Can I Read About Coronavirus on Shabbat? - Episode 69

Rav Avi: Hi, and welcome to Responsa Radio, where you ask and we answer questions of Jewish law in modern times. I'm Rabbi Avi Killip, and I'm here with Rabbi Ethan Tucker, Rosh Yeshiva at Hadar, a center for higher Jewish learning based in New York City. Do you have a halakhic question you'd like answered on the show? You can email us at [email protected].

And we are not recording this episode in our usual way: usually we are sitting across from each other at a table actually in the same room, and I would say tonight is different for a lot of reasons. For starters, we are online, we are in a Zoom room. The exciting part of it is that we are recording this episode as a Responsa Radio Live, as part of Hadar's Halakhah Intensive, which is a week-long opportunity to study halakhah that this year is happening virtually. We are recording this episode mid-May of 2020, so we are in the midst of pandemic lockdown. I personally am in New York City, people are joining us from all over, but Rav Eitan, why don't you tell us a little about this Halakhah Intensive, how's it going?

Rav Eitan: Yeah. First of all I'll say it's great to see your face, Avi. I feel like I'm like in Responsa Radio fan mode -- most of the time now I talk to you a lot and hear your voice but don't actually get to see you, so nice to be if not across the table, across the screen. Yeah, it's been an amazing day and a half so far of the Halakhah Intensive. This is a program we launched in person a couple of years ago, and it's devoted to giving people a chance to kind of master a targeted area of halakhah. So we, like, pick a little piece of the Shulkhan Arukh and basically try to go through all the main ideas and texts from the earliest layers up to the latest, and tie it into contemporary situations.

It was obviously super fun and fantastic to do it in person, and we hope to do it again, but I will say that it's been amazing to have upwards of 70 people who have been involved in the intensive learning all day today, we're going all the way through Thursday, and we're taking on really interesting questions this year of trust and suspicion and doubt, things that in the Shulkhan Arukh really are about when you, like, eat in people's homes and stuff like that, but has a tremendous amount of resonance today -- like, do you trust really quarantined is really, you know, exposing or isolating themselves, and really rich questions about our interdependence on other people.

Rav Avi: Yeah, amazing. We have over a hundred people who are in this call now, live with us, and many of us are actually studying together as part of this broader week, which is really amazing. I think I said this last time we recorded during the Halakhah Intensive -- it's like a Responsa Radio with your dream come true, to spend a week at Hadar talking about halakhah. I want to start with a question that I've been thinking a lot about now. This question is maybe a little different than the questions we usually start with. I've been thinking about our tagline, right, where I say Responsa Radio, where we answer questions for Jewish law in modern times. And I've been thinking a lot about what do we mean when we say, you know, when we say halakhah for modern times, we're thinking about how we take this Jewish law that we've inherited and these customs, and we apply them to our lives right now. That's what makes Responsa Radio exciting.

And right now, we are about two months into a pandemic, maybe further in depending on where you are in the world, and our lives look very different. And that difference has yielded a lot of new and unique halakhic questions that are coming up for this moment, you know, we saw them when we hit Purim, and then we saw them when we hit Pesach, and now Shavuot is coming, and they seem to be in a more ongoing is-this-our-lives-now kind of situation. And I would love to hear your thoughts on what does it mean to give psak, to give halakhic ruling, in a time like this? Is it more important than ever, should we drop everything and devote all our time to creating halakhah for the pandemic? Or are there maybe some concerns, you know, is it dangerous to be giving halakhic rulings in a moment like this, that could be so unique and out of the ordinary? I would love to hear some of your thoughts on how you even think about recording a Responsa Radio episode at a time like this.

Rav Eitan: Yeah, what's gonna be the shelf life of this episode? It's something I've been thinking about a tremendous amount. And maybe I'll offer kind of an opening frame, which has been helpful for me, and then I think it might be useful to use a concrete example as sort of a window into how you might think about a question from different angles, and some of what I have some instincts on, but I'm also quite frankly struggling with a bit, and some of my students and colleagues, you know, can attest I've been talking to them about this stuff in recent weeks.

So, you know, I do think when you're in a crisis moment, you do have to kind of make a decision -- what do you think is the basic window of the moment you're in? How long is it gonna last, how fundamentally transformative is it, how different is the world gonna look on the other side as opposed to whether it's gonna snap back. And I keep coming back to two totally different models. There is a model which is very famous to anyone both familiar with Jewish history and sensitive to historical shifts, which is of course, churban habayit, right, the notion that the Temple gets destroyed, the deck is reshuffled, there used to be a sanhedrin in Jerusalem that would decide x, y, and z, and now we're in Yavneh in this or that place, and we have to write a different playbook.

Rav Avi: The ultimate pivot moment.

Rav Eitan: Yeah. That's right. And that's one model. You know, a different model is the moment described during the Hasmonean period, when bitul hatamid, when the daily continual offering that was supposed to go every morning and every night stopped for a little while, because there was sort of internal strife, and they couldn't actually figure out how to, you know, maintain what was going on. But then it came back later on.

Rav Avi: The language, for those of us in New York City, the governor's been using New York City on PAUSE, or maybe, you know, maybe it's the mayor. New York City on PAUSE. We can't accept or wrap our head around the idea that New York City could be off; it's just on pause.

