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Dear Rabbi

Tzvee Zahavy of Teaneck has worked as professor of Jewish studies, religious studies, advanced Talmud, halacha, Jewish law codes, and Jewish liturgy, at major U.S. research universities and seminaries. He has published numerous articles and books about Judaism and Jewish life. He received his Ph.D. from Brown University and his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University. Go to www.tzvee.com for details.

Dear Rabbi,

A liturgical conflict has bothered me for years. How is it possible to say Hallel and Yizkor in the same service? I note that except on Yom Kippur, every time we say Hallel, shortly afterward we say Yizkor. I do not understand how the organizers of our prayer expected us to be capable of a rapid mood swing, from the joyous praise of Hallel to the sad remembrance of Yizkor. I find it impossible to go from one extreme of emotion to another on demand in public in a single service. I’m not able to engage in bipolar liturgy. Am I right about this?

Tranquil in Teaneck

Dear Tranquil,

You are right to take our prayer services seriously. Those of us who attend during the holidays invest a lot of our time in shuls. We ought to be rewarded with meaningful, logical, and aesthetically pleasing recitations, chants, and sermons.

You put your finger on the pulse of an important issue. I did a quick survey of our local rabbinic speeches this past Passover and found that just this year the rabbis in several local synagogues made efforts to explain the propriety and consistency of reciting Hallel and Yizkor in the Yom Tov morning services on the last day of Passover. Although their justifications were learned and informative, they likely would not change the feeling of dissonance that you have regarding this issue.

I remind you that our prayers often take us in a single service through many dramatic visualizations that ought to move a thoughtful supplicant’s moods from petition to awe to thanksgiving, or from humble compassion to haughty triumph.

That said, I agree that the incongruence that you raise between Hallel and Yizkor is basic and troubling to me too. The “El Male Rahamim” for a departed relative that we say at Yizkor also is said at funerals. So here is some of my thinking about this discordant matter. This review may not resolve the problem for you, but it might make you feel better about the supplication oscillation that you detect.

The solemn Yizkor remembrances for our deceased martyrs and close personal relatives were recited at first in the middle ages and only on Yom Kippur. That seems right and proper, because of the solemnity of the Day of Judgment, when God examines our lives and decides the eternal rewards for our souls and the souls of our departed relatives. Yom Kippur is not a holiday of joyous thanks. Solemnity dominates the day. Because of that, our synagogues are full on Yom Kippur and they are especially packed with worshippers at the time of Yizkor.

Some local synagogues in Bergen County have published special internal booklets for Yizkor. And the national movement of Reform Judaism is in the process of further recognizing the popularity of Yizkor with innovative and resourceful plans for a new Machzor for the service.

So then how did Yizkor get beyond Yom Kippur and into the festival prayer book? I have at times imagined fancifully that at some occasion in medieval Europe the leading rabbis gathered to discuss a pressing issue. It seemed that by the time the last day of Passover and Sukkot came around, synagogue worshippers suffered from shul fatigue. Attendance was sparse.

After much discussion at my imagined synagogue synod, a suggestion was put on the table. A clever rabbi argued that if we instituted Yizkor for the last day of the holiday, we could draw even the most fatigued people into the shul. Other rabbis may have objected that it would compromise the festivity of the holiday to add this serious section to the liturgy. But the proposal carried the day, and the controversial addition was made to the services. And once you augmented prayers for Pesach and Sukkot, then, for consistency, the services on Shavuot had to be modified as well.

Indeed this means that we sacrifice the thematic congruence of our davening for the sake of filling the pews.

Now due to the professed intent of this column, I need to swing back talmudically to argue the other side of this issue. It appears to me that most worshippers do not detect or are not troubled by the Yizkor-propriety issue that you and I and others see. For many people, Yizkor, without any reservations or questions, is warmly welcomed as a mightily meaningful part of the services, on all of the four occasions that we say it in our temples, synagogues, and shuls.

Dear Rabbi,

I attend a Yeshiva high school where I must follow a strict dress code and wear a skirt that goes below my knees and long-sleeved dresses or blouses.

The teachers and administrators at the school defend this requirement as part of “tznius,” meaning the religious requirement to dress modestly. I don’t approve of these rules. I like to dress as I see fit and to follow fashions and not be told what to wear.

At times all of this makes me feel miserable. Please don’t tell me that I need to transfer to another school. My parents won’t allow that. And so, what should I do?

Fashionable in Fair Lawn


Dear Fashionable,

I empathize with you and I will try to explain to you what I see as the principles behind tznius practices. But I fear that for now knowing that, it may make matters more difficult for you.

Here is how I see the basics. The idea that a girl or woman must dress in a certain modest way rests on a binary assumption, namely that you can be either modest or immodest, and modest is better.

Unfortunately, the belief that modesty is better is not based on some neutral economic notion, such as that a girl should give her money to charity rather than spend it on expensive clothing. It is based on the idea that exposing to view some parts of a woman’s body is always a sexual action that must be avoided.

You may say that this assertion that it is a sexual action to go out in public with a bare arm or a leg bare above the knee seems arbitrary, and that this may be confusing to you. You may see other people in the communities around you who assume that sexual situations are determined not by simple measures of skirt length but by many other intricate aspects of personal and social situations and interactions. And if that is how you see things, then I believe you are right in your perceptions of the complexity of human relations and sexuality.

So no, I do not suggest that you must transfer to another school to resolve your dress code dilemma. For now it is good if you can accept the practices, and without public protest or announcement, you can reject for yourself the shallow premises on which they are based.

After high school you may go off to live and act according to your own more individual, complete, and intricate understanding of human relations. You then will be freer to express your own preferences for fashions and styles without instantly mistaking one’s manner of dress as a manifestation of a person’s sexuality.

I do hope that you find helpful this brief talmudic analysis and advice for the day-to-day reality of our contradictory world, where one person’s modesty may be another person’s misery.

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