Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Religious integrity

The real test of integrity takes place when someone is faced between keeping his word and suffering a financial loss. King David expressed this idea in Tehillim: nishba lehara' velo yamir... The honest man would keep his promise even at the cost of losing his money.  Illustration: Mr. A promised to sell an item to Mr. B for 100 dollars. But later on Mr. C offers Mr. A 150 dollars for that item...  If Mr. A follows King David's instruction, he will sell the item to Mr. B for 100, despite the potential monetary loss, because he already gave Mr. B his word.

The Talmud brings the ultimate example of integrity:

"Rab Safra had a donkey for sale. A gentile came to his house and offered him 50 coins for the donkey. At that precise moment Rab Safra was reciting the Shema Israel, so he could not answer back, but, the Talmud asserts that in his heart Rab Safra accepted the offer of 50 coins. The buyer, however, thought that Rab Safra's silence meant that he expected a higher price so he offered him 60 coins. Rab Safra was still reciting the Shema, so he did not react. The buyer then offered him 70 coins. At that point Rab Safra ended the Shema and he refused to accept the 70 coins. He said that in is heart he had accepted the first offer, 50 coins, and he would not take extra money from the buyer."  Rab Safra was considered by the Talmud the epitome of yr-e shamayim, a man with a highest level of respect and reverence to God (Makot 24a, Rashi)
"Integrity includes but goes beyond honesty. Honesty is... conforming our words to reality. Integrity is conforming reality to our words - in other words, keeping promises and fulfilling expectations. This requires an integrated character, a oneness, primarily with self but also with life." (Stephen Covey,  The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People)  

SEPHARDIC RABBIS: Refael Aharon ben Shimon (1847-1928)

 Rabbi Refael Aharon ben Shimon was born in Rabat, Morocco in 1847. In 1854 he came to Israel with his father, Rabbi David ben Shimon, who was also his main teacher. The family established themselves in Jerusalem.  Besides his Rabbinical studies, especially in the field of  Jewish law, Rabbi ben Shimon learned European languages. He was fluent in Italian, French and Spanish.   In 1890 he visited Morocco and once there, he searched writings that were unpublished and he recommended the establishment of a institution mekiṣe nirdamim to publish old books and manuscripts of Moroccan Rabbis which were not accessible to the general people.  On his way back from Morocco he was invited to visit the important Jewish community of Egypt. Once there, he was offered to serve as the Chief rabbi of Cairo, instead of the previous rabbi Yom-Tob Israel, who retired from the rabbinate.   He served the Egyptian jewish community from 1891 until 1921.  

Rabbi Ben Shimon had to face new challenges. The modern world brought about many innovations in technology and social values which needed to be reassessed from an Halakhic perspective.  In the introduction of his most famous book, umiṣur debash, he mentions a few subjects that he had analyzed in research-like responsas. Among them: the use of electricity and matches on Yom Tob. The use of chariots driven by gentiles for the sake of burying a death during Yom Tob. The assessment of the Cairo water supply system in order to be considered as mayim lo she-ubim (non-transported waters), and therefore be suitable for a Mikve. The status of the children of mixed marriages, converts, etc. And the status of a wedding which took place in a private ceremony.

Let me refer briefly to this last issue.  Rabbi ben Simon witnessed a new trend. Men coming from Europe would marry a Jewish girl in a private ceremony and then, after a few years of staying in Egypt, these gentlemen would come back to Europe abandoning their wives. These poor women would be considered now'agunot, i.e, not formally divorced from their husbands and therefore unable to marry again. Together with rabbi Elyahu Ḥazan from  Alexandria and Rabbi Mendel haCohen, the rabbi of the Ashkenazi community of Cairo (sic.) they forbade the celebration of secret marriage ceremonies, annulling those weddings retroactively (hafqa'at qiddushin) and thus, releasing these women from their status of 'aguna.

(To be continued...)

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

TEFILA: matir asurim, appreciating our ability to move

ברוך אתה ה´ אלוקינו מלך העולם מתיר אסורים

The expression matir asurim, "HaShem sets free those who are imprisoned" appears in the book of Psalms (Tehilim, 146) and it is part of the pesuqe dezimra, the Psalms that we read every day in the morning prayer.  In Tehilim its author King David praises HaShem for His compassion with the needy. God defends the cause of those who are oppressed, He gives bread to those who are starving, and He sets free those who are imprisoned.  

In the 'Amida the idea of setting free the prisoners appears in the second berakha (blessing). This blessing, Geburot (God's powers), describes God's infinite might asserting that He employs His power to nurture, to support, to cure and to deliver (matir asurim). 

In Birkot haShachar the Rabbis used the idea of matir asurim,  applying it to a different context. Almost as a poetic motif. They instructed to say this berakha in the morning, at the time of waking up, when a person stretches his body and sits in his bed. The question is: what is the connection between the idea of setting free the prisoners and the movements of our body?

The simplest explanation is that when we are sleeping we have no control over our body. It moves involuntarily. Our conscious mind, i.e., the seat of our willpower, is asleep. And we are, in a sense, imprisoned inside our bodies.  Not only our bodies but our minds as well are beyond our control. While asleep we have no voluntary thoughts, but involuntary dreams. When we wake up and we start moving our limbs we realize that we have recovered control over our mind and body. Now, our body moves if we just will so. We are in control. We are free. 

When saying this blessing we recognize the power and wisdom of HaShem behind the recovery of our ability to move our body. 

10 Unknown facts about the West Bank

Monday, December 24, 2012

THE KETUBA: The financial obligations of the husband (Part 2)

Previously we explained that the Ketuba records the financial duties of the husband, particularly the monetary compensation due to his wife in case, God forbid, they get divorced or the husband passes away.   This compensation is composed of three elements. Last time, we explained iqar haketuba or mohar (roughly a minimum year salary) i.e., the principal or the minimum amount assigned to the wife as a marriage insurance (see here). 

Today we will explain the other element: nedunya, often translated as dowry.  
The nedunya includes the valuables the wife brings into the new couple. The Ketuba mentions as examples: silver or gold articles, jewelry, house-utensils, bedding, etc. These articles are mentioned explicitly to show that the wife is not coming into the marriage empty handed.  Technically speaking the husband has the right to trade or use the value of the dowry as he sees fit, but he still accepts responsibility for losses. These assets become for the husband "iron sheep" (ṣon barzel), which means that his financial responsibility toward them will never expire. Therefore if the marriage is dissolved, it is his responsibility to restitute the value of the dowry to his wife.

Now, regardless of how much valuables the bride brings into the marriage as her dowry, the ancient custom is to assess all valuables that she brings at the sum of one hundred pieces of silver (me-a zequqim dekesef, which according to some opinions in today's market value it will worth around $17,000). Jewish tradition views this uniformity of the value of the nedunya as  a way to avoid any distinction between a rich and a poor bride, and save a bride with no means from embarrassment. Thus, no matter what the value of what a bride brings into her marriage is, the husband obligates himself to eventually pay her back this fixed amount.

(to be continued...)