Rav Eitan: That's right. I think that's really a great kind of metaphor and analogy here for this other model. What does it mean when you have something -- what I like about the notion of the, you know, bitul hatamid, is the tamid is not like something nice, right, that it would be lovely to have; it's actually fundamental, you cannot imagine the world functioning without it, but the idea of the tamid in a temporary sense, without churban habayit, is it is gonna come back, right? You're just not sure exactly how you're gonna do it and when. And therefore you don't rewrite the playbook, even if you learn some very deep things in the context of that crisis.

I am very much in the mindset when I'm taking questions, thinking about them and answering them, of bitul hatamid and not churban habayit. It doesn't mean I couldn't get to churban habayit, and I want to share some thoughts about that, but in that sense I do think we're responding to real, essential questions in the moment, but that I think we should be cautious about assuming we are rewriting the playbook. And a lot of times I think when people assume we should be rewriting the playbook, it's because they already wanted to rewrite the playbook on any number of questions before this moment of crisis.

Rav Avi: Right. Right. I think the way people have talked about that is there are things maybe we needed to do as a society and this moment allows us to make changes we already thought we needed to make, which is different than saying no, we actually were happy in the Temple, you know… I don't know, I'm not a historian of Second Temple history. But if we could, we would stay there, is different than you know, shacharit sounds great, let's switch to that.

Rav Eitan: That's right.

Rav Avi: So maybe you were gonna maybe give us a concrete example.

Rav Eitan: Yeah, I'll give an example to talk through other than, you know, someday I hope we'll be recording Responsa Radio without the sound of loud cars tearing down my street out the window. But what are you gonna do? We're doing something very authentic here. So, in any event, I'll give you an example, which is, let's take the example of a virtual minyan, okay? Let's talk about that. And this is less in the spirit of giving a definitive answer here -- putting my cards on the table, I'm not, you know, in general someone who tends in the direction of wanting us to go that way. But let's just do it as kind of a test. If you do a brief technical review of that question, okay -- so there's a mishnah, combined with a statement in the Talmud, that very clearly marks the physical boundary of a minyan as being a room. Like, if you step beyond the threshold, the lintel, right, the doorpost, you're in another space, and you cannot be counted, and that's the rule for tefilah. There's this other almost, like, flourish of a statement by Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi that says the Jewish people can never be separated from their heavenly parent, even by an iron wall. Which maybe suggests a more flexible approach to thinking about space.

But basically building out from those paradigms, you get some different possibilities, and there are some sources that then debate, are the rules for constituting a quorum of 10 for tefilah, for prayer, the same as the rules for constituting a quorum of 10 for zimun, for the more elaborate introduction to birkat hamazon, the grace after meals that invokes G-d's name. Because there's this interesting source in the Talmud that basically says if you've got five people if one room and five people in another room but at least some of them can see each other, then they add up to 10.

Rav Avi: I love that source. I love to think about that. I also think, you know, I love to, like, leave room, when you start think about halakhah, to be in a room where I can see people in both rooms and I feel like, oh, this is that source! But I would also say to me, you know, there's something -- birkat hamazon, it's so obviously a physical activity --we ate together, it feels, I don't know if the halakhah goes in that direction, but it feels intuitively to me like there's something inherently physical about a meal that maybe isn't the same as a minyan. I don't know.

Rav Eitan: So interestingly, it actually goes the other way, which is to say people feel that those cases are potentially different. Some of them see them as the same, and they'll say, well yeah, you can do that with a minyan too, right? As long as two groups can see each other -- and I'll come back to an amazing case of that in a minute -- as long as two groups can see each other, they can join together. That's the view of the Rashba.

The Rashbash, Rav Shlomo ben Shimon Duran, he says no no no no, the rules are totally different, the quorum of 10 needed for a meal, you're right there's something physical -- from his perspective it's a much lighter requirement. You're sort of, like, throwing in G-d's name to a zimun, as opposed to going from zero to 60, like I'm praying alone and now I'm, like, the Jewish people in microcosm, and he says that can only happen, right, in one space. So, okay. There's some debate there, and then what you get is this one source brought in the Shulkhan Arukh which is codified, which talks about how, let's say you have nine people in a shul, and you've got one person standing or appearing basically behind the synagogue in another building, even up like on the fifth story, but somehow they make their face visible to the nine people in the shul. The Shulkhan Arukh says --

Rav Avi: I just have to say --

Rav Eitan: -- you can count them!

Rav Avi: My terrace at my house overlooks the shul. So this feels totally plausible to me.

Rav Eitan: Perfect! So, if the people at your shul, there were nine of them and you were sitting there on the balcony and you were 10, according to the Shulkhan Arukh, as long as they can see your face, alright, that makes a minyan. Okay? Now, as you can imagine, okay, there's people who say ah, the Shulkhan Arukh said it, there's people who bring back the Rashbash and say he would have required people to be in the same room, he never would have tolerated this window nonsense. Right. Here's where it gets really interesting. The Chida, Rav Chaim Yosef David Azulai, one of the great itinerant, encyclopedic rabbis of the 18th century, who spends a lot of time, among other places, in Italy, reports a case of the lazaretto in what seems to be Venice. What is a lazaretto?

