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‘And You Shall Live by Them!’ (V’chai Ba-hem) Leviticus 18:5

Or: The Only Dumb Question Is the One You Don’t Ask

Blog Post #1 Erev Shabbat, Parshat VaYikra, 5784, Written 21 March 2024

Most traditional Jews know that there are 613 commandments in the Torah. There are varying opinions on how the commandments are defined. More to the point, there is essentially an endless array of questions that may be posed to rabbinic authorities in order to implement living according to the Torah laws in a practical manner.

(It’s important to point out that even if you have a similar rabbinic query to one mentioned, please seek your own rabbinic guidance and don’t rely on what is written here.)

Continuing the command, “to live by them”, and the verse says, “and not to die by them.” Between living and dying there is a lot of space. We have another important command, and that is “Worship G-d with joy/happiness” (Evdu et Hashem b’simcha) So, I think it is easy to understand from this, we are charged to live by G-d’s rules with joy.

How do you live joyfully with the commandment to fast on the Fast of Esther or any fast for that matter? This sounds like an impossibility. Deprive yourself of one of the most basic sources of satiety, and do it happily? Sounds pretty strange or like an oxymoron.

Late at night just before the Fast of Esther, I found myself considering what I would do on this fast, when about a month ago, I was diagnosed with diabetes 2. Of course this is personal medical information, but I am comfortable sharing it, because my experience will be helpful to someone else.

I had a month to consider this, but my life was busy with other things, like going to visit children and grandchildren outside of Israel for two weeks in the second half of February, and then coming home to face the reality of what I had to do, to begin to be adherent with my family doctor’s guidance.

A few hours before taking off from Ben Gurion, I had my appointment with her to discuss the diagnosis and get my instructions from her on what I would be needing to do upon my return to Israel to deal with this new medical situation. That was February 13.

I often attend Torah classes in Jerusalem Monday mornings in. Luckily, I was able to attend that day. Afterwards, I stopped at the gourmet French bakery and purchased some food to take with me on the plane.

I will not elaborate on the foods selected. It’s sufficient to say, that after I left the medical appointment, it was clear that those “foods” were being left behind!

Dr. R. said something like, ‘Just as your blood-work indicated that you moved over the line, to the diabetes diagnosis, we’re going to get you to make the necessary changes to move you right back to the OTHER SIDE.’ She said further, ‘This is going to mean some significant lifestyle changes. I’m referring you for a test to see that your kidneys have not been damaged.  You’re going to start to test your blood 4Xs/day, and you’re going to change your diet. Don’t stress yourself out about all this right now. You’re going to do the lab work and learn how to do the blood testing when you return in 2 weeks. Until then you’ll do what you can.’ She conveyed her faith in my likely success, and that she would be there to support my efforts.

Okay, I have diabetes 2 like many others. However, now I was unsure what was appropriate for me medically in terms of fasting on the Fast of Esther. By the time I got around to deciding to consult a rabbi I thought it was too late to call a rabbi in Israel, so I called Rabbi S. in New Jersey, a rabbi my family has been close to for years. He was my parents’, a”h, rabbi, and he has continued on as a rabbi I feel comfortable to consult with. As he was soon attending the afternoon prayers, Mincha, he only had a few minutes. He said he was familiar with diabetes and asked my A1C number. I told him and he said, ‘Yes’ he knew that score makes one a diabetic. He then explained about the hierarchy of stricture with regard to observing fasts because that was part of his reasoning in response to my question.

We all know that Yom Kippur is the most stringent fast in the Jewish calendar, a requirement from the Bible, D’oriata. Then the 9th of Av is the next most stringent, decreed by Chazal, the Rabbis of the Talmud. Then there are the minor fast days including Asara B’tayvet, The 10th of Tayvet, commemorating the beginning of the destruction of the first Temple in Jerusalem. There are other minor fasts commemorating other sad events in our history like Sheva Asar b’Tamuz, the 17th of Tamuz, and Tzom Gedalia, the Fast of Gedalia, commemorating the murder of the righteous governor of the Kingdom of Judah.  Still lower on the list is the Fast of Esther which does not commemorate a sad event but was originally instituted to help prevent the evil decree of wicked Haman to annihilate the Jewish People from the entire Persian Empire from happening.

