Saturday, December 30, 2006

Good Beard, Bad Beard

My facial hair and I have an uncomfortable relationship. It is an unruly guest that resides on my face. It has lived there since it first appeared some 30 years ago, usually in a neatly trimmed form, although there was a period of a few years in the early nineties when it vanished completely. In the past decade it has alternated between trimmed and unruly in one-year increments, until about two years ago when I decided to see what it would make of itself if left on its own.

There are robust beards that mountain men wear with pride and birds can nest in, that small children point to with awe and envy, they can cover the entire chest or be tucked into the belt in ZZ Topian grandeur. My beard is not one of those. There are whispy yeshiva boker / Fu Man Chu beards that I could shave away with out a second thought. My beard is not one of those either. My beard tries and yet fails, some areas are thick and bushy, some are thin and whispy, and some have no hair at all. This tends to give it a hummocky unmowed lawn appearance. Also as Mrs. Jude gleefully points out, it does not fall gracefully but “sticks straight out like a garden gnome’s” beard. I was hoping for venerable sage, not wizened leprechaun.

So I occasionally consider reintroducing it to the razor, and was most recently inspired by a posting The Kapote Conundrum that was reposted on A Simple Jew's blog. Now we all tend to wear the uniform of the group that we wish to identify ourselves with, and to make a quick judgment as to which group a person belongs to based on how they appear. So if we see a man wearing a black suit, hat, and full beard, we assume that he is saying that he adheres strictly to halachah. A shiny, satin kipah, blazer and turtleneck, halachah maybe not so much. Sandals, crocheted head covering, and guitar, inventing new “improved” halachah. These, of course, are gross generalities, and may not hold true, but since we don’t know about a person’s level of observance when we meet them we assume based on their dress.
As a side note, let me say…. knickers. IMNSHO the only reason to wear knickers is if you are appearing in an eighteenth century costume drama set in Poland. I don’t believe that there is a special area of gehinnom for people who don’t wear knickers, or that wearing knickers will fast track you to olam haba.
Returning to topic. So while I see nothing wrong with dressing in a chassidische manner if that is what a person aspires to, even if his level of knowledge and observance is not quite there, so long as that is what he is striving for. In my own case, however, I do not know that I will ever achieve that level and worry that the beard may mislead others into believing that I am at a certain level that I actually am not. And so I consider trimming it.

Now every time I make up my mind that I am actually going to trim it, I end up reading something that usually goes like this:
Every single strand of your beard has great mystical significance and you should never cut even one hair, ever, never, ever, EVER…EVER….and those who know will understand.
Being a great believer in synchronicity and, that if you only listen, Hashem is always giving advice to you, I always decide to put off trimming the beard for a little while longer. But I really would like to know the “great mystical significance” beyond the chok “do not mar the corners.”

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Shadows and Light

This past week I celebrated my mother's yahrzeit so when I came upon this bit of learning it seemed particularly poignant. From The Zohar, Pritzker edition,1:218a:

"As a person's days draw near, for thirty days a proclamation is made about him in the world, and even the birds of heaven proclaim...During all those thirty days, his soul departs from him every night, ascending and viewing its place in that world. And the person does not know or perceive or control his soul during all those thirty days as previously, ....From the moment those thirty days begin, a person's tselem (shadow) darkens, and the image visible on the ground is withheld...Look, my soul departs from me every night and does not enlighten me with a dream as before. Further, when I pray and reach 'who hears prayer,' I look for my tselem on the wall and do not see it, so I conclude that since the tselem has disappeared and can no longer be seen, the herald has already gone forth and issued the proclamation, as is written: Only with a tselem does a human walk about - as long as a person's tselem does not disappear, a human walks about, his spirit sustained within him. Once a person's tselem passes away and cannot be seen, he passes away from this world."

Friday, December 22, 2006

The Eight Knights of Chanukah

What every little rebbetzin wants for Chanukah, ... crusaders! Maybe they're cantonists, or undercover yidden on their way to really reclaim the holy land.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

A Little Bitul

Why have sufganiyot when you can have pfefferkuchen Yidden?

