POURING OUT THE WATER.
Q. Why is it customary to pour out the water from vessels in a house where a person has died?
A. There are several theories.
A prosaic explanation is that this is an indirect way of making it known that a person has passed away. This was considered better than to spread the bad news by word of mouth.
Some link it to an episode in the wilderness: when Miriam died her well stopped flowing.
A person’s life is like a flowing well and death deprives the world of the person’s vitality.
A LAVISH SIMCHA.
Q. A recent simcha I attended was quite extravagant, so much so that I felt it was way over the top and ostentatious, and the spiritual significance of the occasion was lost. Can something be done to make s’machot more meaningful?
A. There is something wonderful about a Jewish simcha (a festive occasion, such as a wedding, Bar- or Bat-Mitzvah). Once upon a time, Jews lived in such drab and dismal conditions that they welcomed any excuse for a celebration.
Now, of course, our history has taken a turn for the better, and our celebrations have become more sophisticated and sometimes more ostentatious, but to have a simcha is still an exciting prospect and experience.
How to put meaning into a simcha is suggested by the Midrash. As Rashi tells the story, Satan came to God with a complaint against Abraham.
“At every feast which Abraham made,”
“he did not offer to You one ox or one ram.”
“Whatever he does is for the sake of his son; if I were to say, ‘Sacrifice him before Me’, he would not hold back!”
This exchange tells us something about Abraham; it tells us even more about life in the time of the Talmudic rabbis, who must have been offended by over-lavish feasts in which God was forgotten.
But ancient days had no monopoly on extravagance. In the history of Jewish social life it is a theme that recurs in many places, times and contexts.
Even funerals were not exempt from lavish display, for Rabban Gamliel had to take action against showy funerals and to insist that shrouds and funeral procedures be simple and restrained.
His dictate was heeded throughout the centuries, though funerals in the United States sometimes break the bounds of propriety.
From time to time rabbis protested against extravagant dress, and demanded simplicity in both male and female garments. In 17th-century Poznan, Jewish tailors were not allowed to accept orders for showy clothing, and the ban was publicly proclaimed every month in the synagogue.
Frequently there was rabbinic outcry against extravagance at s’machot. In his “Jewish Life in the Middle Ages”, Israel Abrahams describes the limits set by various kehillot on the number of guests, the table appointments, the food and the music; indeed fines were imposed for anything in excess of the required standard.
The purpose of these regulations was to avoid the hostility of neighbours, to ensure the poor were not humiliated, and to cultivate moderation and balance in Jewish social life.
The contemporary community tends not to make such regulations (with the exception of a few Chassidic communities in North America and Israel), though maybe it should. But, in any case, people should have the common sense to know not to go too far.
When there is something to celebrate, it should be done sensibly and responsibly. Instead of going overboard with the arrangements (sometimes ending up with a simcha one really cannot afford), an inner sense of restraint would ensure that there is a simcha which is adequate without being mean, enjoyable without being out of proportion, and dignified without being austere.
In most cases it would be better to spend much less on the simcha and to make a significant contribution towards Israel, the local community, or even an endowment fund for the Bar- or Bat-Mitzvah or bride and groom.
We all pray that God may bless us with many occasions for s’machot; but let us not forget to bless God in the way we enjoy them.
THREAD OF BLUE.
Q. Why don’t we have a thread of blue among the fringes of the tallit, as required by the 3rd paragraph of the Shema?
A. The thread of blue commanded in Parashat Sh’lach (Num. 15:38) had to be “t’chelet”.
Its purpose, according to the rabbis, is that blue suggests the sea, the sea suggests the heavens, and the heavens suggest the Throne of Glory. Thus the tzitziyyot with the blue thread are a reminder of our duty to God.
In other ancient cultures the wearing of blue or purple was also highly esteemed as a mark of royalty (“royal blue”) or nobility.
The t’chelet dye derived from a snail called a “chillazon”, a small marine creature with a hard shell which was found along Israel’s northern coast.
The dyeing process came to an end in the 7th century CE when the secret of the chillazon was lost. The Midrash then declared, “Now we have only white (fringes), for the t’chelet is not found” (Num. R. 17:5).
It appears that with the Arab conquest the Palestinian dyeing industry came to an end, though here and there traces of it remained.
In the 19th century the Radzyner Rebbe (R. Gershon Henoch Leiner) found a squid which he was convinced could produce the right kind of blue dye. With the aid of Italian scientists he succeeded in obtaining the blue colour. He and his followers put a thread of blue in their tzitzit, but his initiative was widely criticised.
Rabbi Isaac HaLevi Herzog, later chief rabbi of Israel, in his doctoral work, analysed the process used by the Radzyner Rebbe and concluded that the “mures trunculus” was a likely source of t’chelet.
True, the chillazon, according to the Talmud, has a body that resembles the sea, whereas when the murex trunculus is out of the water it is off-white with brown stripes. However, when it is still in the sea it does look like the sea bed.
An Israeli group has begun producing tzitzit with the thread of blue. Dr Baruch Sterman of Efrat in Israel has documented the story in his book, “Techelet: the Renaissance of a Mitzva“, published by Yeshiva University Press.
The law of t’chelet has its ethical side. Though Korach needled Moses with his question, “Does a garment which is ‘kullo t’chelet’ – totally blue – require a blue thread?”, rabbinic thinking described a person who is ethically consistent both on the surface and within, as “kullo t’chelet”.
Zionism of course adopted the blue and white of the tzitzit as the Israeli national colours and for the flag of the State.
Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem. Rabbi Apple blogs at http://www.oztorah.com