DAY 1377: Cultural Shpilkes

April 7, 2016
By bethmordecai
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DAY 1377: Cultural Shpilkes

Dear Hevreh,

A couple of weeks ago I was speaking with Robert Klein and Henry Safran, two alumni of Beth Mordecai. They were sharing a story about going back to Robert’s family home during the Yom Kippur break to talk, schmooze, and relax. Then, as they were thinking about it more they said, “actually, I don’t think this happened during the break [of Yom Kippur]. I think it happened during the service.”

This little tidbit of Perth Amboy’s Jewish history should not sound surprising. One of the hallmarks of our culture is that while we love our tradition, there is only so much of it we can take. Take for instance this one-page-two-minute version of the haggadah shared by some members of the congregation. It is quintessentially Jewish to turn an event that, according to the Haggadah, should go through the night into something we can do standing around for the chicken soup to get hot. Call it cultural shpilkes, our love of Jewish rituals through which we can’t sit still.

It shouldn’t be surprising then that the rabbis internalize some of this shpilkes in Jewish law. For instance, in Orah Hayyim 52:1 they outline the minimum number of psalms and prayers (4) of the early portion of the service (usually 15-20) you should say if you (i.e. everyone!) show(s) up late to synagogue. Here at Beth Mordecai we use this outline as the rubric to keep our davening halakhically viable while (trying to) making sure we end our Saturday morning services within a two hour time limit.

What’s more, we use another rabbinic principle to cut prayers during long simhah celebrations (like this past Saturday morning). This principle is called tirhah d’tzibur, or “burdening the congregation” in which the rabbis are concerned about overburdening fellow Jews as they try to perform mitzvot. If there is a choice between doing too much, or too little, another rabbinic tradition teaches us tafasta m’rubah lo tafasta, “if you try to catch too much, you won’t catch anything.”

This isn’t to say that the rabbis would look happily upon honoring Yom Kippur by hanging out at home or doing the seder in less than 60 seconds, but it is to say that at the heart of Jewish teachings and practice is a desire to be practical. When you’re dealing with a people that has cultural shpilkes for a whole host of reasons (history, persecution, tzuris, indigestion, etc.), we must be pragmatic in finding ways to make tradition work so that it will be viable for future generations. Perhaps one day our cultural shpilkes won’t be so pronounced and we’ll be able to go deeper into the waters of Torah and our tradition. But until then, let’s at least get our feet wet before realizing it’s too cold to swim.

Kol Tuv,

Rabbi Ari Saks


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