so that they would stay fresh, and the rest of it, including the bowl, I prepared the night before.

Third, and this is what made the biggest difference: Yitzchak went to shul, to daven maariv [the evening prayer] and hear the megilla.  I stayed home with Shlomo and Tova.  He arranged with a friend that he would borrow the friend’s megilla at 10:30pm and return in at 7am the next morning, when they met in shul.  Then, Yitzchak came home and read the megilla for me, while I nursed Tova.  After that, we went to bed, and set the alarm for 5:30.  At 5:30 we woke up, said the morning brachot (blessings), and at 5:45 Yitzchak read for me again, while I nursed Tova in bed.  Sometime towards the end, Shlomo woke up; when Yitzchak finished reading, we did some last-minute things, and he left for shul, with four mishloach manot in his hand.

That left Shlomo and I with six to deliver; Shlomo helped me wrap them up (he held the cellophane while I wrapped the ribbon), and then I gave Shlomo breakfast, nursed Tova again (while Shlomo ate) we got dressed, and we left.  It was a quarter to nine.  At eleven-thirty we were all back at home, with me doing the obvious (i.e., nursing Tova again, since three hours had passed), while we sat for a bit to rest and eat.  Then we had Shlomo take a nap.  It sounds strange, but the big boy had been a VERY big boy while walking and delivering mishloach manot for two hours (we had made some for bus drivers, and Shlomo insisted on waiting for buses instead of using the time logically to finish the rounds, and then meet the bus with no wait time; we had also gone to the store to get diapers).  He was exhausted.  So he went to sleep, Tova went to sleep, and I went into the kitchen to prepare the meal, which, because we had surprise company, had been set for 3pm.  Then Yitzchak got called off to read the megilla for someone else; by the time he was finished reading, an hour later, I was also finished cooking.  Then we cleaned up, talked, ate, and guess who went back to bed . . . and Purim was over, pain-free, drunk-free, and very calmly.

Honestly, it was the calmest, nicest, Purim I’ve ever had, and I would do it again – even though Purim is my least-favorite holiday – in a heartbeat.

About Marriage and Ethics

One of my friends, A., recently bought a new bookshelf and did some sorting.  Since she’s a Ukranian immigrant to Israel, A. knows English, but doesn’t know it well.  (But, she already knows two languages well, so she’s quite forgiven.)  At any rate, A. and her husband have been collecting random books for years, and they have a few in English.  As part of her cleaning/sorting project, she decided to add to my already overstuffed bookshelves (we need to buy another one) and give me all her English books.  After all, they’re just taking up space in her house; once upon a time, she had time to sit, read, and translate the books, but right now, they’re just sitting useless.  And it’s pretty obvious that if she ever wants to read on, all she has to do is call up.

Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis, Esther Jungreis, books, marriage, relationships, commitment, Judaism, the commited life, lifetime commitment, living together, eloping, judaism, marriage, parenting, children, grandparents, jewish life, jewish values, jewish women, women in judaism, hineni, outreachSo, we got a few new books.  And, because I’m a bookworm (so is Yitzchak, by the way) I spend time reading them.  They’re actually good additions to our library, for the simple fact that we don’t have a lot of “easy” reading around here.

Today, I decided not to get on the computer until around Shlomo’s bedtime.  (He is in bed, by the way.)  The book that I have been perusing for the past few days is “The Committed Life“, by Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis.  It’s a book I’ve skimmed before, but she’s an excellent storyteller and someone that I really admire.  So, without being paid for this, I am quoting two paragraphs that I think are right on target for today’s society:

. . . Pearl’s husband was a good man, devoted to his wife and children.  Because he couldn’t earn a living, he was held in contempt.  Were he a ruthless, nasty, but successful businessman, no one in the family would have suggested to Pearl that she seek a divorce.  There is something profoundly wrong with a value system that measures a man not by what he is, but by what he has. (pg. 65)

And then she says, later:

 . . . “Rebbetzin, I agree with everything you say, but if I don’t live with the person I’m seeing, I’m afraid he’ll walk out on me.”

