Sunday, January 13, 2008

Why I *Really* Oppose Tu BeShvat Seders

I did not elaborate on it last time, so here I will flesh it out. (Note there is a difference between modern Tu BeShvat Seders which people make up, as they see fit, and the kabbalistic Tu BeShvat Seder. I am talking specifically about the latter.) Rav Yaakov Emden opposed Tu BeShvat Seders, because the text of the seder came from an anthology put together by Nathan of Gaza, who was Shabbtai Tzvi's prophet. Modern scholars agree that Pri Etz Hadar, that sefer, is indeed from Nathan of Gaza, but that the kabbalah in the seder is purely Lurianic kabbalah. In the past, Ashkenazim in general did not practice this seder because of Rav Yaakov Emden's condemnation. But now, people (including Ashkenazim) are starting to do it.

What is the problem, then, if it is purely kosher Lurianic kabbalah?

1. The answer is that it could have been Sabbatean.

To elaborate, I will first go off on a tangent.

If I were malicious enough, I could convince plenty of frum Jews to (unwittingly) offer their child to Molech, in violation of the Biblical command.

How so? I would tell them that it was an old chassidic/kabbalistic custom, encouraged by (insert obscure chassidic or kabbalistic master here), and the practice was to line up two rows of lit candles. The meaning is "deep," but partly it is a reenactment of bris bein habesarim, but also because the right row of candles represents chessed while the left row of candles represents gevurah. And one should pass the infant between the two rows of candles, just in the middle, to allow him/her to achieve a proper balance of chesed and gevurah. (Of course, we are not talking about burning the infant, just passing him between the two rows of fire.) I would also give them a "kabbalistic" prayer to recite while performing the ceremony, in arcane Aramaic and even then speaking in code where possible, perhaps even using "Malcam" which they may interpret as "their king."

This is because there is an opinion that the Molech offering was not actually human sacrifice, but rather passing the child between two fires.

I wouldn't actually do this, of course, but if I did, and with the appropriate attachment of segulah and mystical explanations, I could probably get quite a few people to do this.

And this obscure custom would spread by email, even to people who had not practiced it before or did not come from kabbalistic / chassidic roots, just like the practice of saying parshat HaMan specifically on Tuesday of the week of Beshalach.

People are careful about the food and drink they put in their mouths but are not so discriminating in the rituals they practice and the tefillot they say.

Most of the people practicing Tu BeShvat seders today, who do not have a family tradition from years past, have no idea of the Sabbatean connection -- of the text coming from Nathan of Gaza's anthology, and of Rav Yaakov Emden's condemnation. They do not know that there was controversy, but it is OK because it turns out it is actually entirely Lurianic kabbalah.

In fact, they probably have no idea of the meaning of the words in the seder, for even if they know the straightforward translation of the words, they do not know the import. How many people who say kegavna instead of bameh madlikin know the straightforward translation of the words, let alone the meaning of the statement, even if they read it in English? You need to be well versed in kabbalah to understand its import, and the same is true to really understand the Tu BeShvat seder. (You can see an abridged English text here, and the full translation [though some pages are not in the preview] in Trees, Earth and Torah -- A Tu B'Shvat Anthology starting on page 135.)

Aside from this, given that it is Lurianic kabbalah. Is it Avodah Zarah? Most people are not kabbalists, and don't say kabbalistic tefillot, so they do not come across this issue. But the Tu B'Shvat seder is concerned with the sefirot, which Shadal in his Vikuach al Chochmat haKabbalah charges is avodah zarah. The typical person who newly adopts this seder wants to do a new cool Jewish thing, but is not educated enough in kabbalah to make such a determination. (Of course, one can rely on greats who do not hold it is avodah zarah.)

That is the first issue.

2. The second issue is the general tendency to adopt new practices, be they hafrashat challah segulas, saying parshas Hamon during Tuesday of Beshalach, or Tu BeShvat Seders. This is somewhat related to the lack of discrimination mentioned above. The rituals we do have do not have enough significance for us, and so we seek to innovate, or adopt, new rituals.

