Sunday, June 27, 2010

Good Intentions?

I was confronted this past Friday night with a sentiment that disturbed me greatly, and has continued to bother me since then. It's not a new problem, but I hardly see it in stark contrast to the ideals that we try - as religious Jews - to live by, and I certainly don't hear it acknowledged verbally, unashamedly.

We're staying at my in-laws while my wife recuperates from the surgery, and there is a neighbor down the street who has an open home for kiruv (Jewish outreach). This family constantly has unaffiliated Jews as guests for Shabbos, and they take an interest in these people's lives, assisting them in any way they need help. It's truly a beautiful thing to behold, and I have had the pleasure of joining this family for some Shabbos meals.

Earlier in the week, the head of the household approached me, requesting that I help form a minyan (prayer quorum) in their home for the Friday night service, beginning with mincha (the afternoon prayer) and continuing through ma'ariv (the evening service). One of the many ba'alei Teshuva (returnees to observant Judaism) that they took in is getting married, and they are hosting her relatives who are not religious; he wanted to make a spectacular kabbolas Shabbos (reception of the Shabbos) for them, to give them a taste of the joy that accompanies Shabbos.

Naturally, I agreed. An opportunity to partake in an important mitzva like kiruv is not one that I would give up quickly, and it sounded like we were meant to have an exciting experience in the minyan, with singing and dancing, etc. The basic minyan consisted of folks from around the neighborhood (ensuring that we would have a quorum of people who are observant), with the bride's family interspersed throughout the room, sitting near the more seasoned folks who could help guide them through the prayers. It was a very nice experience; there was a little awkwardness at first, but eventually people got into it, and everyone had a good time.

Now, to give a little background information, for those of you who are unaware: the Friday night liturgy is different than the standard weekday ma'ariv. The amidah (also know as the Shemoneh Esrei, the climax of the service) prayer is altered to reflect the sanctity of Shabbos, and after everyone is finished, the prayer leader (chazzan) recites a special formula that consists of a special blessing that makes up part of what is known as the bircas me'ein sheva. According to the halachic sources, this blessing is reserved only for an established prayer group (a minyan kavua) that is either meeting in a synagogue, or has a sefer Torah in the home that they meet.

A minyan that does not convene on a regular basis (a minyan arai), however, cannot say this blessing, and we are warned to be careful about this, because saying it raises issues of whether we have said a blessing (and by extension, God's name) in vain, which has serious ramifications. A minyan such as ours is the exact definition of a minyan arai, and thus, we cannot say the bircas me'ein sheva. The chazzan finished the amidah, and then began with the opening words of the me'ein sheva; I tried to stop him - he paused, listened to me, and then waved me off and continued reciting the blessing.

Afterward, I tried to explain to the host what had happened; I realize that although this is a clear, explicit halacha, some people are unaware of it, so I offered to show it to him inside. At that point, the chazzan ambled over and started harassing me and debating whether he was in the right or not. I held my stance, and insisted that what he had done was not in line with the halacha; eventually he waved me off again, and said dismissively "I'm telling you: it's not a big deal, and we're not going to gehinnom (Hell) because of this."

That statement is a very telling one, and upsets me very much. It's not enough that so many of us (myself included) are ignorant of halacha - we mistakenly believe that as long as we avoid the "big no-no's" that we're doing okay. This nonchalant, uncaring approach is very serious, and is found unfortunately among a vast majority of people.

 I'm not trying to be an alarmist by blowing things out of proportion, but the attitude that allows someone to express such an idea without the faintest hint of irony is a dangerous one, indeed. It is a certain complacency that leads us to err greatly, in increasing severity. I know that I may sound like a zealot (apropos for this week's Torah portion), but this is a very dangerous idea to subscribe to. It will eventually lead to halfhearted, lethargic fulfillment of the mitzvot (if it hasn't already), and end in negligence and transgression.

So what can we do? How do we combat this danger that everyone (obviously including myself) is susceptible to? There are many ideas and suggestions that have a wide range of application, but one thing that is of utmost importance is to establish a regular study session of basic halachot that pertain to our everyday lives. There are numerous programs, websites, and books that cater to this particular need; everyone can find a way to learn these important things that are relevant to our every waking moment.

Another necessity is to somehow increase our sensitivity to the world around us, and how we interact with it. This can be done by learning mussar, or chassidus (or a blend). We need to internalize the idea that every single thing we do has some sort of effect on our spiritual and physical environments, and that nothing is irrelevant. It's not just avoiding the "major" issurim (prohibitions) and being careful about the "major" mitzvot - everything is there for a reason, so we should give the proper amount of reverence to them all.


karma dude said...

While I am not a Rabbi by any stretch of the imagination, I do know that regarding saying the bircas me'ein sheva in a minyan arai, there are many opinions amongst achronim and the current poskim on what exactly constitutes a minyan arai.

Some poskim hold that any minyan that doesn't meet three times in the same place is considered a minyan arai. This would mean, if these people were going to meet in this house for Mincha, Maariv, and Shachris, that would make it a minyan kavua.

Other poskim hold that a minyan must meet three times for the same tefillah in order to constitute a minyan kavua (ie. Maariv three weeks in a row).

I have also seen, although I can't remember where, an opinion that if you have ten people who usually daven together in a minyan, they would constitute a minyan kavua wherever they daven.

Whatever the case, the halacha of sofek bracha l'hakel will always supersede. So unless the chazzan started saying it based on an opinion that it should be said, and without any sofek, he should not have said it.

If you would like to be dan l'kaf zechut, they say a story about Rav Menachem M. Shach (I can't vouch for it's authenticity) that he was once seen learning some Torah subjects on Tisha B'av that were forbidden. When one of his students asked him how he can do that, he replied that he loves learning so much that even though he knows that he will have to give a din v'cheshbon after 120 years, he still can't control himself.
In the same spirit, maybe the chazzan was so uplifted by the arrival of the shabbos queen and by the mitzvah of kiruv that although he knew he shouldn't (because it was pointed out to him) he just couldn't help himself. He just had to praise God with the beautiful bracha me'ein sheva.
Or maybe he's just an arrogant ass.

Shmuel said...

"I have also seen, although I can't remember where, an opinion that if you have ten people who usually daven together in a minyan, they would constitute a minyan kavua wherever they daven."

The Piskei Teshuvos mentions this, and attributes it to the "Tehilla L'Dovid" (O.H. 268:13) and the "Teshuvos Minchas Yitzchak" (vol.10, 21); this only applies because the same reason that necessitates the bracha in the first place in a shul is still relevant.

And you're right, I should be more favorable in my judgments...

Anonymous said...

in pirkei avos it says "be zahir with a mitzva kallah k'bchamura because you don't know the rewards for mitzvos". it could be the "little ones" are deserving of the most reward precisly because people treat them lightly. you make a very important point. yasher koach.