” . . . You’re so afraid, so you give the guy everything he wants without any commitment on his part.  You move in with him, so now he has a girlfriend, a cook, a housekeeper, a companion – all free of charge with no responsibilities.  You convince yourself that you can trust him when he says, ‘Eventually we’ll get married, honey, I’m just not ready yet.’  A year goes by, then two, and then, as in your case, three years.  Meanwhile, your biological clock is ticking away, and with every year that passes, the prospect of having a family becomes more and more remote.  Should you bring up the subject of marriage, he puts you off with, ‘Not yet!’  Finally, if you really press, he may break up or agree, but even if he agrees, it doesn’t mean a thing, as you so well know.  At the last minute, after living together for three years, he suddenly discovers that he loves you, but there are some issues that separate you.  . . . countless couples who live together only to divorce after they were married.  . . . ” (pp. 262-263)

So, what do you think?

(This one is from December 30, 2012, but I think its message is timeless.)

A Freezing Weekend

I wrote this post last Friday, December 13.  But because I hadn’t edited it yet, it wasn’t published.  I also felt kind of funny writing about our Shabbat menu.  But the food came out good, and it was pretty filling, so I figure, why not.  Plus, it’s my only real-time snowstorm post.

Last Friday Yitzchak and I had an argument (more like a fight) over whether or not we should buy a radiator.  No, that’s not really what we fought about, that was just the trigger.

In the end, we decided that at the moment we didn’t need it, and we didn’t know if the winter would get cold enough that we would need it, so it could wait.  When the time came, we would rethink our decision.

The time came Wednesday afternoon.  Now, in all honesty, last week the temperatures were in the 20’s and high teens, and they suddenly dropped the low teens and single digits.  BIIIG difference.  Last week we got maximum five minutes of rain.  This week we had a power outage and it rained long enough for the parking lot to accumulate maybe a centimeter of water before it drained.  The parking lot, by the way, is big.  (If you’ve been following my blog, it’s in the picture Yitzchak took of the view from our kitchen window, posted around the time of our move.)

While Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria are enjoying fifteen centimeters of snow, we just have cold weather.  Really cold weather.  Today’s high is 6 and the low is 1.  Tomorrow’s prediction improved around mid-morning today, rising from a high of five and a low of -2 to a high of 6 and a low of zero.  Not great but better.

So now all Yitzchak and I can think about is making sure we stay warm.  And part of that is having warm food for Shabbat.  Here’s what our Shabbat menu usually looks like:

Friday night – some kind of heavy soup, challa, maybe chumus/ techina.

Shabbat morning – mashed potatoes/couscous, salad, stir fry/cooked vegetables/baked green beans.

Shabbat afternoon (seuda shlishit) – salad, egg salad/tuna salad/deviled eggs, remains of mashed potatoes/couscous, chumus/techina.

Today we decided that we wanted cholent.  Last time I tried my hand at cholent was a few months after we got married, when we were hosting a friend and her fiance.  It flopped, big time.  I haven’t tried since.

But today we wanted cholent, and I wanted kishke, so I’m trying again.  We also decided that we felt like being “fancy” and so our Shabbat menu this week looks like this:

Friday night – challah, heavy soup.  Maybe a bit of kugel.

Shabbat morning – challah*, cholent (with vegetarian kishke that is basically flour, carrots, oil, and onions), kugel, salad.

Shabbat afternoon – kugel, salad, challah, chumus (hummus).  Maybe we’ll make eggs and maybe not.  (In the end, the eggs were used up after we prepared everything else.)

Ah, and obviously, every week we make a cake, usually either a yellow cake or a chocolate cake.  More on that later.

Hopefully, the weather will warm up.  Because this is awful.  In all honesty, though, I’m praying for a few centimeters of snow on Sunday morning so that a) I don’t have to feel guilty about leaving early, and b) I don’t have to teach half a class.  Because at this rate, it doesn’t look like everyone else will be back to normal by Sunday morning, and we have a LOT of out-of-town students.  It’s no fun teaching half a class – to say the least.

