From Wimbledon Kehillah, February 2016

As we enter February, we are coming also into the Jewish month of Adar, or rather, the first of two months of Adar, Adar Aleph.  We have two Adars (Aleph and Bet) this year because of an usual peculiarity of the calendar.  Jewish time runs according to the lunar cycle, not the solar one.  Since the cycle of the moon is 29 or 30 days (really about 29.5), the Jewish months are shorter than they would need to be to keep the holidays in the same season every year.  If one looses a few days each month, Rosh Hashanah would migrate around the calendar and we would end up with Hannukah in the summer.

One of the oddities about Judaism is how we determine the calendar.  According to the old practice the first day of the month fell when the new moon was first visible in the night sky.  Sometimes however, the night sky was cloudy, and according to Jewish law, one had to actually see the new moon.  Whenever the new moon seen, whoever saw it first then reported to a rabbinical court in ancient Jerusalem, who would in turn make an announcement that the new month was beginning.  The problem was, one actually had to see the moon and then tell the court, so a month could end up being 29 or 30 days depending on the weather, how trustworthy the moon-spotter was felt to be (they could be making it up after all), and how quickly the bureaucracy went.

What is striking about this process is that it is the humans who determine the months.  It is not the moon in the sky, but actually the declaration of the rabbinic court in Jerusalem that starts the month.

There is an old joke to this effect:

There once was a man who had no clocks in his house.  One day, a friend came over and asked how he knew what time it was.  The man picked up a shofar, leaned out the window, and blew it.  A few seconds later, he heard a neighbour yell, “what are you, crazy, it’s 11pm and I’m trying to sleep!”

It is not until the neighbour yells out that the man actually knows the time.  It is similar in the case of the lunar months, it was not until the rabbinic court declared them that anyone knew they actually started.  The lunar months are interesting and they leave us with a bit of a mathematical problem, the one I referred to back in the first paragraph.  The months are too short and the holidays migrate around.

To compensate for the lunar year being about 11 days shorter than the solar year, we periodically add an extra month, an extra Adar.  The extra month accounts for the missing days from using a moon based rather than a season based calendar, and keeps Rosh Hashanah in the early fall and Hanukah in the winter (unless one is in the southern hemisphere!).  In this process, not only do we humans determine time, but we can adjust the whole calendar of the year in order to add more time when we need it.  In a world of increasingly busy and more subdivided schedules, it is incumbent upon us to make the time we need for ourselves.  If there is a lesson from Adar Aleph and Adar Bet and the leap-month system, it is that we create our schedules and thus, we can adjust them as necessary.


From Wimbledon Kehillah, January 2016

One of the unique creatures in the Jewish bestiary is the Shamir Worm.  It is a rather obscure organism that requires some explanation.  The worm is mentioned several times, most notably in a compilation known as Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers.  Within Pirkei Avot is a list of the various items that God created on the 6th day in Genesis, right before the onset of the Sabbath.  Each thing on the list has a great purpose and is outside of the normal fabric of creation such as: the mouth of Balaam’s talking donkey or the manna that fed the Israelites in the desert.

The Shamir is quite an important little creature, apparently the size of a barley corn, that could cut stone by glancing at it.  Why is it so important?  When king David wanted to build the first Jerusalem Temple, he was denied the right to do so as God considered him too warlike of a figure.  He was known for his aptitude with iron weapons in particular.  The Temple was supposed to be a place of peace, and the job of overseeing the construction fell to David’s son Solomon.

As the Temple was supposed to be peaceful, God apparently considered it inappropriate that iron tools should be used to cut the stones for its construction.  Iron was precious and tools were often repurposed as weapons or vice-versa (thus the phrase “beat their swords into plowshares”).  Using metal to cut the stone would have been a symbolic act of aggression against it during the crafting process.  Enter the Shamir Worm.  It was a useful little guy (or girl, although as there was only one it may not have had a gender at all even though the Hebrew language assigns it one).  One would show it the large block of stone one wished to cut and it would glare at the stone, thus cutting it.  Perhaps it had laser eyes?