Rav Avi: I don't know!

Rav Eitan: You can Google it and see. It's an area set aside for quarantine. It was a thing that cities would set up little islands often, or isolated buildings near their ports, to take sailors when they came from abroad and quarantine them when there was a fear of basically either plague or cholera. Okay?

Rav Avi: Wow.

Rav Eitan: And they would lock them up there for 40 days, quarantine, until they felt it was safe to come back. And this was right, you know, the sources that talk about this are like, this is by order of the king, and the ministers -- it was a full government telling you, right, you're quarantined.

Rav Avi: Yeah.

Rav Eitan: So the Chida reports an incredible case, basically, of 10 Jews who get stuck in a lazaretto like this. They're quarantined there. And of course when you're quarantined, you're also broken into smaller subgroups, so you'll never guess, there are six of them in one building and four of them in another. And they want to have minyan. So the Chida in Machazik Bracha is engaging --

Rav Avi: How did they get the question --?

Rav Eitan: Yeah, I know, that's what I wonder too, okay? Was it afterwards, is it retrospective? It's a great question. In any event, what do they say? So there's four of them who basically can figure out how to press their faces up towards the door where they are quarantined so the six in the other building can see them, and then they want to know, can they say kaddish that way? Okay? So, the Chida says look, there is some controversy about that face at the window case, but there are poskim, the Rashba and the Shulkhan Arukh, who thought it was fine, and that's a case where at the end of the day, the guy could have come down and walked into shul. So kal v'chomer, all the moreso we can rely on that view where these people cannot, they are not allowed to come into the same room. So it must be enough to sort of count the four pressed faces at the door across the courtyard. Okay.

Rav Avi: I have to say, there is something so powerful to me. It's like, I can see it in my kishkes to hear a source like that that feels like it's speaking so directly to a moment, you know -- I was saying I overlook a shul, I live in a building where, you know, it's like there is more than a minyan of Jews in our building on a shabbat morning, and we're all davening in these apartments separated from each other. There is something that is just incredibly moving to hear a source, to see myself in a source that way, and especially to remember that, you know, if you had read me that source a year ago, I would have said, but this is an absurd case that is useless to me! It just reminds me not to disregard any text actually, because I don't know when they're gonna speak directly to my heart.

Rav Eitan: Right. Ein lecha makor she'ein lo sha'ah, there is no text that doesn't eventually get its moment to speak to the crisis. So, okay, that's an amazing text, and that seems like it has ramifications. Now, let me just completely tear it down for a minute here, right? That sounds like it's totally relevant to what we're talking about. And now I can easily say to you, and to be honest this is how I feel about it -- that's not analogous at all to a Zoom minyan! For two reasons. One, there is still some sense of I am seeing that person's actual face in three dimensions across the courtyard in a way that maybe I can't quite reach out and they can't walk to me, but I can sort of imagine us being in the same physical space, just kept at bay from one another. It's potentially very different from how you and I are interacting right now.

Rav Avi: Right, it's more like a socially distant minyan.

Rav Eitan: Yeah, that's right. And number two --

Rav Avi: So Joey Weisenberg wouldn't like it, but it might pass.

Rav Eitan: It wouldn't be good for singing, but singing is not good for COVID either, so it's probably good.

Rav Avi: That's true.

Rav Eitan: The second thing, perhaps more technical, but I think actually pretty significant: I'm not at all sure the Chida would have ruled this way, with 10 people in 10 different cells. That is to say, the fact that the case is about six and four actually feels --

Rav Avi: Interesting.

Rav Eitan: -- non-trivial to me. They have most of a minyan in one place, and they're trying to figure out how to fill out the rest. That's not necessarily the same as 10 isolated people coming together. Okay, fine. We could go this way, we could go that way. Here's the kicker that he then says at the end, and this is really in response to your question, how do we think in this moment? He says you should rely on the lenient case -- why -- on the lenient position that would allow you, at least in this case to join together -- shelo yitbatlu arbaim yom milomar kadish okedusha. So that they don't go forty days without saying kaddish and kedusha.

Now, that starts to introduce a whole other factor, and this I think is the challenge of psak in this moment. There is on the one hand the question, the real question, the question that mostly preoccupies me, which is is this really meeting the bar of what this observance is, this mitzvah is, this atmosphere is supposed to be? What is minyan about, what is presence about? And let's get to the bottom of that, and let's not be afraid, particularly in a moment of pause, to say yeah, maybe the tamid has been taken away from us, right? For the theologically inclined in this direction, maybe at a moment of plague is a moment where we are being dispersed by forces larger than us, and we're not gonna try to sort of, you know, get past that or fake that in any way. Okay.

The Chida's also reminding us, at a certain point you do have to answer the question, doesn't the G-d of Israel need to be worshipped by the Jewish people in collective form? Right? Is that not in a certain way a mitzvat aseh that requires some response? So just to go to a different place for a minute, just briefly even though we could talk an hour about this, I just finished up studying Masekhet Zevakhim with my ten-year-old, and we talked about a lot of stuff that happens there at the end, where at the end of the masekhet there's a lot of reflection on when were you and weren't you allowed to offer sacrifices on altars all over the country? Like, when did they all have to be in one place, like in Jerusalem, and when could you have, you know, a main altar in a place like Nov or Givon, but a bunch of other altars in other places?