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*This is a guttural ‘ch’, it isn’t pronounced like “chair.”  You can listen here.

Oops, Shoes!

Yesterday was Tisha B’Av.  On Tisha B’Av there are five [main] things that are forbidden.  One of those five is wearing leather shoes.  Since I didn’t go anywhere yesterday, there was no reason for me to wear shoes at all, so I kind of forgot about it.

Anyways, yesterday afternoon, Shlomo decided that he wanted to go out.  Now, there was no way that either Yitzchak or myself was about to take Shlomo on a walk, in the heat, on a fast day, four hours before the fast ended.  But Shlomo had decided that I was taking him on a walk.  He brought me my shoes, and tried to put them on my feet.  I kind of ignored it, until Yitzchak told me to cooperate with Shlomo.  I did.  I let him put the shoe on me, and while Shlomo was trying to figure out the other shoe, I took my foot out.  It just felt gross.  So, I told Shlomo, “Ewww, I can’t put my feet in these shoes without socks, it feels gross.”  I thought  Shlomo accepted it; he walked off and I heard him playing with the closet doors.

tisha b'av, no shoes, no shoes allowed, destruction of temple, 9 avFive minutes later, Shlomo comes back and hands me something: A pair of Yitzchak’s socks.  I did say that I needed socks, right?  So, He brought me some.  I had to laugh; I put the socks on and I put my feet back in the shoes.

Then Shlomo went to the bedroom to bring me my wig.  This I refused to put on, saying that I needed to put my hair up first.  No problem for Shlomo – he started to climb on the table, in order to bring them to me.  I just said no – we’re not going anywhere.  And I left my shoes on . . . because, well, why not?

About half an hour later, Yitzchak prepares to go to mincha (the afternoon prayer).  I see him put his shoes on. And then I realize – I’m wearing shoes.  He’s wearing shoes.  It’s Tisha B’Av.  We’re not supposed to be wearing shoes.

Oops.  I have never, ever, ever made that mistake before.  I don’t think Yitzchak has, either.

Oh my goodness.  It’s Tisha B’Av and we’re wearing leather shoes.  I take mine off.  Yitzchak insists that after midday, it’s fine.  He has reason to insist, too – Yitzchak has been up to the store and back again, twice, presumably also wearing his shoes.  I insist that Yitzchak take his shoes off before proving it.  He does.

And he can’t prove it.  Oops.

At least it was an honest mistake.  I don’t think there’s anything we can do about it.  But in the meantime, it sure made my heart drop.

What Is Dating Like?

In most Orthodox Jewish communities, boys and girls are taught separately.  Sometimes they are in the same building but separate classes, but usually, there are different schools for boys and girls.  (There are educational advantages to this, just as there are disadvantages.)  Friendships are usually same-gender only.  In fact, the only really acceptable way to speak to someone of the other gender who is not related to you, is to date.

However, you can probably guess that by the time a person gets to the stage where they’re looking to get married, they don’t have too many friends of the opposite gender.  So, someone sets them up (or, increasingly, they find each other on a religious dating website, with or without a site matchmaker).

Here’s how it goes:

1) Someone suggests them/they see a profile that might be a good match.

2) They ask for references for the other person.

3) Someone they know and trust (but sometimes they themselves) calls  these people up to ask different questions about the prospective date’s personality, background, etc.  What we are checking here is that if they like each other, the marriage can work.  Sometimes you can like someone with totally different goals than you, who wants to live on a different continent.  That’s called heartbreak for nothing – you can’t build a home simultaneously  on two different continents.

4) If all sounds good, they meet.  There may or may not be a direct phone conversation between them if they were set up, though usually, there is.

Sometimes individuals who use dating sites skip the reference-checking stage.  Usually when that happens, they end up complaining that they have no idea why they were set up with this person or why they wasted their time and energy.  It’s not the best idea to skip it; the step is there for a reason.  A very good reason.

