Sunday, December 15, 2013

Shoveling snow on the Sabbath (ver. 2013)

Snowy sidewalks are no big deal in themselves, but they become sidewalks with packed ice after they've been walked on for a while, and those things are dangerous and, depending on the weather, can last for weeks.

When it's necessary to shovel on the Sabbath, I always do so, wearing socks on my hands as a shinnuy. I haven't asked a rabbi about this, and this is out of respect for the rabbinate--I want to save them the embarrassment of possibly giving the wrong answer.

As a side note, I once told a friend, former and (I hope) future hevruta, and ethical adviser about this. He (who lives in an apartment where the landlord is responsible for shoveling, so it's not his problem) said he thought this a fine idea. Since it's just me, he said, I should do it without any distinctive Jewish accessories visible. If, however, I were R' Gedalia Dov Schwartz, av beit din of the Rabbinical Council of America and rosh beit din of the Chicago Rabbinical Council, who lives nearby, he'd advise me to do it looking like I was R' Gedalia Dov Schwartz so everyone would know it's OK. I take his point, although if I were R' Gedalia Dov Schwartz, I wouldn't need his advice.

One Sabbath morning in 2009, there was a thick layer of slush on the sidewalk. I ignored it, since it was the Sabbath, and what would the people coming to lunch think? By the time the Sabbath was over, the slush had turned into solid ice with footprints.

So let's imagine that someone had injured themselves on the ice that I piously left there, and let's further imagine that I'd passed away and had to face the Heavenly Tribunal.
Members of the Tribunal (M"T): Well, what about that nice Mr. McNotzreigh who broke his whatsits on your ice?
Me: Sorry about that, but only a little, since I was observing Shabbat.
M"T: Very nice.
(I assume the M"T are Orthodox Jews, among whom "very nice" means "yeah, right, whatever.")

Right. Well, very nice. But from now on, I'm going to do what needs to be done and forgo the after-the-fact teshuvah.

In the morning service, we ask God to rescue us from a bad neighbor (unless we're praying in a congregation that skips that paragraph). Reading between the lines, I am guessing that the liturgist also doesn't want us to be the bad neighbor.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Seasonal controversy

This all started with a post--actually it was a status update--that I put on Facebook.
Early skirmish in the war against Christmas. (By the way, I like the word "skirmish." It sounds like something they would have made up at Mad Mag.) Anyhow, early skirmish (gleeful chortle about saying it again) in the war against Christmas: the drugstore at Dempster and Crawford (as they quaintly call Pulaski out in Skokie) is already selling Chanukka/Chanukkah/Hanukka/Hanukkah stuff (I list them alphabetically). 
And to give the opening shot in another seasonal war, I don't care whether you spell it with a "Ch" or an "H"! I don't care whether you spell it with an "h" at the end! The important thing is you use one "n" and two "k"s. And also, you shouldn't accent the "a," since it isn't a real syllable.
A Facebook friend (and why doesn't Facebook have interlocutors as well as friends? I mean, this guy actually is a friend, but he was also an interlocutor in this case) asked why I "insisted" ("insisted"? jeesh) on one en and two kays. This is my answer.

The real answer is that I just wanted to stir the pot a little by starting a seasonal spelling fight while not engaging in the "Ch/H" controversy. But I'll also give Hebraiqally geeqy answer to the question of why you "should" use one en and two kays, and also explain that it isn't really relevant.

Most Hebrew consonants can accommodate a dot (dagesh) in the middle. With almost all such consonants (including nun) it means the consonant should be doubled. The nun in חֲנֻכׇּה has no dot, therefore it's not doubled. That was the easy part.

So now we come to the "almost all such consonants" part. When a hei or an alef has a dot, the dot is called a mappiq. With the hei, the dot means the hei should be pronounced (like when a person saying Kaddish goes "shemeihhhh rabba"). You don't find many alefs with mappiqs, and when you do it means you should make sure to do the glottal stop.

But anyhow, there are six consonants--bet, gimmel, dalet, kaf, peh, and tav, the bgdkft letters--where the dagesh can mean one of two things. It can either mean that you pronounce the letter as a stop instead of a fricative, or it can mean that you both double it and pronounce it as a stop instead of a fricative. (I've heard that Yemenite Hebrew makes the stop/fricative distinction with all six bgdkft letters. Most of us reading this don't.) So which is it with the kaf in חֲנֻכׇּה? Obviously it's a "k" instead of a "chhhhhh," but that's true with both options. But is the "k" doubled?

Two things suggest that it's doubled. First, the diagonal row of dots (a qubbutz) is a short vowel, which suggests that the syllable is closed, which would mean that it's a doubling dot (don't ask). Second, we can look at nouns with the same pattern of vowels as חֲנֻכׇּה but with a non-bgdkft letter in the same position as the kaf. If those letters have a dagesh, they must be doubling dageshim. And if we look at such words, like גֽדֻלָּה and קְדֻשׇּׁה, we find that the non-bgdkft letters in that position do have dageshim. This also makes it very likely that the kaf in חֲנֻכׇּה is doubled.