Rav Avi: When, like when in history, or when like when during the year?

Rav Eitan: No, when in history, right? During what periods of time throughout Israelite history basically precisely to say it, was there, you know, an exclusive central shrine, and when not? So they come to conclude, you know, by the time it gets to Jerusalem, then it's entirely and irrevocably centralized. Like, there's no going back. Once the Temple gets built, there's no going back to scattered altars. That's all well and good, and one of the things I pushed him on was to say, that's fine when the Temple's standing, to say there now can be no more altars. What about after the Temple is destroyed, right? What does it mean to say after the Temple is destroyed, there's only one place in the world you can offer sacrifices, and that place is off-limits to you now?

Rav Avi: Is over. Yeah.

Rav Eitan: Right? You're not actually just in that sense offering a ruling about the exclusivity of the site of sacrifice in Jerusalem; you're making a ruling about sacrifice, right? And the fact that actually conventional rabbinic halakhah said even when the Temple is destroyed you cannot set up an altar anywhere else effectively was prepared to say korbanot, sacrifices, are gone. They're not a part of our religious life, we are prepared for them to disappear, even if it's temporarily, for 2000 years. So, I think going back to what you said, you know, right now I feel pretty clear that we're in a mode of pause, but I've been trying to think about what are the things that would be on pause for how long that you would start to feel like this is becoming a different religion.

Rav Avi: Right.

Rav Eitan: And if I don't want it to go in that direction, how do I respond?

Rav Avi: I'll tell you one of the things that really hit me that way, is that the fact of missing an entire Book of Vayikra in shul really struck me -- it's like, there are weeks that I don't make it to shul to hear the leyning, but the idea that, you know, there are ways that people say like, oh, it feels like it should still be March, because that was when I turned off my life. And so it must still be March. But I feel like it should still be Shemot. Like, the fact that we could have missed that entire book, that felt to me like it sort of pushed me in a direction of, like, that didn't feel like a pause. That felt like something significant was missed. I don't know, maybe it's the 40 days image of, you know, of something measurable.

Rav Eitan: Yeah, we just got a great chat, which I think is sociologically exactly right, which is that, you know, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur feel like they're a breaking point for some people in that way, right? What would it mean to go an entire cycle with not going to shul on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur? Now, you know, think for the more on some level religiously confident and adventurous among us, I don't want to say anyone's welcoming shul being shut on Rosh Hashanah Yom Kippur, but I think there's some of us on a spectrum that are like, well, let's see what that does! You know, or that's an opportunity. And for other people, that really feels like oh, now you're at churban habayit. Like, now I can't actually, I don't even understand what I'm doing anymore.

Rav Avi: Right. I have to say a word about the chat on the side -- maybe we'll keep this in, maybe we'll edit it out, is that we've recorded Responsa Radio live before, but we've never recorded a Responsa Radio live on Zoom, we've never actually had the ability to be in the mind of the listener at the same time, hearing what people are thinking and responding as we're talking. It's a really interesting experience, and I'll say I think it maybe speaks even to this question of there's just new things that you discover when you are forced to go into a new mode that you then might say hey, you know, Zoom is a great pull for Responsa Radio Live, we should be doing this all the time. Or maybe we'll say, that was a pause moment, let's go back to the way that we used to be sitting across from each other at the table.

Rav Eitan: Yeah.

Rav Avi: Yeah. Do you wanna say a final word on that, or shall we move to our next?

Rav Eitan: I think we can move on. I think this is unfolding -- I think the only last thing I'll say is, this felt very acute, and someone else chatted in about seeing images of, you know, proch minyanim in Israel, and for those of us with family and friends in Israel we know how they're easing back into certain aspects of life, you know, much quicker. That already has changed the factor, sort of the equation for me, in that the most intense thing was sort of this feeling of, oh my G-d, no one anywhere on the planet is reading the parsha this week. And once you're already beyond that, it doesn't make it less locally severe, but when you're thinking from a Jewish people perspective, it does affect my consciousness to know that there are some minyanim that are starting to happen where they're reading the parsha.

Rav Avi: Yeah. Yeah. I'd say the image of all the Torahs sitting closed, you know, it strikes me -- the other image that's really been sticking with me is, like, the summer camps that will be empty over summer, that it feels like fundamentally wrong, but also there is sort of a shemita image of, like, oh, what does it mean to leave things to lie fallow, like, that's not language we use a lot. So we don't have a lot of images of what that can be, there is something that feels that way about this moment of the whole world being on pause, including our ritual life, which has never happened.

And I think the striking thing, right, is that it's clear to us that we should respond differently in terms of halakhic questions based on whether this is churban habayit, this is the destruction of the Temple moment, or is it, you know, a temporary pause moment? And the answer is, we don't know which it is, and so we have to take both options and approaches into account as we answer questions. And that raises the stakes, and also that's where we are. I will use that to transition. I brought a question today that is a question that's been sitting in our pile since before coronavirus, so it was not sent in directly for this moment, although I'm gonna add an addendum that's relevant to this moment.