This whole system is called “shidduch dating”.  Some people find their own spouse, through casual meetings.  It’s not the norm and is usually considered to be more of a risk.  But it does happen.

Marriages that are set up with this system are may be low on passion, but they are usually very high on commitment.  “Young love,” is left to develop after the commitment has already been made.  There are, of course, some people for whom it never develops.  There are also some bad marriages that come out of this system.

But hey, if America has a 50% divorce rate, and there are couples who aren’t happy everywhere, it’s not too bad, right?  Everything has its pluses and minuses. . .

Anyways, yesterday, Yitzchak and I were talking, and I told him, “You know, I wonder what it would be like to date.  It kind of sounds interesting.”  He said, “I wonder, too.”

We’re married.  How come we don’t know what it’s like to date?

I had one date, with one guy, before I met Yitzchak.  I truly don’t know why we were set up, especially since we did the reference step (I didn’t do the calling).  He wanted to join his family business in South Africa.  I had just immigrated to Israel and was stuck here for at least another five years.  Nice guy, but really no point in a second date.

The second person I dated was Yitzchak.  I was his first.  And we didn’t go through the “shidduch system,” exactly.  We did the reference step, but we met on a forum.  I guess we were something between the DIY and the dating sites.  It wasn’t a dating site, although we weren’t the first couple to meet there.  There were risks, obviously, because online you have no idea who the other person is.  That’s why the reference step was super-important to both of us, and we didn’t meet or talk on the phone before it was finished and we knew that the other wasn’t a wanted criminal or some kind of abusive monster.

Even after we met, because of technical issues, we didn’t date the “regular” way, with two-hour dates twice a week or something.  Yitzchak insists that our dates were normal and most of his friends 3 or 4 had 8-hour dates, too.  I don’t know.  But it sure wasn’t what everyone does . . . and I’m curious to know how it works for everyone else.  Sure, I’ve heard stories, but it’s not the same.

And on the other hand . . . I know so many people who would gladly switch places with me, and we really do count ourselves lucky to have found each other so easily.  So even though we’re curious, I think it’s just better that we stay that way.  Everything has its pluses and minuses, right?

This is one big plus, with the only minus being curiosity – and the fact that I really don’t know what to answer my friends sometimes when they ask me for dating advice.

Truthfully, I don’t recommend trying to follow in our footsteps.  It was risky and it took a toll.  Yes, I did it.  But I didn’t plan it.  You kind of take what G-d gives you, you know?  But it’s not a good idea to go looking for risks or trouble, just for the sake of it.

The following is a diagram of how shidduch dating usually looks.  It’s a slight parody, but might make it easier to follow, in case I wasn’t clear.

Words That Echo

I asked a question on Friday.

The answer echoes within me.

I updated the question on Sunday.

And the answer echoes within me.

Echoes,

Echoes,

The caring,

The warmth,

The gentle interrogation, so that he would have a full picture,

All of it echoes in me,

Healing the scars of misconceptions not unfounded,

Of trying times and feeling stuck,

Healing my belief in G-d and Judaism.

Healing my belief that the Judaism we have today,

Is not in contradiction to the Judaism that G-d wants.

I am so glad I found this rabbi.

The Search For The Bread

bedikas chametz, bedikas chometz, bedikat chametz, bread crumbs, search for chametz, passover, pesach cleaning

The feather, candle, and spoon traditionally used for the search for chametz. In the bag are ten wrapped pieces of bread.

The night before Pesach (Passover), we do a search for chametz (leavened foods).  By this point, the house should already be clean, which means that we may not find any chametz.  What most people do is hide ten pieces of bread (or pasta, or cake) and then “find” them.

By the time we did the search, we had no bread left in the house.  Yitzchak insisted that we could still say a blessing for the search, because the main thing is the search itself, and not whether you find anything.  I told him to prove it, and he did.  We searched without having hid anything.

Turns out, Shlomo hid more than ten pieces for us.  Not necessarily that day, but in the months prior.  Yitzchak looked in all the little corners – between the closet and the wall, between the bottom drawer and the floor, and a million other places that are nearly impossible to reach without doing heavy-duty furniture moving.  He found more than ten pieces, just by getting into extraordinarily uncomfortable positions, without even moving the furniture.

