Monthly Archives: December 2011

What do we do now?

Many years ago, I was teaching a class about Shabbat when I asked them what would happen if, for whatever reason, the government decided to skip one of the days  or add an extra day in a given week. What would happen to Shabbat that week? Would we observe it in accordance with the calendar, on the day that was called Saturday regardless of how many days it had been since the last Shabbat? Or, would we still observe Shabbat 7 days after the previous Shabbat even if it came out on Friday or Sunday? We had an interesting discussion about the entire issue. Is Shabbat a calendar issue or is it a reflection of the divine commandment to rest every 7 days.

The issue was always theoretical- until today. This morning, as has been widely reported, residents of the island of Samoa are waking up to Saturday after going to sleep on Thursday as the government in principle moved the island to the other side of the international date line in order to have a similar calendar as Asia.

When I read this in the paper this morning, my mind immediately flashed back to that discussion in the classroom many years before. What on earth do we do?

Before I say anything else, I must point out that several authorities have been dealing with this issue not only as a result of Samoa’s decision but in regards to the International Date Line in general which some see as arbitrary. Some authorities have said that there needs to always be a 48 hour observance of Shabbat in  areas near the date line acknowledging the uncertainty of the calendar. You can do an internet search on this question and find many different halachic rulings on the issue.

But, assuming one doesn’t want to observe 48 hours of Shabbat every week, the choice between a humanly ordained calendar vs. the divine act of creation is a fascinating and complex choice to have to make. On the one hand, one could say that Shabbat is observed every 7 days and therefore Jewish residents of Samoa would observe Shabbat this week on Sunday (and of course every week thereafter). On the other hand, Jews have observed Shabbat on Saturday for however long it has been since the days of a week have been identified in this way and to do otherwise would cause confusion and the upsetting of long standing tradition.

There is a beautiful midrash in which the angels come to God and say: When is Yom HaDin (Rosh Hashana, the day of judgment)? God says: let’s ask the human beings, when they decide it is Yom HaDin, we’ll be there to judge. This is a reflection of the fact that God gave the calendar to human beings and the holidays are very much subject to human decisions relating to uncertainty about the timing of the New Moon or, in some case, relating to convenience (Yom Kippur can’t fall on Friday etc.) But, this did not reflect a teaching about Shabbat which was considered ordained as part of the cycle of creation from the beginning and, of course, the human beings who would set the calendar in the view of this midrash were prophets or Rabbis, leaders in the Jewish community, not in the secular world.

So, what to do? Should Jews in Samoa go along with the rest of the Samoans and observe Shabbat a day early or should they resign themselves to observing Shabbat on Sunday forever?And what would that do to distinctions between Jews and Christians- or if a day was added to the calendar and Shabbat fall on Friday, between Jews and Moslems- would we welcome that uniformity or would we reject it as a compromise of our well established differences?

My opinion? It would be far better to make a change in one week than to be out of step forever with the Jewish world and our teachings. Were I a Rabbi in Samoa, I would make the decision to observe two days of Shabbat this week: Saturday (which is really erev Shabbat) and Sunday (which is the 7th day) but for the sake of uniformity and tradition, I would argue that the following week, Shabbat should be observed on Saturday and continue to be observed that way from generation to generation. Somehow, I think God would understand. I hope so anyway.


Shabbat Shalom.


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Family History

My paternal grandfather, Julius Dobrusin came from the city of D’vinsk, now Daugavpils, in Latvia. We don’t know his whole story.  We know that he was a member of the Workmen’s Circle, anti-religious, socialist and, according to a book our family has, he was an “Agitator”. He also, was, to say the least, not an ideal father or husband. In addition, at some point, something he did or didn’t do seemed to have caused a rift in the extended family. He died when my father was a teenager and now that all of his three sons have died, he remains to us a mystery.

My brother, some of my cousins and I are fascinated by his story and we have been trying desperately over the years to find some more about the family history. One day a couple of months ago, I did a google search on the Daugavpils Jewish Community looking for nothing in particular when I found, amazingly enough, that a good friend had been involved with that community since his ancestors also were from there. I contacted my friend and, through him, found the Latvian State Archives. A few emails and a wire transfer for a nominal fee and they have set out to find what they can about our family.

Today, I received an email back from the researcher in Latvia who told me that they were sending material by mail to me on the family, all the “available records”. I don’t know whether we will find anything new that we didn’t know before or that there will be any insight at all into the man or the family but I can’t wait to find out.

As I wait, I think back to one aspect of the story which needs to be told. As I mentioned, there was a rift in the family and the grandchildren of Julius Dobrusin and the grandchildren of his sister Annie, never knew each other. A few years back, I received an  call from a woman I knew at Brandeis when I was a student there in the 1970’s. I couldn’t imagine why she was calling although it was good to hear from her. It turns out that when looking through some of her husband’s old family photos, she had seen the name Annie Dobrusin on the back of a picture of his grandmother. She wanted to know if I was related to her.  The only thing I knew about my great was that her name was Annie and after a moment or two, we realized that this was her and that my friend’s husband was, in fact, my 2nd cousin.