But I chose this question because I think it does speak to this moment, and something that many of us are going through. So, by way of introduction, I will share that we, we've talked about the idea of a Responsa Radio follow-up episode, where we would invite people to ask all the follow-up questions, all the kinds of things you're chatting in right now, from all the episodes you listened to, what has stuck with you that's still bothering you? This question was submitted, was introduced as a follow-up question that somebody listened to an episode on whether you can see your therapist on shabbat, and she submitted this question in follow-up from that episode. So I'll read her words, her question.

She writes: "A question came up recently about this stressful speech on shabbat. Right before shabbat a few weeks ago, a friend learned that a close relative was diagnosed with a serious illness. She was told that she shouldn't speak about it on shabbat, that in some senses there is an obligation to protect shabbat, and to protect the people keeping shabbat from hearing the painful news. This prohibition had never occurred to me before. I'm curious to hear your thoughts."

So that's the question that she wrote. And I want to do something that I don't usually do, which is to insert myself into this question by adding my own follow-up and building on this question in thinking about how we talk about the coronavirus on shabbat during this moment. And I'm gonna share an experience that I had -- I have a show-and-tell, since this is a visual, but don't worry, people on the podcast, I'll describe it to you. That -- which is the cover of the New York Times Magazine from this past Saturday morning, this past shabbat, May 17, 2020. And the image is an open casket with a person lying in the casket and a gloved hand touching his head, and the headline says "Overwhelmed by dead bodies, funeral homes are struggling to fulfill their mission to grieving family."

This past shabbat, I made kiddush and I sat down with my family to, you know, to eat some lunch, and I opened up the paper, and this image on the cover of this magazine was staring back at me. And I'm curious if you, if the halakhic literature has any guidance on how to handle a moment like that, both on shabbat in particular and maybe also more broadly. What do we do with all of the bad news, because there is so, so much of it right now?

Rav Eitan: Yeah. So it is really a follow-up. We've talked about some of this stuff in a bunch of earlier episodes. You know, there is of course -- let's start with the specific shabbat question and, you know, you didn't ask it this way, but is it appropriate for you to read that article, right, like, you know, should you pick that up, or should it be like --

Rav Avi: Put the paper away.

Rav Eitan: -- I'll read that later. There's some degree of individual discretion about that. We talked about that in an earlier episode with this very powerful story about Rabbi Akiva crying on shabbat and him sort of being chastised for that, or queried by students, colleagues, and him ultimately saying this is an oneg for me, and you know, in that earlier episode where we talked about seeing one's therapist, that became really important, which is the notion of, does something tough ultimately lead you to some kind of catharsis and sense of feeling better, or is it just a way of kind of going down a spiral of depression and feeding the worst, you know, our worst fears?

And, you know, yeah, shabbat is not a time to do activities that are going to take you to that horrible place, though for some people the processing and the sort of sense, you know, I find sometimes when I read the paper on shabbat, what I'm trying to do is kind of almost get a sense of finitude to what feels like, okay, I just want to know what's going on and quantify it in some way, and then I can carry it with me better as opposed to it gnawing at me. So that's a set of important questions. Rabbi Akiva as a potential model for sometimes there being productive grief, as it were, cathartic grief is one thing that's important. Interesting.

Rav Avi: I'll just add on that, that one thing I'm taking from that story right now in this moment is that Rabbi Akiva's the one who has to decide for himself whether crying on shabbat is good for him. There is a certain amount of personal agency in that story of this question of, you know, is it right for you to share bad news on shabbat, there is some element of do you need to talk about it right now, or will you actually be happier if you are free from talking about it right now? The idea of, well, there's halakhah and then there's people's lives. Rabbi Akiva's story reminds us that those are inexplicably linked.

Rav Eitan: Yeah.

Rav Avi: Inextricably linked.

Rav Eitan: Yeah -- also perhaps inexplicably. That's raised, really -- there's a wonderful piece that Matthew Anisfeld, who's currently studying in the kollel at Hadar, wrote about this and sort of oneg on shabbat in a difficult time. And he engages with the Rabbi Akiva piece, and some of the later poskim, including the Eliya Rabbah, who really say what you just said, that the, you know, the Eliya Rabbah really argues different people are different, right? And they've got different responses to these things. He doesn't quite use the language of they figure it out for themselves, but it's more like yeah, everyone's gotta recognize that different people are different on this, and it may not be the same answer. I think there's another dimension here which I find rather interesting.

We've already had a few people put in the chat, oh, this reminds me of Bruriah. So what are they talking about? It's a very famous story, it's in Midrash Mishlei, referred to in all kinds of places, where Rabbi Meir and Bruriah, who are married to each other, their children die on shabbat, and Bruriah knows but Rabbi Meir is off in the beit midrash and doesn't know. And when he comes home, he's like hey, where are the kids? And, you know, she says, gives an evasive answer of ah, they went to the beit midrash. He's like, no, I was at the beit midrash, they're not there. He's like okay, why don't you make havdalah? And so okay, then he goes and makes havdalah.