I guess it doesn’t matter whether or not you hid the bread, as long as there’s a toddler in the house.

Judaism and Feminism – Opposites or Synonyms?

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Many people seem to think that Judaism is chauvinistic.

It’s not.

Judaism is, and has always been, one of the more feminist religions out there.

Some of you will disagree.  How can Judaism be feminist when polygamy is allowed and polyandry is forbidden?  How can Judaism be feminist if a husband whose wife does not want to divorce him is allowed to remarry, but a wife whose husband refuses to divorce her has no such option?

There are many questions.  I do not pretend to have all the answers.  But I will try to give some examples here.

Remember, as obvious as some of these examples are, modern feminism is only a century old, and these laws have been around for more than 3000 years.

Here are some examples solely from Jewish law:

The Jewish marriage contract is called a ketuba.  The requirement to have a ketuba is at least 2000 years old.  Jews are not allowed to get married without one.  In fact, if your ketuba is lost, it must be replaced immediately, because without it, you are not allowed to live as a couple.

What does the ketuba say?

It says that the husband is required to provide his wife with:

1) medical care if she gets sick

2) redemption if she gets captured

3) financial stability

4) clothes

5) marital relations (this is a husband’s obligation to his wife, not the other way around)

6) a certain sum of money in the event of a divorce (the sum stipulated was a very nice sum then, but not so much now; however, many will add to it)

7) food

8) to pay for her burial

9) that she will live in his house and be supported from him if she is widowed

10) that her daughters will be supported by his property after she dies and until they get engaged, and that her sons will inherit the worth of her ketuba along with their shares of his property that they split with the other sons.

In return, the wife commits:

1) not to marry anyone else

2) that she will nurse her children

3) whatever she earns or finds becomes his property (this makes sense if he has to support her – it’s not fair for him to have to pay her expenses, while she keeps all profits she earns)

4) any benefits accrued from her property (fruits, interest) become his, and he inherits her (she inherits him, too, remember).

If he cannot afford a housekeeper, she takes care of the household duties.  If he can afford a housekeeper, he is required to hire one so that his wife will not have to take care of the house (if this is what she wants; she can elect to prefer the money to the housekeeper – it is solely her choice).

In addition, there are a few things that she is required to do for him, that cannot be delegated.  For instance, in the olden days, heating water and helping him wash his hands.  Today, it would be making his favorite type of cake for his birthday.  These things are not allowed to be delegated because they fall under the category of “chiba” (affection), i.e., Judaism requires the wife to show affection for her husband in a few simple, obvious ways.

If she is not happy, she can ask for a divorce, and he is required to give it to her.  In the olden days, the courts would beat him until he agreed.  Nowadays, Jewish courts no longer have such power, and it is much more difficult.  Excommunication sometimes works, but in today’s global society, finding a different community who does not know about the excommunication is not hard at all, and therefore forcing him to give her a divorce can be very difficult.  Therefore, prenuptial agreements, that are binding in all courts of law, are becoming more popular.

In any case where one witness is allowed to testify, women are also allowed to testify.  In any case where it is safe to say that finding other witnesses is impossible, a woman is allowed to testify.

Women are allowed to charge/sue/prosecute anyone they want in court (including their husbands), no questions asked.

If someone decided to force himself on her, he is obligated to marry her (unless she doesn’t want him) and provide her with everything mentioned above.

If a man wishes to take a second wife, he has to ask his first wife’s permission (today this is less relevant, since European Jews are no longer allowed to marry more than one wife).

Women have always been allowed to agree to marriage on condition that the husband never take a second wife.

In Judaism, women have always had the right to agree to or refuse marriage, and have usually exercised that right.

Each wife, in the case of polygamy, must be provided with her own income and her own house.  A man is not allowed to keep two wives in the same house, because this causes them heartache.

If someone gave the wife money and specified that her husband has no control over it, it remains hers to do with as she pleases.

