Thursday, March 29, 2007

Guide to the Laws of Passover

My yearly guide to the Essential Laws of Passover is now available online in PDF format. You can download a copy by clicking here.

If you are interested in receiving a version of the guide that includes extensive Hebrew footnotes and sources, please email me and I will gladly forward you a copy.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Dairy, Meat and Hebrew

Q: Dear Rabbi,

Thanks for answering my question last week. My next questions for you are 1) What is our tradition regarding waiting after eating dairy before eating meat? Must we simply clean our mouths thoroughly, or do we have a waiting period, like Chabad? 2) Also, what do you think of the ultra-ancient Hebrew text? ( Why isn't the Torah written in the earliest, ultra-ancient script, as shown in the chart? Is there anything special and holy about these particularly old Hebrew letters, as there is with the ones commonly known today?
Michael N.

A: Dear Michael,

1) Our (Sephardic) custom is that meat can be eaten immediately after dairy. However, when we do this, we are required to first chew something pareve (such as a cracker or piece of bread) and then rinse our mouths out with water.

2) The Talmud discusses this issue at length in Masechet Sanhedrin. In Rabbinic parlance, the more ancient script is referred to as "Ketav Ivri" and the later form of writing is called "Ketav Ashurit". In the Gemara, the Rabbis debate the precise status of each of these scripts.

According to one view, the Torah was always written in "Ketav Ashurit", which was reserved for holy purposes; Ketav Ivri was the mundane, colloquial form of writing used for non-sacred matters.

Another opinion holds that the Torah was originally transcribed in Ketav Ashurit. After the sin of the Golden Calf, the script was temporarily changed to Ketav Ivri. Eventually, Ketav Ashurit was reinstated as the official form of sacred script.

A third view (which generally corresponds to the modern scholarly perspective) maintains that the Torah was originally given in Ketav Ivri, but that Ezra changed this upon the return of the Jews to the Land of Israel. Nachmanides explains that this change was one of many that Ezra initiated in order to commemorate the end of the Babylonian Exile (another example is the use of Babylonian names for the months of the year).

All agree that Ketav Ivri may no longer be used for sacred articles such as Torah Scrolls, Megillot, Tefillin or Mezuzot. In fact, if any of these were to be written in Ketav Ivri (or any script other than Ashurit, for that matter) they would not be considered halachically valid.

Best Regards,

Rabbi Maroof

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Hair Covering

Q: Hi,

I came across your blog while browsing online. What is the halacha regarding married women covering their hair, with respect to fully or partially? Also is that Deorisa (Biblical) or Medarabanan (Rabbinical)?

Thank You,

A: Dear David,

Your question touches upon a complex area of Jewish law. I will attempt to survey and summarize the basic issues in this area very briefly. As you will see, this topic is subject to a great deal of analysis and discussion in Jewish literature.

The Talmud in Tractate Ketubot states that married Jewish women may not appear in public with their hair uncovered. This prohibition is described as a Biblical law and a verse from the Torah is cited to substantiate it.

Two levels of obligatory hair covering are then delineated: complete and partial covering, respectively. Partial coverage of the hair fulfills the more basic standard of "Dat Moshe", or the "Law of Moses". This level is the one that the Rabbis say is alluded to in the Bible.

Complete coverage of the hair, though not mentioned in the Torah, is still necessary in order to satisfy the requirements of "Dat Yehudit", or "conduct deemed proper for a Jewish woman."

(I am leaving the definitions of "complete" and "partial" deliberately vague because they are a subject of scholarly debate, as we will see below.)

The vast majority of halachic decisors take the Talmud in Ketubot literally and maintain that a married woman who goes out with her hair totally exposed is violating a Biblical prohibition (Dat Moshe). On the other hand, the requirement to cover hair completely is only Rabbinical (Dat Yehudit).

By contrast, there is a small minority of scholars who interpret the Talmud differently. They argue that, while there is a Biblical allusion to the practice of married women covering their hair, the prohibition itself actually has the status of Rabbinic Law. According to this view, the term "Dat Moshe" means a law promulgated by Moses, but not necessarily a law he received on Sinai. These scholars maintain that the higher standard of "Dat Yehudit" is a matter of authoritative and binding Jewish custom rather than some kind of formal Rabbinic legislation.

To summarize, then, we have two levels of haircovering: "Dat Moshe" and "Dat Yehudit". Both are obligatory, although the statuses of the respective obligations differ. In order to observe this halacha, however, we must clarify two parameters: what constitutes full coverage of hair, and what is considered "public"?

With regard to the question of complete coverage, there are two basic approaches. One interprets the term literally and concludes that a married woman cannot have more than a tefah (handsbreadth, approximately 3-4 inches) of her hair exposed in public at any time.

The other approach posits that "completeness" with reference to hair covering should be no different than "completeness" in other areas of Jewish law. Generally speaking, we have a principle in halacha that rubo k'chulo, the majority of something is legally equivalent to its entirety. Based upon this concept, some hold that as long as a woman has the majority of her hair covered, we treat it as if she had all of her hair covered.

What constitutes "public" is also a matter of scholarly debate. Some suggest that anytime a woman is in the presence of three men who are not her immediate relatives, this is legally regarded as being "in public".
Others, basing themselves on the simple reading of the Talmud, interpret "public" and "private" in terms of the political or social status of a particular location. According to this viewpoint, a place of residence is always considered private, no matter how many people are currently visiting it. And a mall or shopping center is always regarded as public, even if, at this moment, it is empty.

Many contemporary authorities go so far as to rule that a married woman may never have her hair uncovered in front of a man who is not her husband or a member of her immediate family. This, however, is a matter of middat hasidut, admirable or especially pious conduct, and is not legally mandated.

Now that we have reviewed the basic issues involved in this area of Jewish law, we can consider its practical implications. All agree that some form of complete coverage of hair is required whenever a married woman is in public.
With regard to the definition of complete coverage, the majority of scholars maintain that no more than a tefah (3-4 inches) should be exposed. This is the view that should be followed in practice.

However, when it comes to the precise definition of "public", the rabbinic consensus is far from clear. Based on the sources, it seems most reasonable to conclude that the distinction between "public" and "private" is determined by the nature of the location in question. Therefore, in a private residence, a married woman is not required to have her hair covered, even if she has several guests visiting.

Best Regards,

Rabbi Maroof