Drinking four cups of wine and saying things over them (and over fruits), as part of a seder, and as a new instituted practice on a specific day of the Jewish calendar -- why is this not a violation of bal Tosif? There were issues concerning Purim (see Yerushalmi Megillah here, starting at the bottom), so why is there no problem making Tu B'Shevat into a chag, with its own rituals and tefillot?

The answer may be that there is no problem on the level of halacha, but on a conceptual level, couldn't this adoption of new ritual and prayer on specific days (Tu BeShvat seders and reading parshat haMan specifically on Tuesday of parshas Beshalach, or tens of other examples) reflect an attitude of Bal Tosif.

In terms of parshat Haman, Artscroll is getting in on the action this year. They give a text and translation of what to say this Tuesday, Jan 15, parshat B'shalach, in a downloadable PDF. Get it here. They write:
The Torah reading of this coming Shabbos -- Parashas Beshallach -- includes the chapter telling how the Jewish People in the Wilderness received manna, the Heavenly food that nourished them for forty years. Many people recite the chapter daily, as a special prayer for parnassah. There is also a widespread custom to recite this chapter on the Tuesday of the week of Beshallach, which this year is January 15.

As a public service, we offer the text and interlinear translation of the chapter, from the Schottenstein Edition Interlinear Siddur. Please feel free to download it.

So the practice now has the Artscroll seal, as a widespread custom. Perhaps it really is a widespread custom, but perhaps it is only widespread in recent years as a result of email campaigns of people forwarding it.

Don't take this as a final say not to say it, or to say it. These are just my thoughts on the matter.


Anonymous said...

Your Molech "segulah" is great, I could see many of the people I know doing it!

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that even Lurianic writings that were transmitted via Nathan of Gaza must now be considered outside our tradition. They would be like any other Jewish writings preserved only by heterodox Jews or gentiles: historically interesting but not halachically relevant.

Anonymous said...

Artscroll is promoting a Hassidic custom here, from the Hassidic Rebbe R. Meir of Premishlan, even if they try to obscure that fact by not discussing its origin.

Why don't they stick to normative Judaism ?

yaak said...

Josh, I applaud your efforts to prevent people from being swayed from false interpretations of Kabbalah, which could actually be Avoda Zara. This is very commendable.

What I disagree with is dissuading people from following authentic Kabbalistic practices.

If your purpose is to encourage people to find out the authenticity of each practice, then fine. Otherwise, why not let it go as an "Eilu Ve'eilu" ?

joshwaxman said...

If they are kabbalists and/or chassidim (or Sefardim who have this practice), then fine.

Otherwise, it is adopting a practice -- for what reason exactly? They are adopting the latest fad, or adopting the latest superstition, a superstition which is contrary to the type of Judaism I don't want to see increasing.

If they are kabbalists and know what they are doing by this ceremony, great. Otherwise, I don't see it as a good trend, but rather, encouraging people to think magically, and to enter for the wrong reasons into the place of machloket.

(And to clarify, Shadal felt that standard kabbala is a false interpretation of kabbalah.)

Not to mention that absent this reverse thrust, the hamon Am does not see this as an Elu veElu, with a good argument in the opposite direction. Rather, they see it as people who have merited to know the secrets of kabbalah on the one hand, and people who focused only on halacha and thus have not merited to know these secrets of kabbalah. If this is the contest, then of course "those in the know" of kabbalistic secrets will always win out. Which is what happens with the adoption of chassic and kabbalistic practices as normative, obligatory halacha.

An example: There is no halachic requirement for a woman to shave her head, and in fact there may be halachic problems with it. But the Zohar speaks of it. And so those who choose to shave their heads are seen as doing the mehadrin, and those who do not are seen as probably fulfilling their halachic requirements. And it would of course be *best* for people to adopt the shaving practice, but some women, or husbands, are just not ready for it, and perhaps can grow in ruchniyus until they reach such a level. If this is the general view of matters, it is not Elu veElu, but rather bedieved and lechatchila. And the same across the board, in hundreds of other cases.

joshwaxman said...

As other example: When arguing with someone about whether sheitels -- standard frum practice in America -- are permitted (even lechatchila), someone presents to me that Baba Sali said that he feels sorry for all those women who wear sheitels, because they are building their own pyre in Gehenna. Is it possible to argue on this type of statement, even if one could show absolutely that they are fine lechatchila and that there are major poskim to rely upon? Of course it is, but people do not see that.