The concept of marital rape has been recognized – and forbidden – in Judaism since Mishnaic times, if not since the times of the Bible.  Prosecuting it, though, is difficult under any circumstances (in today’s courts, too).  In all books on Jewish theory and law, including the Talmud, there are very scary threats presented regarding this issue.  And bear in mind, the Talmud was – is – rarely learned by women, so these threats and scares were presented to men only.

Judaism was also the first group in the entire world to forbid people from hitting their wives.

After age 12.5, a woman is not answerable to anyone until she chooses to marry.

From Jewish Midrashic literature:

In Jewish literature, Abraham is often famed and praised for being subservient to his wife.

Scholarly women have been in evidence since Biblical times, and praised for it.  It seems that our generation is the first to not wholly recognize and praise scholarly women; this probably came about as a reaction to the “Enlightenment,” as an attempt by certain groups to fight back (unsuccessfully).

In general:

Remind me: Who has to pray with a quorum of ten three times a day?  (Men – and trust me, if you have to do this every day, and it’s not just for fun, it can be really tough, and even a drag, sometimes.  My little brother used to joke that he wished he was a girl, because girls are so lucky . . . )  And who can pray whenever they want, wherever they want, as long as they pray once a day – and even the definition of “prayer” for women changes by whether your community is of European (Ashkenazi) or Sephardic descent?  (Women.)

And who has an obligation to study Torah during the day and at night?  (Men.)

And who has to say Shema twice a day?  (Men – again.)

And who, if they so decided, could take extended parental leave and never go back to work, whether the other spouse liked it or not, and every court would support their decision?  (Women.)

See what I mean?

I know there will be a lot of questions and arguments about this post, but I think it is important to write.

Jewish women, until today’s open, equal-rights movement, have always been in an enviable position.

Judaism does not look for converts.  People, however, since Biblical times, have seen in Judaism a forward movement with respect and equal rights, and have wanted to convert.  Especially for a woman, Judaism was a very attractive option.  2000 years ago, it gave her rights that no one else gave her, and it gave her respect, as well.

Today “equality” has taken hold, and some aspects of it make Judaism look outdated.  In truth, what we call “feminism” today, I often think of as “masculinism.”  But that’s a topic for a different post.

In the meantime, know that Judaism is not nearly as bad to women as you once thought it was . . . in fact, it’s pretty darn good.

Why Do Orthodox Women Cover Their Hair?

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As some of you may have noticed in this post, I cover my hair.  It sounds so funny to say it in English, but that is what it is.  I guess I am just used to the Hebrew.

The question that many ask is: Why?  Why do Orthodox Jewish women cover their hair?  And is this similar to what Muslim women do?

We’ll start with the second question, since it’s a lot shorter.  Jewish women and Muslim women cover their hair for different reasons, and in different ways, and therefore, there is pretty much no comparison between the two.

In short, Jewish law does its utmost to protect women.  Jewish law – and Jewish practice, excepting a few crazies who are not/were not accepted in mainstream Judaism – has always been kinder to women than the world around us, excepting perhaps (and only perhaps) today’s modern “feminism”.  2000 years ago, Jewish women were of enviable status, and thus it continued until today.  Muslim values (not Muslim laws – I have not read Islamic holy books; Muslim values – i.e., how much of the Muslim world today behaves.**) are the exact opposite.  Women are not respected, they do not have equal rights in any way, and they are not valued.  A woman is seen, in many ways, as an object, and it is her responsibility not to tempt men.  I know that many of my readers will have a lot of questions on Jewish womens’ dress – and possibly some objections to the simplistic way I have spoken about Jewish and Muslim law – and I welcome them.  This post, however, is solely about hair covering.

Another difference is that Jewish women cover only their hair.  Muslim women cover their hair, parts of their faces, and their necks.  This is a huge difference, both to the woman and to how society views her.

Now for the first question of why Jewish women cover their hair at all.