But wait a minute there!, you may be exclaiming. In those two supposedly vowelly similar words, the vowel with the first letter is the two vertical dots, and in חֲנֻכׇּה it's a horizontal line with the two dots to the left of it. What the heck? Good question. The two piled dots (a sheva, whence the English "shewa") are sometimes silent and sometimes pronounced like a shewa. Under the first letter of a word, it's always pronounced. Even when it's pronounced, a sheva isn't considered a full-fledged vowel, and it doesn't form a real syllable. But anyhow, the chhhet and/or heth, the first letter in חֲנֻכׇּה, can't take a pronounced sheva (neither can alef, hei, or ayin). So what to do? You use what looks like a combination of a real vowel and a sheva--a semivowel. And like a sheva, a semivowel isn't a complete vowel and doesn't form a syllable. And can't be accented. Which is why I said you shouldn't accent the first "a" in Hanukkah (or whatever).

But this is just pretending that the "Hanukkah" (or however you spell it) that we say in English is Hebrew. It isn't, although it obviously comes from Hebrew. It's English. And it's--I don't know, sociolinguists probably have a name for it--let's call it Anglophone Jewish Intracommunal Patois (AJIP--I was hoping it would end up having a cool abbrev, but it didn't) (although to paraphrase Paul Robeson, "When Israel was in AJIP land, Let my people go"). Anyhow, AJIP words don't come directly from Hebrew--they come from Yiddish, where it's just fine to accent "Hanukkah" on the first syllable.

The entire staff of Consider the Source wish our entire readership a happy holiday.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

The worst prayer in Judaism

Eloqai Netsor was put into the Jewish liturgical canon to fulfill our need for noncanonical nontextual spontaneous personal prayer from the heart.

(I'll let that stand as a paragraph by itself so you can let it sink in and go "Wha?" [I mean so you, not the paragraph, can go "Wha?"!]!)

The prayer begins, "My God, keep my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking guile. May my soul be silent before those who curse me, and may my soul [nefesh] be like dust [ʿafar] before all."

The Hebrew for "keep my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking guile," except for the possessives, comes directly from Psalm 34:14: "Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking guile." The difference is important. In Judaism, we have free will--we are responsible for our own ethical behavior. We may ask God for strength, but we do not ask God to prevent us from doing wrong things; we need to prevent ourselves from doing them. "My God, keep my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking guile" is a complete distortion of Jewish ethics.

"May my soul be silent before those who curse me, and may my soul [nefesh] be like dust [ʿafar] before all." This may sound like a prayer to be a forgiving person, but it isn't. Dust can't forgive. Even if it could forgive, it has no reason to, since it can't be offended. Dust isn't human. We are. Forgiveness is an activity, and this is a prayer for passivity.

The language of Eloqai Netsor reminds us of Genesis 2:7: God formed man from dust [ʿafar] and breathed life into him, and man became a living soul [nefesh]. In the verse, God forms us from ʿafar and we become a living nefesh; in the prayer, we ask that our nefesh be like ʿafar. For those who take the verse seriously--and note that I didn't say "literally"--this prayer should seem both ungrateful and dehumanizing.

Just to clear up any ambiguity, I'll point out that I dislike Eloqai Netsor.

I no longer say Eloqai Netsor; if you know anybody whose first name is "Rabbi," please don't tell them about it. Note that I'm not saying others shouldn't say it. If I were compiling a siddur, it would include Eloqai Netsor in its proper places, since it would be an Orthodox siddur. But there would also be a note saying that some have the practice of replacing it with Hareini Moḥel. The note would be true, since I make that replacement.

Hareini Moḥel is an "I forgive" statement that precedes the bedtime Shema (also known as the hypnagogic "Hark!"!)! It appears in many siddurim at the beginning of the bedtime Shema song and dance. The various Korens and ArtScrolls include it, but Birnbaum does not. Some versions are longer than others, some are more annoying than others. I use a brief rendition, which includes nonannoying material found in all the versions:

I forgive all who have angered or annoyed me, and all who have sinned against me, whether against my body, my possessions, my honor, or anything that is mine; whether under compulsion or willingly; whether mistakenly or maliciously; whether by passing thought, by planning, by word, or by deed. Let no human being be punished on my account.
Hareini Moḥel divides those whom you're forgiving into two categories--those who have angered or annoyed you, and those who have sinned against you. Note that people in the first category didn't necessarily do anything to you--it's about your reaction to them, not about what they've done to you. This shows a realistic understanding of anger. Maybe they annoy you just by existing; maybe they just grate on your nerves. You're forgiving them not necessarily because of anything they've done, but because you need to let go and mensh out. Can someone belong to both categories of people you're forgiving? Of course. (Silly and annoying question; I forgive you for asking, for existing, and for frowning [don't deny it! I saw it!] at my spelling of mensh.)

In Eloqai Netsor one whines: someone cursed me!, I'm going to suffer in silence, and I want my soul to be like dust (maybe it's unfair to call it whining--writing this post is putting me on an anti-Eloqai-Netsor roll). In Hareini Moḥel, we act like adults. We acknowledge that some of our anger may not be rational, we forgive everyone, and we take responsibility.