In this way, the Temple could be constructed without needing iron tools for cutting the stone and the aggressive potential they represented.  

The building or refurbishment of Jewish ritual spaces is always a matter of debate, and sometimes conflict.  We are at a delicate moment as a community.  There has been a great deal of discussion around the refurbishment of the synagogue.  Such a process mandates compromise.  I personally would have liked a retractable floor over an indoor swimming pool in the main hall for water aerobics and aqua-tefillah.  Apparently this would have created difficulty with the under-floor heating and so I withdrew my request.  Neither did my biblical petting zoo make it past the first stage, nor even my brilliantly conceived Wimshul rooftop mini-golf course.  The space required is currently allocated to our excellent solar-panels that offset our carbon-footprint.  I refer you to the new monitor in the entranceway if you have not seen it, which gives information about them.

We are fortunate to have the ability to recreate our prayer and educational spaces, as well as the rooms in which we celebrate simchas and mark rites of passage.  In deference to the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem (and in recognition of the imperfect world in which we live), it is customary to leave a small portion of synagogues unfinished.  This is often done by allowing a section of wall to remain unpainted, or leaving some brickwork bare.

In doing so, we hearken back to the lessons learned from the two Jerusalem Temples (both positive and negative).  At this moment, it is worth remembering the story of the Shamir Worm.  It allowed Solomon’s Temple to be built in a spirit of peace and optimism.  We strive to build our new communal home the same way.

The world’s most expensive lemon: the economics of an etrog

Sukkot (ie the Festival of Booths) is coming up and the mad rush for a set of seemingly arbitrary plant cuttings and citrons begins.

Down the street from where Noemie and I live, the sidewalk has become a strange parody of an open market, but only selling four items.  After perusing up and down Pico boulevard and checking with each of the young men (ranging from 8 years old to about 18), I decided to purchase a set of  the “four species” (palm, myrtle, willow, and citron/etrog) from young men raising money for their school.  They are pictured above.  Selling the four species on the street is often a way young men and boys make a few extra dollars or raise money for charity.

As I walked back towards home, an older Vietnam veteran who makes his home on Pico boulevard called out to me.  Usually his request is for money, but today it was “HEY, WHATS THAT LEMON THING?  EVERYONE IS GOING CRAZY FOR THOSE THINGS, WHAT IS IT?”

I explained about Sukkot, the Booth Festival, but then had to explain about why we had these four odd species of plant.  “The festival of booths, from the bible,” I began, “includes a ritual where we waive these species around as a form of prayer.”  He seemed satisfied by my explanation, but I did not explain the economics of why the citron (etrog) is so expensive.  So expensive in fact, that if you buy one you get the other three species for free.  This year they started around $30 and can go up to hundreds of dollars.

While the other three species are easy to find at any florist, the citron has special requirements.  The Torah states that one must “take for yourself the fruit of a beautiful trees” for the Sukkot.  Archaeological references directly linking the fruit mentioned to the citron/etrog in Jewish practice go back at least as far as the Second Temple period (ending in 70 CE).  It was widely cultivated in the area around what is now the State of Israel.

Why is it so expensive?  The fruit has to come from a citron tree with a proper pedigree.  Citrons/etrogs are hard to grow and it is must easier to graft a citron tree to a lemon tree.  Unfortunately, grafting an etrog tree makes the fruit invalid for use in the Sukkot ritual.  Not only must the tree not be grafted, but it cannot be grown from the seeds of a tree that has been grafted.  This requirement goes back to the tree’s grand parents, great grand parents, etc, ad infinitum.  As with all things in the kosher world, an etrog with a proper pedigree (in a sealed box) gets a hefty markup.