The source for Jewish women covering their hair is in Bamidbar (Numbers) 5:18, where it speaks about a sotah.  A sotah is a woman who has been accused of adultery (today we do not accuse women of this because we do not have a Temple; if her husband accuses her they are forbidden to live together permanently).  The Chumash (Pentateuch) states that the kohen (Jewish priest), “. . . reveals the hair of the sotah.”

Since we are talking about deciding whether or not a woman committed adultery, this woman is not being seen in a positive light.  Therefore, the kohen uncovering her hair is part of the process of shaming her into admitting her crime.  Which means, therefore, that her hair is usually covered, and it is considered shameful for her to reveal it.  And since we are talking about adultery, and a single woman cannot commit adultery (because she has no husband), we learn (though there are differing opinions) that only married women need to cover their hair.

This analysis of the Chumash (Pentateuch) was written as a law already in the times of the Gemara (Talmud) in Ketubot 72a.  Modern halacha (Jewish law) also states this in the Shulchan Aruch, in the section of Even Ha’ezer (Code of Jewish Law, section 3) 21:2.*

Some of you will ask why it is shameful for a Jewish woman not to cover her hair.  The reason is simple: Most people who are married (we hope) are happy with that fact.  Just like a woman proudly wears a wedding ring, Jewish women proudly cover their hair.  And, in fact, in previous times, a hair covering served the purpose that a wedding ring serves today – to show people that she is a married woman and unavailable to others.  Think about it.  Have you never, ever met a single mother who was not embarrassed, at some point, that she did not have a wedding ring?  Have you never heard of someone who put on a ring that resembled a wedding ring, so that she would fit in?  This is the idea.  The kohen, in order to embarrass her so that she will admit her wrong and not have to be punished as severely, is taking off her wedding ring in front of a crowd – except that taking a ring off a finger is much less obvious than taking off a hair covering.  She is embarrassed.  It is shameful for her.  She acted as if she had the right to act like she was single, and now she is being portrayed as someone who forgot her commitment or didn’t care enough.

And from this, we learn that if uncovering her hair is so shameful (because covering it is a sign she is married), then married women must cover their hair.  If you see a woman with a head covering, you know that there is no point in trying to start with her.  Simple as that.

Here’s another thought: How long do women spend doing their hair each day?  Yeah, that’s what I thought.  If so, she obviously thinks that her hair is very attractive and very important to her good looks.  Shouldn’t that attractiveness be reserved for her husband?  Why is she flaunting her gorgeous hair to the whole world?  She has no need to flirt with any of them.  Of this reason, I say, hmmm.  It is something to think about.  I was never one to spend a long time on my hair, never one to flaunt it, never one to flirt.  But there are many others who are not like me.  And it is the majority, not the exception, who are the basis for creating laws.  So, take it or leave it.  It is something to think about.

At the end of this post, I would like to refer you to two sites:

1) AskMoses, who generously provided me with the sources (the answers I knew already, but I was too lazy to find the sources myself).  This site answers many, many, many questions about Judaism, and they do an excellent job.

2) Wrapunzel, a site dedicated to hair covering.  She uses mostly (if not only) scarves, and it is a beautiful site that gives the idea of hair covering a much nicer rap (pun not intended) than it usually gets.

*Just for your knowledge – this is the only part of womens’ dress that is actually mentioned in the Chumash (Pentateuch) and in Shulchan Aruch (the Code of Jewish Law).  The rest of the dress code was written for men and later adapted to both men and women.  Meaning, men are also required to dress modestly; the onus is not solely on the woman. 

However, a Jewish woman is not allowed to decide to dress immodestly, because of what we call, “The Law of Judith” (das Yehudis); i.e., Jewish women took these stringencies upon themselves over the years, and it became incorporated into what a Jewish woman is required to do.  So yes, it was a choice for previous generations, and they chose to follow a certain dress code.  But after a few decades (or hundred years), the rabbis gave this dress code their approval, and now it is binding.  But it is by no means on the same level as a Biblical command.

**As I have long suspected, there is a large gap between what the Quran dictates and what is actually practiced.