Your talmudic advice column
Dear Rabbi Zahavy,
Despite what the rabbis say about the importance of the days, I’m not looking forward to the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur this year. In fact, I am at best indifferent to them. And specifically, thinking about all the hours I will have to sit in the synagogue makes me nervous. My synagogue’s seats are crammed together. I see many people there whom I do not know or like. I can hardly see the chazan and sometimes it’s hard to hear him. Also, I find the prayers confusing and hard to understand. Most of all I find my mind wandering away from the services, and I hardly pay attention at all, except to be sure to stand and sit at the right times. To tell you the truth I’m considering skipping the synagogue services altogether this year. Given all my issues with the praying, what do you suggest that I do?
No Patience for Prayer in Passaic
Dear No Patience,
It sounds clear to me that you are harboring a great deal of frustration with your holiday devotions. And it seems like you might be on the verge of needing to take a break from your synagogue, perhaps seeking out a new place of worship, or taking a vacation from some of the services.
But let’s say you give this ordeal (as you see it) another shot. How can you make it less frustrating and perhaps even fulfilling to sit in synagogue for hours on end and leaf through 1000-plus pages of prayers that nobody seems willing or able to explain to you?
In theory you came to the right address. But in practice I’m still not sure if I have a quick and neat solution for you.
You see, I’ve taught courses in liturgy, one specifically on the prayers of the High Holy Days. And I’ve written numerous books on the subject. And let me confess that my motivation for writing about and studying these topics stems from some of my own dissatisfactions with sitting through long services on our sacred days without always understanding the nuances of what we were praying. Over the centuries we have accreted an enormous and impressive body of prayers in our Machzors. And quite frankly, in my view we do try to do too much in our devotions on these special days.
We have here a situation that brings together a massive corpus of liturgy, a humanly limited range of patience and consciousness, and, above all, for most people, a great lack of training and teaching in the areas of prayer and liturgy.
I cannot devise a full plan to resolve all these major issues this column. But I can offer you some bits of advice. In the end I will boldly say that on the Days of Awe, few people in our shuls and temples can keep up with the quantity of the prayers or plumb the depths of their meaning. And yet our synagogues are filled with many who know full well that they want to affirm our belief that God is our King and King of the universe. And that if we engage in true repentance of sin, God will help us repent and will forgive our iniquities.
My first advice is to take some time to learn before the holidays. If you wish to be proactive and do some advance preparations in the study of the prayers, there are many excellent resources available to you. There are prayer books with commentaries that may address some of your questions and enrich your prayer experience. There are explanatory services available in many communities to help novices understand the liturgy.
When the holidays come you may want to try a different shul, if one is available in your community, or seek out more creative prayer groups.
Over the years I have experienced many different approaches to the high holy days liturgy, including formal services with highly trained operatic quality chazanim, yeshiva style davening, Israeli shuls of all sorts, small havurah groups, minyanim in dimly lit basements, and grand services in lofty cathedral-type sanctuaries. I found that each has its unique flavor, benefits, and drawbacks. You may be able to switch it up a bit and find something more to your liking.
I also certainly do understand that some women are frustrated in Orthodox shuls where the mechitzah (separation between men and women) is intrusive and visibility is limited. In some services women cannot see and may even have trouble hearing the service. That can affect the spiritual experience. If that is an issue for you, seek out a synagogue where the seating arrangement is more welcoming and comfortable. That is one way to avert some of your vexations.
If you are a High Holy Days only attendee and feel you do not know (or like) some of the people in the synagogue, perhaps you would consider attending more frequently, and participating in other activities of the synagogue community, to make friends and get to know people. Then when you join the High Holy Days services you will see more familiar faces and feel part of the communal experience.
I also urge you to ponder whether you may have developed general social issues, perhaps some form of agoraphobia, that make you uncomfortable in a crowded enclosed place. If you think that could be a factor, consult your physician or therapist for advice. Private prayer always is a valid option for those who cannot participate in communal observances. And some say that joining in one of the numerous remote online services can be a fulfilling way of celebrating the holidays. At the end of the day, it is best that you do the utmost to engage in your prayers and devotions with a full and sincere and whole heart, and not sit passively in your pew, seething with frustrations.
Dear Rabbi Zahavy,
I was backing out of my driveway and I hit a car that was parked on my street. But the fact is that the car was improperly parked by my neighbor, partially overlapping and blocking my driveway. The damage was not that bad, but I want to know that in this accident I was not at fault. Can you justify that to me with some of your talmudic advice?
Bumped up in Bergenfield
Dear Bumped up,
Well sure — torts — damage claims — are a big topic in the Talmud. One of the six divisions of the Mishnah and Talmud is the order of Nezikin — Damages. Many beginning Talmud students study the laws of who is liable if my ox gores your ox. And a modern equivalent of that is the issue of who is responsible if my car hits your car.
So, kindly remember that even though I don’t give legal advice or rulings in my column, I can give you some analysis of what is involved in your case. Obviously, you write because you want me to justify your side of the matter. Well, sorry, I cannot automatically do that, for obvious reasons.
In common sense and in tort law, the active party in a crash must be deemed the one who causes the tort, unless there is some evidence to the contrary. You were driving your car and the other party’s car was parked. Too bad for you. It seems at first blush that you are at fault.
But you claim and believe that your neighbor is the offending party. He obstructed your driveway. You could not have known that he was doing that when you went to back out, as you do all the time.
If blocking a driveway is a violation of local ordinances, and if perhaps your neighbor had already received a citation for that offense, then you may make a good argument that he is to blame and not you. I can’t guarantee though that you will prevail with that reasoning.
In the final analysis, when you go through life long enough, you are going to bump into someone else, and perhaps cause damage. It’s a natural reaction at first to try to justify that you are not to blame.
The most productive level of maturity that we can reach is when we admit honestly that we may be to blame for the torts that we are involved in.
But also consider that in the near future, if we are patient long enough, all cars will be outfitted with periphery detectors that will assist you in avoiding collisions. This technology that will help us avoid the tort to begin with, is already real (much of it developed with Israeli technology) and just waiting to be deployed more widely.
Bottom line: Since I was not a witness and I have no pictures of the actual accident scene, and I have no testimony from your neighbor or from police investigators, it would not be fair for me to give you the justification you desire.
My advice is that now you settle amicably with your neighbor and that in the future you take greater care in observing your surroundings whenever you drive.
I’d add from personal experience of a lifetime of driving that backing up your car in any circumstance is a dangerous action. It’s not talmudic, but I can say with confidence that our automobiles are meant to be driven forward! So please exercise the greatest care when you back out of any places.
And I’ll add one more observation. I’ve heard a few times this summer that local people are frustrated by thoughtless neighbors who block driveways or stop in the middle of a street to pick up or drop off their children or other passengers.
Please be courteous in all your driving and parking and respect the rights and rights-of-way of your neighbors.
Most of all, always drive safely and watch all your crossings.
Tzvee Zahavy has served as professor of Talmud, Jewish law codes, Jewish liturgy, Jewish history, Near Eastern and Jewish studies, and religious studies at major U.S. research universities and seminaries. He has published numerous articles and books about Judaism and Jewish texts. He received his Ph.D. from Brown University and his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University. Find more details at www.tzvee.com.