Rav Avi: Right.

Rav Eitan: And then, you know, he says, you know, basically where are the kids? She's like well, they went somewhere else. Here, have dinner. The dinner there is clearly sort of like the conclusion of havdalah, you see that in a number of early sources, they would sort of make havdalah, have wine, and then eat something and say birkat hamazon. And only after the end of all of that does she still in a cryptic way kind of reveal their death to him. Story's a little complicated in that it is read quite commonly as shielding him from bad news on shabbat, and I want to come back to that in a minute, though there is a way in which she is sort of evasive even once shabbat is over that suggests that maybe a dimension to the story that's about how do you break bad news, and also just her fear that without the proper contextualization, he would lose his mind.

But one of the things that is extracted from it is this notion of you don't tell people things on shabbat that basically they can't do anything about and that will just make the day worse for them. And summarized sort of very simply in a pithy way by the Magen Avraham, who quotes the Sefer Chasidim to this effect, shelo lesaper b'shabbat shum davar metzaer, right? You just, you don't talk about things that are aggravating on shabbat. So obviously that taken alone leads in a clear way to just on the question of, like, should you read that article to what seems to be a negative answer, right? Like, no.

Rav Avi: Right, put it aside. Right. The other thing I'll just say, I don't know if you were gonna say this, is the fact that she does tell him after shabbat, I think is also significant, is that this is not an invitation to hide from bad news. You know, as much as you're saying -- she's hiding from it as much as she can, and yet she still does what she needs to do and shares the bad news, is maybe a message of, you know, just because I encountered that article on shabbat, it's maybe not a get-out-of-jail-free card on being informed on all the hard things in the world, but it is an opportunity to say, you know what, you can give yourself a break. If you read that article it's gonna be crushing, and you can just go do a puzzle instead.

Rav Eitan: Yeah. And to sort of, I think actually even from a self-care perspective, in addition to, dare I say, a messianic perspective, the ways in which we need to give ourselves constructed spaces of hope, some of these embargos on certain kinds of emotional encounters on shabbat are genuinely meant to help us, right? Of course someone's in danger, you gotta go save them, of course that's something you can do. But when it's literally something you know there's nothing you can do, actually the gift of saying I'm going to pretend or I'm going to allow this other person to pretend that they live in a world for the next couple hours that's gonna come crashing down is real. And I think we should not lightly dismiss that as either polyannish or, you know, unrealistic, or inattentive to human needs in a different way. There's a deep sense in which it's saying the world is often terrible -- when you get little pockets of being able to appreciate it as good, as great, as not terrible, take them and certainly don't take them away from other people.

Alright. Now, I want to just complicate that, because I do think that text is perhaps over-applied. And there is an interesting counter-text which to me speaks a little more to what's happening when you're feeling like you need to read that article. It's a midrash that appears in a number of places -- Vayikra Rabbah, Eicha Rabba, the Yerushalmi -- and it's a story about Rabbi and Rabbi Yishmael bar Rabbi Yose, in another story Rabbi Chiya Ruba, it's sort of the great sages of the transitional generation, sort of the last tana'im before we get to the amoraim. And it describes them as hayu yoshvim v'oskim b'megilat kinot erev tisha b'av shecha lihyot b'shabbat im chashecha min hamincha ulemala. They spent shabbat afternoon on the eighth of Av, okay, so it is the day before Tisha B'av, but it is still shabbat, right? For those familiar with the halakhot for when this happens today, when you are on the shabbat afternoon before Tisha B'av, you are ma'aleh al shulchan chaf afilu k'seudah shlomo, you can have the biggest seudah shlisheet ever, there are no restrictions, and in fact no mourning in the way we generally practice today is supposed to come into that place. What are they doing all afternoon? They're reading Eicha and going through various sort of extrapolations and midrashim, innovative readings -- that's how they're spending all of shabbat afternoon.

Rav Avi: I have to say, when I experience shabbat that goes into Tisha B'av, I find it to be so stressful. I hate those shabbatot.

Rav Eitan: Yeah, say more. What's tough about it?

Rav Avi: I think that I can't separate the shabbat from the upcoming holiday, you know? It's like my brain can't actually pull totally out of Nine Days mode, you know, even the idea of having meat for dinner feels weird to me during the Nine Days of Av, even though I know that, you know, it's allowed technically, and especially when you know that your shabbat is going to end going into something hard and sad. It's hard for me to be really in an oneg shabbat place.

Rav Eitan: Right. So, they seem to have agreed with you, right, and I think the striking thing about this text, and some later poskim are kind of confused by it, they're not sure what to do, is that's not even the point of the text. If you go on and read the rest of the midrash, the rest of the midrash just says eh, Rabbi, when he was walking home, he hurt his finger and he said ah, this is what happens, and, you know, we were dealing with all the terrible things that happened to the Jewish people, but no one questions for a minute that they spent shabbat afternoon reading Megilat Eicha, which was totally depressing.