Rabbinic authorities are able to be more lenient in their rulings regarding the minor fast days because of the principle of, “And you shall live by them”, because we are meant to not “die by them,” but also, we are meant to not suffer unduly in the observance of Jewish laws.

As a general principle, health considerations, (not necessarily life-threatening ones) supersede the strict observance of a minor fast, and surprisingly to many, can even override the strict observance of Shabbat, or even supersede Biblical laws that are basic to the Shabbat. People who keep Shabbat, (shomer shabbat), to not carelessly push aside the laws of the Shabbat. There must be a good reason, and whenever possible a proper rabbinic authority is consulted. There are times when that might not be possible, so people must let common sense be their guide. If the matter is one of pikuach nefesh, saving a life, then we tend to more lenient because of the principle, “Saving a life, pushes aside the Shabbat” or in Hebrew “Pikuach Nefesh, dochef Shabbat”.

Examples of this application would be: In general, a woman in labor accompanied by her escort to the hospital are permitted to travel by car to the hospital or other birthing place. A person with a significant fever may be given a moderate temperature bath with water that was heated on Shabbat to help reduce the fever. (The rabbis consider a fever a “life-threatening” occurrence even when it is not excessively high.) Usually cooking would not be allowed, but for the purpose of reducing a significant fever, it may be permitted to heat the water. Every effort is made to reduce the degree of “breaking” of Shabbat laws. The assistance of a non-Jew is sought, when possible, when it does not delay or interfere with obtaining the necessary assistance.

In thinking about a “quality-of-life” rabbinic query that was important for me to ask, I asked our Rabbi in Maryland, if I might be permitted to listen to music at some point during my year of mourning for my father, a” h. I said, I know it is against the tradition, to listen to music during the year of avaylut, mourning, but I felt the need to listen to music some time, as an antidote to depression, a medicinal reason. Although I was mourning for my father, a”h and certainly did not want to dishonor him, or go against tradition, I felt a need to listen to music for to relieve sadness beyond the average level of mourning, a medical need. Unsurprisingly his answer was, “Yes, you can.”

Now, back to my situation regarding fasting on the Fast of Esther. Rabbi S. said that I might chose to not observe the fast legitimately on the basis of feeling anxious because I knew there might be some degree of danger to me because of the diabetes. So, the decision could be justified because the Fast of Esther is a minor fast, and because of my anxiety, (which was only a mild threat to my life). Additionally, this year, the Fast of Esther falls out on Shabbat, but is observed earlier, on Thursday because, while it might be observed on Friday, fasts are not generally held on Fridays unless they are of a more stringent nature, because preparing for the Shabbat was decided by Chazal, to take precedence, so the observance in years like this, is not just pushed one day earlier, but 2 days earlier.

I was given the option not to fast, to avoid whatever anxiety I might feel. While all of this was being considered, my husband asked, “And what about me?” I responded, “Well, what about you? My husband said, “I have a medical situation, which might make me anxious about fasting too.”

“What might that be,” I asked. “Well, you know I have a tendency to get a headache when I fast. That makes me anxious. I wonder whether I too might qualify for some leniency?”

In discussing this religious query, with a dear friend in San Diego, a rabbi, (because there, it is much earlier than the time for the afternoon prayers), I asked my husband to describe the amount of pain he was concerned about. I asked, “On a scale of 0-10, with 10 as the worst pain, what kind of headache are you talking about. He said, “An 8 or 9.” Wow, I had no idea that this was about so much suffering!!

That’s an interesting consideration, regarding his fasting altogether, or his anxiety in anticipation of getting a headache. He’s been suffering through fasts for many years, and it seem it never occurred to him to ask a rabbi about it. In other words, he did not realize that he had a rabbinic query to pose to a religious authority, on the “V’chai Ba-Hem” issue. He did not realize that he might be able to get some relief of his physical or emotional suffering. Perhaps by eating, he could “live by them” and with greater joy.