In an email exchange a bit later, I found out that another 2nd cousin lived in Israel and when I was in Jerusalem in 2007, we arranged to meet for dinner. My son and I walked into the restaurant at the planned time and a woman came towards us saying she would have spotted me as a Dobrusin anywhere. We had a wonderful time and 2 years later, when I was back in Israel, my visit coincided with a visit from my friend’s husband and his brother and we met and talked over old times that we only knew a bit about. Perhaps, some news from Latvia will tell us more of our story. But, whether it does or doesn’t, at least the rift has been ended- we, the grandchildren of Julius and Annie have found each other- and, eaten a meal together in peace- in Jerusalem no less.

I’ll keep you posted.

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Laila Tov: Good night

This past Shabbat at Beth Israel, we had the second of two planned programs we called Brunch and Learn. Instead of gathering for a kiddush lunch after the service ended, we took a break in the middle for some Torah study and a kiddush brunch which was followed by a Musaf service. In many ways, Shabbat is all about routine but I think it does us good every once in a while to vary that routine and perhaps discover a new way to enjoy Shabbat.

Our Torah study this week was a continuation of our series on Jewish Perspectives on Health and focused on the subject of sleep in Jewish tradition. Traditional texts address just about every subject imaginable and sleep is no exception.

There is a tension in Rabbinic texts concerning sleep. On the one hand, sleep is considered to be a waste of precious time to study Torah or to observe mitzvot. It is considered to be a sign of the difference between ourselves and God- according to one midrash, the angels were able to differentiate Adam from God only when God put Adam into a deep sleep- and thus could be viewed as a sign of weakness.

And yet, the Rabbis also recognized the critical role adequate sleep plays in our lives. It is interesting to me that actions which are prohibited on Yom Kippur are actions which focus on our human needs. We try to be “angels” on that day, turning away from our drives to eat and drink, engage in sexual activity and our attention to our physical bodies. And yet, there is no prohibition on sleep. I believe this reflects our Rabbis’ understanding that while it is possible to think seriously while being hungry or thirsty, one couldn’t engage in serious teshuva, serious repentance and prayer without being sufficiently awake and alert.

So, there are texts which praise sleep as providing the rejuvenation necessary to do our best as human beings. The Talmud records that people were discouraged from taking a vow to stay awake and Maimonides indicates that sleeping 8 hours a night is sufficient. He doesn’t discourage people from getting that amount of sleep which many say is the appropriate amount for an adult.

Sleep is a precious commodity in our lives today. So many of us find ourselves struggling to get adequate sleep and keeping long hours is only one of the issues. I know that for many, this is a serious medical issue and one which should be referred to a physician. But, for others, it seems to be a matter of choice. With so much emphasis on being “connected” today, it seems increasingly difficult to allow ourselves the luxury of being out of touch for 8 hours a night. And yet, we need, all of us, to try harder. We know how dangerous lack of adequate sleep can be. Perhaps, to go back to the midrash I referred to earlier, we should  admit that we are not all powerful- that we are not God- and that the world will survive well enough without us as we get a good night’s sleep. In fact, the world will be better off as we will be more equipped not only to study Torah but also to engage in the acts of Tikkun Olam if we can keep our eyes open during the day.

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Jacob’s dream

Yesterday, we read the Parashat Vayetze which contains the story of Jacob’s dream of a ladder rising up to the heavens with angels ascending and descending. There are many Rabbinic interpretations of the dream but my favorite among them is the tradition that what Jacob was witnessing was “the changing of the guard” as the angels which accompanied him inside the land of Canaan were going back up to the heavens and those who were going to be responsible for him outside the land were coming down to take their positions.

This is an important interpretation as it reflects the intention of the Torah to teach that God is a universal God and not tied to one particular area. Jacob needs to be shown, as he is on the border of Canaan about to go to Haran, that he will be protected by (and responsible to) God wherever he goes.

It strikes me as a bit troubling however that the angels are referred to as “olim v’yordim”, ascending and descending the ladder. I would have preferred the opposite, “descending and ascending”.  Usually when we think about a “changing of the guard”, we envision the new guard coming to replace the old guard with an overlap between them. Whatever it is that they are guarding is never left unprotected, even for a moment. Thus, if the angels were  “olim”, ascending, before the others were “yordim” descending, Jacob would have been left alone in the interim.

I promise you I haven’t lost sleep over this linguistic issue (pardon the pun) but it occurs to me as important because we do speak of overlapping angels in another place in our tradition. When we sing Shalom Aleichem on erev Shabbat, we are welcoming in the “Shabbat angels”. The last verse of the song is “tzaytzchem l’shaom”, go in peace. This is sung, according to many interpretations, to the weekday angels who are taking leave of us as the Shabbat angels take their positions. We don’t ask them to leave until the Shabbat angels are already in place.

Whether we take the idea of angels literally or not, the idea is beautiful: that Shabbat overlaps the weekdays, beginning before sundown and ending after sundown. There is an easing into Shabbat and an easing out of Shabbat as well.

But, it is interesting that we never say: “tzaytzchem l’shalom” to the Shabbat angels when Shabbat ends.

Shabbat is a day of ideals and dreams and a sense of holiness. We dream of a day when the world will be “kulo Shabbat” when all that we wish and all that we feel on Shabbat will be permanently a part of our redeemed world. The only way that that can happen is if we take the spirit of Shabbat and allow it to permeate the days of the week. Shabbat is when we dream. The weekdays are when we can put those dreams into action, making them a reality in the world.

We should seek to keep those angels around throughout the week, never allowing them to leave.


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