And what I want to suggest to you is, I think there's a big difference between the Rabbi Meir/Bruriah story and the Rabbi/Rabbi Yishmael bar Rabbi Yose story. Because in the Bruriah/Rabbi Meir story, as intense as it may be, how did she hold of telling him that, you know, the kids had died, what she was confronting was a situation where Rabbi Meir was basically having a fantastic shabbat. He was off at the beit midrash, he was experiencing that me'en olam habah, and her decision, intervention or lack thereof, was basically I'm not gonna take that away from him, or it's inappropriate or, you know, it's forbidden for me to take that away. Rabbi and Rabbi Yishmael bar Rabbi Yose are sitting like you describe it -- it's the eighth of Av! They are surrounded by the whole mood of this thing. The notion that on the eighth of Av when you are already depressed, it is forbidden to talk about, to learn difficult things, basically is a different ballgame.

And that, I think, is potentially a much more useful analogue to where a lot of people feel we are right now, which is, well, I'm surrounded by this stuff. If I don't read the New York Times Magazine, it's not like I'm gonna just be fine; some people may have the ability to do that, but it strikes me as legitimate, and again, maybe it's self-legitimating as someone who reads plenty of COVID articles on shabbat, I feel like, well, that's where my head is. What I'm actually trying to do is to process it, make meaning of it, think what my next step is, but I'm not gonna escape it. And that's where I think this midrash is a sort of potentially important antidote to that other also important aggadic string.

Rav Avi: Interestingly, I didn't read the article on shabbat, actually. I want to thank you for the second text, because I find it really helpful to think about Eicha as a parallel to these articles, because I think I find them both equally devastating, you know, that experience of reading something and just feeling devastated, and so I sort of want to end with asking the following question, which is, one of the things that we have done as a tradition is to say we should read Eicha and it has to be an extremely ritualized moment. We have to sit on the floor, we have to use a different trope than we usually use, we have to ease ourselves into it, and then we have to ease ourselves out of it over the course of the next day. I'm curious if you have thoughts on ritual for this moment. I see in the chat we've had a number of questions of, you know, should I have tefilat haderech when I leave my home, is there a bracha for putting on my mask? That people are thinking a lot about ritual for this moment. I want to ask in particular about the idea of ritual for this encountering of articles that feel like reading Eicha.

Rav Eitan: Yeah. Well, I'd like to hear -- I feel like you have more of the ritual genius chip than I do on this, so I want to hear some of how you've been doing it or how you might recommend. You know, this is a follow-up also, we had that earlier episode much earlier on, fascinating question of someone saying they worked, I think it was, like, in a criminal forensics office or a coroner's office or something like that, and they often had to look at pictures of, you know, mutilated bodies and, you know, dead people.

Rav Avi: Crime scenes.

Rav Eitan: Right, crime scenes, in very graphic ways. And they were looking for a ritual, and you know, we threw out some ideas, the ideas of saying baruch dayan haemet, you know, and potentially even its full form with shem and malchut, with G-d's name to indicate sort of, I've actually just received some horrible news. And I do think the bracha of dayan haemet which we, you know, so intensely associate with oh, someone died, I now said it, but really at its root, saying it when someone dies is just the sort of most intense version of what that bracha is about, which is you get shemuot raot, like, you get bad, terrible news. And you're trying to fit it into some framework.

Putting aside what's for really another discussion of how theologically helpful do people find that formulation of dayan haemet, as a ritual response it's saying you know what? Bad news is real, and this is really going to affect you. And actually you should respond to that as a Jew. And that is something I think I can imagine someone saying, is look, I'm gonna try to have some periodic, ritualized response to this flood of news, and connect it back to my larger religious frame and commitments. Have you found that anything's been helpful or meaningful for you in that regard?

Rav Avi: I can't say that I have, that there's any particular practice that I've taken on -- that one is very moving to me as an idea, I think especially because it's -- getting back to our earlier discussion -- you have a loss of kaddish, we feel like kaddish is a way of acknowledging and marking the lives who have been lost, that saying that phrase, and I think if you are a person who doesn't say it normally because you object to it for some other reason, then it probably would hold less meaning now. But if your way of responding when you hear of a death of a person you care deeply about is to say baruch dayan emet, then to be able to transfer that to reading an article like this or for me, to be able to see an image like that, I was very affected by the image on the cover of the magazine, of the body in an article about bodies that, you know, with asking the question about kavod, to be able to say the same phrase that I would say if somebody I know died is a way of really giving kavod to the idea that these are not statistics; these are actual human beings that we're reading about, and marking that, you know, in a way that it's familiar to me.

Alright. I want to give us a chance to respond, maybe, to some of the questions in the chat in our last few minutes here. So I think that what I will do is give you, Rav Eitan, a chance to scroll through and maybe take a question or two and call on someone and we'll invite you to share your question out loud, and I will invite whoever we call on to say the question in the briefest possible format so we can get to as many questions as possible.

Rav Eitan: Yeah, great. Well, one here I think is nice: Josh Einis, maybe if you're there, you want to share? It's a little bit on the theme of what we've been doing in the intensive.

Josh: People are just trying to simplify things right now, and I find myself swimming in the hechsher world, just trying to simplify. And I grew up just going by what ingredients were in food as being kosher, and I'd love to know if we could just adopt that, just for the sake of people's sanities, and if this current time has anything to, any additional angle.

