This is the first of many posts that will focus on differences between Shimen and Heidi regarding the scope of moral principles and the social norms that embody those principles. We begin with a review of Shimen’s daily life as a Jew committed to the Jewish way of life – halacha. This review is intended mainly as a primer for those less familiar with halacha. But it is also intended to slightly reorient the reader already familiar with halacha from the customary emphasis on halachic severity and importance to an emphasis on actual salience in everyday life.
Immediately upon waking on a typical weekday, Shimen will wash his hands in a ritual manner and recite the appropriate blessings. If he shaves at all, it will not be with a razor and he will always leave ample hair on his temples. He will dress modestly and will wear a tallis kotton (a garment with fringes called tzitzis) under his shirt and will keep his head covered at least partially at all times. He will not wear any clothing that includes mixtures of wool and linen. In public, he will almost always wear a jacket and a hat, though not the long bekeshe and round kapelush he wore before The War.
On most weekdays, Shimen will go to shul, don his full-size tallis and phylacteries, and recite the morning prayers with a minyan. He will treat religious articles with great reverence, pointing to the mezuzah as he passes through a door frame and handling his phylacteries only in accordance with specified rules. He will stand for the Torah scroll when it is taken from or returned to the ark for the abridged Torah readings on Monday and Thursday mornings, just as he would stand in the presence of a scholar of Torah. During prayers, Shimen will put some coins in the charity box or in the hands of a passing beggar. He will catch up on who in his community is ill or in mourning and will plan to visit them at the first opportunity. If a friend asks for a small loan, he will comply on the condition that no interest be paid, not even a thank you; if he needs a small loan, he will expect the same conditions. When approached, Shimen will make a modest contribution to the maintenance of the shul, the mikveh (ritual bath) and other of his community’s institutions. All of Shimen’s friends and acquaintances are Jewish and almost all are from backgrounds very similar to his own.
Shimen’s routine is broken for shabbes and holidays. For a 25-hour period beginning on Friday evening just before sundown, Shimen will – among many prohibitions too numerous to fully enumerate – not light or extinguish a fire or even turn a light on or off, not move money or make a transaction, not cook or even pour from a pre-heated kettle onto a tea bag, not write with a pen or a keyboard, not carry in an unenclosed space, not tie or untie any semi-permanent knot, and generally not even speak of business and other mundane matters. He will spend extra time in shul davening and listening to an extended reading of the Torah. After davening on Friday night, he will recite kiddush at home over a cup of wine and then will wash his hands and make a blessing over two whole loaves of challah; this will be repeated in the morning after davening; he will have challah again at the third shabbes meal before sundown.
The shabbes restrictions and rituals will be repeated with relatively minor variations on the festivals, each of which has its own associated special rituals: Shimen will eat all meals on Sukkos in an outdoor sukkah, on Pesach he will neither eat nor maintain any foods — other than matzah — that include grain, on Shavuos he will typically stay up all night studying Torah, and on Rosh Hashana he will spend extra time in shul and will listen to the blowing of the shofar. On Yom Kippur, he will fast for the entire 25 hours, spending most of it in shul davening, focusing on the theme of repentance. On five other fast days during the course of the year, four of which commemorate events associated with the destruction of the First and Second Temples thousands of years ago, Shimen will fast from morning to night – and on Tisha B’Av for a full 25 hours. On the minor festivals, Purim and Chanukah, he will remember miracles from the period of the Second Temple. On Purim, he will go to shul to hear the megillah in the evening and the morning and will partake in a festive meal with friends in the afternoon. On Chanukah, he will light candles on the window sill of his apartment, adding one candle for each of the eight nights of the festival.
Shimen eats with considerable restrictions. He will buy meat only from a vendor under strict supervision ensuring that the meat is from approved species, that the animal was slaughtered in a strictly specified manner, that certain parts of the animal were removed, and that the remaining parts were soaked and salted appropriately to remove blood. He will not mix milk and meat products or eat them at the same meal; in fact, he won’t use the same dishes or utensils for milk and meat and he won’t consume milk products for six hours after eating meat. He will eat fish only from species with fins and scales. He will not eat any processed foods that are not marked with a trustworthy seal of approval ensuring that they contain no non-kosher ingredients. He will not eat dough products or agricultural produce of the Land of Israel without first ensuring that symbolic tithes have been taken. He will drink wine only if it has been produced by sabbath-observant Jews. He will not eat any food without first reciting the appropriate blessing, taking care to eat food items in an order that properly prioritizes the blessings; he will also recite appropriate blessings following eating.
Shimen will frequently attend life-cycle rituals — a bris, a bar-mitzvah, a wedding — often addressing the assembled to share a thought based on the weekly Torah reading and on his gratitude that Jews are once again capable of celebration. He will take pleasure in suggesting shidduchim, matches between his friends’ children and grandchildren, the rules of which are well-known to the participants: courtship is meant to be relatively brief and the prospective mates are supposed to refrain from sexual activity, even touching. Engagement and marriage are regarded as creating a bond not just between two individuals but between two families, each of which undertakes financial obligations related to the well-choreographed celebrations surrounding the marriage and to the establishment of a new home. Even after marriage, the couple will not be permitted to engage in sexual activity during menstruation and for a week afterwards, after which the woman will immerse in a mikveh. They are expected, if they are able, to produce many children, with one son and one daughter regarded as a minimum. Abortion is forbidden, except in rare circumstances. If the marriage fails, a get (writ of divorce) must be enacted in a very precise manner; a child born to a woman who has not obtained a valid divorce is regarded as a mamzer and is almost unmarriageable.
Whenever he has free time, Shimen studies Torah; on any given day, he is working his way through one of the tractates of the Babylonian Talmud. The subject matter is no more likely to be one of the matters enumerated above that determine the texture of his daily routine than matters that have not had direct application for the past two millennia. Shimen will study the laws of sacrifices brought in the Temple — categories of sacrifices, on what occasions they were brought, the sequence of the associated rituals, who was eligible to perform them, which errors of action or intention disqualified a sacrifice, and so on. He will study the laws of ritual uncleanness — the hierarchy of uncleanness from dead human bodies on down, the means by which contamination could be transferred to a person or object, the means of purifying a contaminated person or object, the proper handling of uncertainty regarding possible contamination, and so on. He will as soon study laws of torts and fines intended for application by specially-ordained judges — none of whom have existed for centuries — as the laws of ordinary debts and transactions which are adjudicated on a daily basis.
Shimen works hard to make a basic living, handling all transactions with care and honesty. In the rare event that some dispute needs to be adjudicated, he will – with the agreement of his counterpart – approach a local rabbinic scholar to propose a compromise or to rule in accordance with halacha. When Shimen needs to make an especially important decision about which he is uncertain, he might turn to the Gerrer Rebbe for guidance.
This sketch merely touches the surface of halacha, but it should give us adequate background to highlight some key differences with the very different moral principles preferred by Heidi, whose reservations about all the above will be the subject of our next post.