Another example: If you hold it is entirely permissible to shave with an electric shaver, that is a halachic conclusion. But then someone (actually, the same fellow) will come with a non-halachic, but rather mystical, statement from Rav Aharon Kotler that anyone who shaves even with an electric shaver gives birth to improper thoughts and will distance a person from the Torah. A non-falsifiable statement, and also a nonsensical statement, which it is difficult to argue against without casting yourself as a kofer. So it is not Elu veElu, because sociologically, that is not how it works out. Rather, the mystical reason will always win out against the non-mystical, since it presents itself as an additional reason.

These are beside the point of the post, but may reveal *some* of my general motivation for opposing this vocally, rather than just letting it stand as an alternative, acceptable option.

(The same is true for Rabbi Maryles standing up for mixed seating and condemning the encroachment of separate seating, which I noticed you commented on recently.)

Kol Tuv,

yaak said...

I, for one, will never say that the non-Kabbalistic approach is the incorrect one. Even the greatest Kabbalists have the upmost respect for the Rambam, who, by 99% of accounts, was non-Kabbalistic. You may be right that the Hamon Am doesn't see it that way, but I think it doesn't need to be opposed - just clarified well.

I believe R' Ovadia Yosef (or perhaps his son) talks about when Kabbala's halacha differs with the halacha of the Pashtanim. I'll try to see if I can find it.

Re: what I wrote on Harry's blog, it's nice to see that you follow me around the internet. :-)

Anonymous said...


I agree with your analogy to Molech.

A couple of your later examples, in the comments, has me disagreeing.

The reason Chsidish women shave their heads is a practical one. It was instituted in order to ensure that there won't be not any problems in the mikvah. While it is difficult to relate to this in a time when we can all take a warm shower on a daily basis, it wasn't always this way. When cleaning a women's hair properly was a huge task, the Chasidic masters simplified matters - as they always did. Just shave.

As far as men shaving, the Chofetz Chaim did open a Yeshiva specifically to allow those who don't shave to enter, since the other Yeshivos usually made their students shave. The CC also writes strongly in support of keeping a beard. There is a huge difference when the kabala is handed down from a universal authority like the Chofetz Chaim.

joshwaxman said...

"The reason Chsidish women shave their heads is a practical one."

And it has nothing to do with the Zohar instructing a woman to shave the hair grown during niddah, for kabbalistic reasons? Unlikely.

"is handed down from a universal authority like the Chofetz Chaim"
We don't hold like the Mishna Brura in everything.

S. said...

Head shaving was not instituted by Chasidim, it was an Ashkenazic custom which long preceded Chassidus, and also has nothing to do with the Zohar. The passages in the Zohar, which talk about cutting the hair (all over the body) which grew during niddah (i.e., trimming) has nothing to do with head shaving, these passages were found ex post facto to justify the minhag since you can't find even a mention of it let alone an explanation or how it isn't forbidden as it is in the Shulchan Aruch, in earlier sources. Only later when the minhag is falling by the wayside or is being abolished by the Czar do you find such explanations.

joshwaxman said...

interesting. my assumption was that the Zohar was being misinterpreted, but i didn't know about the prev minhag.

what is the assumed basis of this minhag? i've heard to throw off a non-Jewish rapist...

S. said...

There is no assumed basis. Every suggestion fails or comes without evidence. I'm actually helping a friend do research on it, so it's become something of a hobby of mine. Ken zeyn efsher the mystery will be solved or at least the suggestions will be conclusively debunked.

reddit said...

You should address this:

thanbo said...

Hasn't the Chemdas Yomim been demonstrated recently not to be Sabbatean? That only a few poems were from Nathan "of Gaza" (he was really Ashkenazi). Someone named Fogel wrote an article about it.

Joe in Australia: there was an exchange several years ago in a Lubavitch internal journal, I may still have a copy somewhere around, where people asked how much of Chabad was based on Chemdas Yomim, since it is known to have been popular among early Chasidic leaders. It was pretty clearly demonstrated that any minhogim that might have come from the Chemdas Yomim, are also attested in contemporary or earlier non-possibly-Sabbatean materials.

OIC, this article is from 2008, which I think was before Fogel's article.


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