Etrogs from Israel are often more desirable than those from North Africa (or more recently, California).  That’s right, etrogs are now grown in California, and the farmers are surprisingly not Jewish:

However, etrogs from Israel must be grown on farms that respect the Sabbatical year (allowing the land to be fallow every seventh year) in order to be acceptable.  Israeli farms do not sit empty every seventh year, but are ritually sold to non-Jewish “owners.”  This practice of course, means that there is another markup on the fruit to ensure that the correct rabbinic supervisory body has overseen the sale.  This is our etrog for 2015, purchased earlier today:

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Notice the sticker that certifies rabbinic supervision (and held the box closed to prevent tampering).  It states the etrog is deemed fit for use by Rabbi Mordechai Gross, Shlita.  Shlita by the way, is an honorific for a rabbi meaning: Sh’yechiei l’orech yomim tovim amen (may he have long and good days/a long good life).  The tendency to use charedi (ultra-Orthodox) kosher certification is theoretically to allow for a maximum market for one’s product.  It also means that Rabbi Mordechai Gross gets paid.

Additionally, the fruit comes in several varieties.  Some have a small knob on the end known as a “pitom.”  It is part of the fruit that usually falls off during growing, but if the fruit is grown under gentle conditions it can stay on.  If the etrog is the type with a pitom, and the pitom falls off before harvest or during transit, the fruit becomes worthless.  If however, the variety of etrog naturally grows without a pitom, then it is valid for use during the Sukkot ritual.    Fruits with pitoms are considered more beautiful and thus more desirable, and thus more expensive.

There has been a craze around exceedingly beautiful etrogs based on the idea that the more beautiful the fruit, the more pleasing it is to God.  The concept is known as “hidur mitzvah,” or beatification of the [performance of the] Commandment.  Since the fruit must be “the fruit of a beautiful tree” (pri etz hadar), many believe the fruit must be beautiful as well.  Thus one may see above several men closely examining etrogs for flaws and attempting to find the most beautiful ones.  The more beautiful the fruit is, the more expensive it is.  For a whole movie on the topic of beautiful but overpriced etrogs:


In the film, a Chassidic family decides to spend a small fortune to buy the most beautiful etrog of the year.

To put all this price inflation in context:


This fruit is a fingered-citron, also known as a Buddhas hand.  While slightly more expensive than a lemon, it does not approach the price-point of an etrog.  It is completely worthless for the rituals of Sukkot, even though it is nearly identical to an etrog genetically.  Rather than a single bulb, it splits into many small “fingers.”

As with any supply and demand issue (especially kosher items with limited supply), the prices climb.  Last year, Noemie and I waited until right before Sukkot began to buy the four species, and thus ended up paying $60 for the least expensive set available.  Of course, like pumpkins the fruits are much more expensive leading up to a holiday.  After the holiday they are virtually worthless.

Welcome to an extremely strange niche market.  Chag somayach.

Filled with meaty goodness

Its an interesting situation. Within kosher circles, meat consumption is associated with a certain idea of toughness (ie machismo). Its a topic used for bonding. Since everyone is supposed to be friends but most personal topics are taboo, it stands in for the conversations that would usually revolve around sports or culture or family. The topic becomes more relevant to Jews once you introduce kashrut and the gender identity questions that go along with diet and observance.  Due to the transient nature of work in the 21st century, a religious community is often a place where total strangers are thrown into an intense group dynamic together.  It is rarer than before to see multiple generations of the same family in a single synagogue.  Its a bit like military training. In the Officer School I roomed with a Mormon, we didn’t discuss religion or politics but rather details of the uniforms. We knew each of us had a partner but nothing about each other’s family life. Re: religious communities: I know nothing about most of my kosher friend’s political views, what their marriages or relationships are like, and they probably don’t know what kind of music I listen too (as it would highlight the inter-generational and regional divides between us).  Since I’m ordained Reform, my friends in the Orthodox and Conservative worlds gently side step the topic entirely.  They don’t want to bring up my affiliation as a fight might ensue.  Better to talk about the weather or what kind of meat is in the chili.  We have talked about meat endlessly.  Its a safe topic and allows the classes to harmlessly subdivide into two groups (meat eaters and vegetarians) and gently mock each other at no risk of actually offending each other.

Meanwhile, my meat consumption (although I still do eat is) has dropped off considerably.  Whereas I used to eat chicken or red meat at least twice a day (sometimes three times), I now eat it occasionally.