Saturday, December 16, 2006

The Ferris Wheel of Life

Last week I returned to the local school to give a talk about Chanukah to the kindergarten class. It went well, although I may have made the Assyrian Greeks sound a little like the U.S. under the current administration, you know, powerful nation invades others and imposes their system of government and morals. Anyway the kids loved the menorah lighting, hey who doesn't like to play with fire? And of course the spielen mit dreidels was a big hit.
Mrs. Jude thought I should have loaded them up with gelt too.
I said: "Why, do you think 20 years from now they are going to say ' I remember this wonderful holiday I heard about when I was in kindergarten.' and they will all decide to become Jews?"
So, some of the parents are telling me the the kindele are still going on about how wonderful Chanukah is and they want to celebrate it too. Maybe Mrs. Jude was right.
During the talk I gave a version of Rabbenu's teaching on the dreidel :
"The world is a rotating wheel. Its like a dreidel where everything goes in cycles...Everything goes in cycles, revolving and alternating. All things interchange, one from another and one to another, elevating the low and lowering the high.
To simplify this idea I compared it to riding on a ferris wheel at the fair, when you're at the top and can feel the breeze and see the whole fair you are very happy, but when you're at the bottom and have to get off the ride back into the heat and dust you feel sad, but really you should feel happy because if you are at the bottom it means that you have another chance to ride back up to the top. Mitzvah gedolah b'simchah tamid. Happy Chanukah.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Yetzer Hara Gives Me Peaceful Sleep

As I progressed through R. Breiter's list of things that a Breslover should perform daily, I thought that step 5 would be simple. Number five on his list is: the tikkun chatzot, the midnight prayer. Now I figured that this one would be easy because at no point in my life have I actually slept the entire night. I usually fall asleep for about four hours and then wake up. I mean wide awake. After about an hour of laying there I usually get up and do some chores, or some learning, or hit the internet. Then some time about 5 AM I go back to sleep for an hour or two or less depending on when the Little Rebbetzin gets up. So all I had to do was say the tikkun chatzot instead of some of the other things I was doing, easy right? After all I was going to be awake anyway. Of course things didn't work out that way because as soon as I made the commitment to saying tikkun chatzot I began to sleep through the night. Blissful uninterrupted slumber.
Rabbenu says that when you reach a new level you don't get to rest because the sitra achra opposes you more vigorously and you have to struggle even harder. But vigorous opposition in the form of peaceful sleep, this I wasn't prepared for, because it's kind of nice. So I am actually having to work hard at this and it was going to be one of the easier practices to take on.
Step six, saying Modeh ani, remembering the world to come, and rebinding yourself to the Tzaddik, when you wake up, was already happening.
Step seven, arising before dawn. This was actually already going on especially with the shift to standard time pushing sunrise back to 7:30. But the sleeping through the night continued on to sleeping through the morning too. When the yetzer says sleep, sleep it is. So now I'm struggling to get up at night and then struggling again to wake up in the morning, I hope I get bonus points for effort.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

When We Crossed the Red Sea Did We Stop for Snacks?

Last night at dinner the Little Rebbetzin fishes a piece of kombu (kelp, a type of seaweed) out of her dinner:
L.R. : Daddy, what's the blessing on this?
Me : Um....shehakol?
L.R. : No, it's ha adamah!
Me : But it's seaweed.
L.R. : It grows on the ground.
Me : At the bottom of the ocean. I'll look up the correct blessing.

I pull out Halachos of Brochos, by R. Bodner and there is no entry for seaweed.

Me : doesn't list it here, I guess Jews don't usually eat seaweed.

Now the kombu was not the main ingredient or the primary reason for eating the stew, so it was covered by ha adamah for the other ingredients, but seaweed can be eaten by itself or as the dominant ingredient in a dish, so I should know the correct bracha.

The Little Rebbetzin uses the argument the seaweed is growing from the ground, albeit ground covered with a lot of salt water, and should therefore be ha adamah.

My reasoning is that seaweed is generally held to a rock by a primitive root called a holdfast, and is not growing in the soil of the seafloor. I view that seaweed is similar to mushrooms which take a shehakol because the sages do not consider them growing from the ground but instead deriving their sustenance from the air (this is actually not botanically correct, but is the ruling). Similarly the seaweed is deriving its sustenance from the seawater and not from the rock it is anchored to.

If anyone knows or can find out what the actual bracha is, and the reasoning behind it, please let us know so.