Tag Archives: Talmud Torah

Blessing our Countings: Should ritual be ritualized?

QUESTION

Miss Weasley is a 12 year old Jewish prophetess living in Stoatown MA.  Her bat mitzvah was on the last day of Pesach.

That night, she counted the Omer for the first time, saying “Tonight is 8 days, which are 1.142857 (repeating infinitely) weeks of the Omer.”

The next afternoon she crosses the international dateline going westward, so that evening she counts again (to be safe, she counts both 9 and 10, this time actually mentioning the days), and does so for the next 4 days.

On day 13 (14), she crosses back at night and forgets to count until the following morning.

The next evening (day 14 for her acc. to everyone), she goes to shul and davens maariv and counts before tzeit hakokhavim.  She has intent to fulfill her obligation if and only if she remembers to count that evening – and she forgets.

On day 20, she hears a Heavenly voice say that she will be asleep for at least one 25 hour period before Shavuot, and that very afternoon she is diagnosed with a condition that requires surgery under general anesthesia the next day, and the doctors confirms that owing to the pain she will likely not be fully conscious for at least a day.

Should/may Miss Weasley make the berakahah before counting that night?  On the nights after she emerges from anesthesia?

 

On Erev Pesach I suggested that rishon-shitah-maximization, the art of constructing one’s religious life so that it fits with as many halakhic positions as possible, should not be the primary metric of behavioral religious success.  Thus I objected to the position that one is required to, or even should, fulfill the mitzvah of eating matzah on the seder night by swallowing two large kezayits after having carefully chewed them in distinct mouth quadrants.  I pointed out that the result was unaesthetic, unpleasant, and likely dangerous, and each of those descriptions also carries significant halakhic weight.

It is also clear, as Professor Chaim Saiman has argued forcefully, that the result creates an enormous gap between the conventional and ritual acts of eating – no one would consider eating matzah that way absent the particular confluence of halakhic positions (of course, some of us wouldn’t consider eating matzah at all absent the mitzvah, but I don’t think that is relevant here).

The challenge for me is that I very much enjoy similar ritualizations of the act of counting.  For example, I happily adopt the position that if one is in shul before starsout, one should listen to the chazan’s berakhah and then count oneself with the mental or verbal stipulation that one intends this counting to fulfill one’s obligation if and only if one does not remember to count again after starsout, thereby preserving the capacity to make the berakhah when counting after starsout.

Is there a difference, other than personal aesthetics and the risk of choking, between the two cases?

I want to make a very tentative suggestion.

It is very important for ritual to relate to life – I do not think it would be positive for us to adopt the position that the phonemic relationship between mitzvah-akhilah and non-mitzvah-akhilah is sheer coincidence, as per Rambam’s negative theology.

But it is also important for ritual to relate to Talmud Torah, to the experience of learning Torah as the ritual actor has experienced it.  As Rav Lichtenstein memorably argues, action is necessary (only) because it diminishes the worth of one’s learning if, given the opportunity, one fails to give it a practical outlet

There is a chicken-and-egg question here – for those who never enjoyed thinking scenarios such as Miss Weasley’s, and always felt that the proliferating uncertainties I tried to create in her case should simply be paskened away, imitations of learning and of the natural world may well yield the same result.   Perhaps that would be best, but I am not yet convinced.

That leaves many of us with the question of when and how it is better for ritual to hew closer to life, and when to learning.  I welcome your suggestions.  Bonus points to the person who identifies the most issues in Miss Weasley’s case, and nonetheless gives a clear halakhic answer.

Shabbat shalom

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