Rav Eitan: Great. Yeah. Thanks for asking. It's a great interaction with what we actually did today, literally, in the Halakhah Intensive. So some of the participants might be able to weigh in on it also. You know, the history of hechshers is kind of fascinating in that way. I think a lot of people think, oh, this is a product of, you know, the 20th century, right, that we have these sort of little labels. And it is true that if you go back to the Talmud and early sources, you basically see fundamental discussions about are individuals trustworthy, what can we deduce from their behavior, but actually it is already in the 1600s that you start seeing discussion about hechshers.

So you have the Taz, Rav David haLevi, who is commenting on the Shulkhan Arukh, who notes, he says yeah, the Shulkhan Arukh seems to say you can buy from anyone who's a Jew, you know, who you don't think is a serial liar or, you know, actually, you know, has contempt for kashrut, but I don't know if the generations now are as solid as the generations earlier on, says the Taz. And then the Beit Hillel comes along, Rav Hillel ben Naftali Hertz, and he quotes actually what seems to have been an edict of the Council of the Four Lands, the Va'ad Arba Aratzot, great street in Tel Aviv if you've ever been there, who talks about an edict that was put out by the Council of the Four Lands that no one should buy any meat or basically any animal product from any Jew unless it was accompanied by a letter of a rabbi who certified it. So that's basically a hechsher, right, right there. And it's in response to a concern that the forces of modernity are starting to destabilize what assumptions we can or can't have about other people.

So I think Josh, in answer to your question, my answer would be look, hechshers obviously have become a real business and they have all kinds of politics and all of that, and there may be any number of reasons that this or that hechsher is or isn't problematic. There may be any number of reasons why a certain product definitely does not need it, you know, like water, but many things beyond that, you know, all kinds of frozen vegetables and other things of that sort. But really what it comes down to is sort of two core issues: one is, how much are we a community with unified standards that allow you to yeah, take to the bank on some level what someone means when they talk about kashrut. I think for many of us that doesn't always feel like it's, you know, totally solid.

And then there's a question of our food industry and the ways in which we're deeply alienated and disconnected from what's in our food and the notion that there would be a sort of Jewish organizational counter-response to that makes sense to me. That said, yeah, this is not the place I think where we can play it all out. There's plenty of context where you can get that information from elsewhere, whether it's from the government or other oversight industries, or you may have good reason to think, yeah, the people who are giving me this information are totally reliable, and I have no reason to think otherwise.

Rav Avi: I'm gonna add a follow-up here, which is, I think there is a feeling of, it's like, you know, I keep using the phrase "the apocalypse." It's like oh, in the apocalypse, could I eat non-hechshered food? And then, is this the apocalypse, and how do I know if it's the apocalypse? That I feel like we've had now a number of times where we're trying to order food to be delivered instead of purchasing it, and you know, the taco shells that we ordered were replaced with non-hechshered taco shells, and then we're having a conversation about whether or not the hechsher on the taco shells matters, to forego tacos, but how important are the tacos, but how important is it to not go out -- you know, I'm wondering if there's an answer to this moment also.

Rav Eitan: Yeah. So what I think you're hearing is, I don't think there's a blanket answer, right? That is to say, if it was, like, why do we have hechshers at all, and this was just pushing us to recognize that there was no reason to have them, fine. That would be one thing. But because I think, yeah, there is a solid need in many contexts, right -- again, what I quoted form the Va'ad Arba Aratzot was a notion of, like, meat, animal products, right, that these things, you can't just -- in this sense, the baseline is much more lenient than I think most people realize, which is that, right, on some level they're Jews, you ask them for some meat, they give you meat -- from a lot of the core Talmudic and medieval sources it seems like that's it, right? You're done.

So the sort of nervousness that I think pretty much almost anyone who cares about this stuff would agree on, which is that there are products we're nervous have actually been sort of subbed out. That feels to me to be more real. Then you can talk about tacos, this product, that product, where you might say, actually here it feels very clear that I don't have a good reason to be concerned. So I would say the more processed, right, the more reason you should be concerned, and read any book like Kitchen Confidential or other things like that, there can be good reasons. But that doesn't mean there aren't products you look at and there's either just no concern that you have of what's in there, or the thing you're worried about being in there, you know, we've talked about this in the past, would be noten tam lifgam, would damage the flavor. It's like, it would be a, not just an unintentional mix-in; it would be undesirable.

Rav Avi: It shouldn't be there.

Rav Eitan: Exactly. So there are places to be lenient -- happy if people want to reach out on, you know, specific cases and questions.

Rav Avi: Yeah. Great. I want to honor the fact that we would end at 8:30. I also want to thank everyone for spending the hour with us. I'll say again, it's so uplifting and so meaningful to see everyone's faces, and especially sort of exciting to see you all participating as part of an activity that we usually do just the two of us. So it's so great to have company in recording Responsa Radio. Rav Eitan, you wanna say any last things?

Rav Eitan: Just to echo all that gratitude. You wanna take us out, Avi, with our signature ending?

Rav Avi: I'm gonna close out. Responsa Radio is a project of the Hadar Institute and Jewish Public Media. Thanks to Mordy Labaton for producing this Zoom podcast, and to Noa Gendler for editing this episode.