Many years ago, I was taught by a few very well-respected Torah authorities, including but not limited to, my rebbe for most of my life, Rabbi Meir Fulda, zt”l, a Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshiva University, that one must ask rabbinic authorities questions about observance, because some areas of Jewish law are so difficult to observe, that one must not look for strictures unnecessarily. One such area are the laws regarding a woman’s use of the ritual bath. Rabbinic guidance ought to be sought in many more mundane areas, because observing the laws can be oppressive if one only has a cursory knowledge and always assumes the need to observe whatever the law may be in a very strict manner. In general, “ignorance” in Jewish legal matters is NOT, “bliss”. Ignorance can not only be oppressive, but also quite dysfunctional.

I was fortunate to learn this principle of asking rabbinic queries, or in Hebrew, “Sha-a lot” by another excellent authority, Rebbetzin Temi Kamenetsky, a”h, the wife of Reb Shmuel, may he live long and well, a major Torah authority who serves on the International Rabbinic Advisory of Agudat Yisrael. Temi was known widely as a great teacher and for her extensive knowledge of Torah. Even she, who was experienced in consulting her husband, and who heard many queries, posed to her husband, taught the critical importance of consulting rabbinic authorities, so as not to rely on strict interpretations of Jewish law that might be excessive.

Many, or even more likely most Orthodox Jews, are aware that people with OCD, might tend to observe Jewish law in such a way, as to make one’s life unnecessary encumbered by strictures. We learn that this was never G-d’s intention. Again, “And you shall live by them,” is the guiding the principle, to enable us to live this way of life that observant Jews value highly, along with living according to the Torah laws with joy, “Evdu et HaShem b’simcha,” worship G-d with joy!!

Another important principle is, “Ein ha-Bishan lomed,” “The shy person does NOT learn.” If we do not seek out rabbinic authorities to answer our questions on points of Jewish law, it is difficult to add to our practical knowledge of the law. Torah law/Jewish law is an ever-evolving body of law. It is a living/breathing legal system. It is not random and not capricious. Even though we observe the laws, primarily because G-d commanded us.

However, there are also compellingly strong reasons to observe the laws because the laws enable us to be constantly evolving to be our best selves. Through consulting rabbinic authorities, our knowledge grows and these authorities grow in their application of the law to individual’s circumstances. Although many religious queries are routine, one doesn’t know when their question will turn out to be something unique and new.

Some people remain reticent about consulting rabbinic or Torah authorities. Many years ago, I learned from our local rabbi at the time, I need not worry about being bothersome to him or any other faithful Torah authority in asking questions because they have a “need” to provide this assistance. He said that the traditional way to view how Torah authorities feel about providing this assistance, is analogous to the way a nursing mother feels when it is time to feed her baby. The baby of course is hungry. Correspondingly the mother feels physically pressed for relief of her milk supply. Rabbi C. was encouraging his congregants not to feel like they were being bothersome because the rabbis are trained to be responsive to their congregant’s need to learn the Torah laws, in order to “live by them.”

In discussing this matter of my investigation of how to observe the fast of Esther this year, considering my new medical diagnosis, with my local rabbinic authority, in Beit Shemesh, Rabbi M., we were talking about whether there might be some questions, better not asked, “dumb questions” or in Yiddish, “Klutz kashes,” (clumsy questions). He said emphatically, “There is no such thing. There are NO DUMB Questions!”

Have a joyous (Shushan) Purim. Chag Purim sah-mayach! Shabbat shalom (Now, shavua tov)!

About the Author
I’m passionate about Judaism, Israel & using my abillities to help others. I'm a licensed clinical social worker/psychotherapist. Born & raised in Queens, NY, I've also lived in Binghamton, Ann Arbor, Wynnewood, Bergenfield & Silver Spring while my heart was always in Israel. I was recently blessed to make aliyah-the fulfillment of my lifelong dream with my family. I am very grateful to G-d for all of it.
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