Friday, 19 Feb 2010

Written by Rabbi David Mitchell

The men who sat in my Grandfather’s row in synagogue were an interesting bunch. Aged between 60 and 80, they passed the long hours of Shabbat morning services by talking. They talked about their jobs, their families, their football teams, their experiences during the war years, and, of course, the good old days of the Shul. They talked from the moment they sat down, until the end of the service, stopping only when the Shamash came close enough to hiss at them to pipe down.

These men came to the synagogue religiously – week in, week out. They loved the company, loved the debate, and the only thing they ever agreed on was their love of the Kiddush. As with everything else, Kiddush time was accompanied by a running commentary: “They’ve gone to town today!” “Have you ever tasted a fish-ball of this quality?” “Even the peanuts are fresh”. Those men made it their business to enjoy the Kiddush spread. They also made it their business to go home to a 3-course Shabbat lunch. No doubt they also made it their business to take a well-deserved Shabbat shloof to sleep buy ambien online and off all the whiskey they’d consumed at the Kiddush.

The Kiddushim of my childhood shul were a law unto themselves! The Lady’s Guild had an iron-fist strangle hold on the kitchen. Only they, or an outside caterer, were allowed to prepare the after-service Kiddush. They offered various standards: the bronze Kiddush cost around £300, whilst the gold was around £600. Bear in mind that this was nearly twenty years ago. I am reliably informed that a Gold Kiddush today is well in excess of £750! If that isn’t good enough, then families wishing to sponsor a Kiddush are welcome to hire the hall and bring in a caterer at considerably more money. Whilst the idea of providing the community with a hearty Kiddush is close to my heart, and stomach, the idea of being able to compare kiddushim is not.  

There was a long running joke about the competition between Jewish parents around the time of their children’s Bar Mitzvah:

“My Jonathan is doing Maph[tir] and Haph[tarah]”
“Well my Jacob is doing Maph, Haph, and reading the other seven sections of Torah”. “I couldn’t be prouder of my Samuel, he’s doing all of that plus he’s leading the service, giving the sermon and is sweeping up after Kiddush!”

Ludicrous as this may sound, it really is no joking matter. The Kiddush was no different, almost like a game: “I’ll see your bowl of fishballs and raise you a platter of Schmaltz herring” or “Last week they just about served Palwin’s no: 4, but next week, when it’s my turn, we’ll be cracking open the 15-year old Single Malt.” Kiddushim were a chance for some families to show off, yet occasionally they were also the moment when some families felt shown up, especially if they had to ask for a subsidy because the ‘lowly’ Bronze Kiddush (which was deemed a notably poor spread) was well beyond their means.

Where on earth did this idea of keeping up with the Cohens come from? Well if you look in this week’s parashah, Terumah, God requests gifts from the Israelites so that a Tabernacle can be created. God instructs Moses saying: “Tell the Israelite people to being Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him [or her]” (Exod. 25:2). The parashah continues to list the range of exotic and expensive gifts: gold, silver, precious metals, expensive fabrics, pricey woods, oil skins and precious stones. It then goes on to describe the impressive and decorative structure, vessels and ornaments of the opulent Tabernacle. It makes sense that in order to construct a community building people are going to have to dig deep, something that so many Jewish organisations hope people willingly do because their ‘hearts are so moved’.

The idea of putting a great deal into fulfilling a commandment, especially something as grand as creating a beautiful Tabernacle or sanctuary, can all be seen as part of the post-biblical concept of hiddur mitzvah – beautifying the mitzvah. Hiddur mitzvah is derived1 from Rabbi Ishmael’s Midrashic comment on the verse, “This is my God Whom I will glorify” (Exod. 15:2). Rabbi Ishmael interprets the verse as follows:

Is it possible for a human being to add glory to the Creator? What this really means is: I shall glorify God in the way I perform mitzvot. I shall prepare before God a beautiful lulav, beautiful sukkah, beautiful fringes (tsitsit), and beautiful phylacteries (tefillin).”

The Talmud (Shabbat 133b) adds to this list the duty to purchase a beautiful shofar and a beautiful Torah scroll which has been written by a skilled scribe with fine ink and fine pen and wrapped in beautiful silks. In fact, “in keeping with the principle of hiddur mitzvah,” Rabbi Zera urges that “one should be willing to pay even one third more [than the normal price]”  (Bava Kama 9b)

If you open any compendium of Jewish folklore, you won’t have to struggle very hard to find a story concerning a family in dire poverty who stretch themselves far beyond their means, suffering greatly, in order to purchase a stunning etrog or to have a Shabbat table filled with guests or groaning with pricey foods. Through a miracle or magical visitor, these families are nearly always rewarded for their efforts.

Perhaps this isn’t about keeping up with the Cohens, perhaps it is, as the verse in this week’s parashah suggests, about making grand gestures to symbolise that our hearts are moved. Perhaps we’ve missed the point in our understanding of what the Torah is asking when it requests such unconstrained generosity. Of course it is wonderful when individuals wish to go the extra mile to fulfil an aspect of their Judaism, it may even, on occasion, like the stories in Jewish folklore, be worthy of some sacrifice in order to do so. Yet at no point was this meant to become a competition. That’s not to say that I wouldn’t find it more than little heart-warming if there were a sense of competition between our b’nei and b’not mitzvah kids about how much of their gift money they would like to donate to charity:

“I’m going for 10%.”
“Well I’m going for 15.”
“That’s nothing, I just spent the whole lot in a charity shop!”

Notably, just last week, we marked Shabbat Shekalim, the Shabbat dedicated to remembering the census of the Israelites when every person (well all men aged 20 and over) is asked to donate a half-shekel as a method of counting the people. One verse from that reading really struck a chord: “The rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less than half a shekel” (Exod. 30:15). This sense of equality can be read against the verse in this week’s parashah, suggesting that sometimes one must give, but as a member of a community rather than as an individual.

I feel quite lucky to have worked in several Reform and Liberal communities where there is a strong sense of one-size fits all, at least in terms of the Kiddushim. Despite the very occasional request, the overwhelming majority of the b’nei and b’not mitzvah families are very pleased that there are clearly defined standards for the size and cost of the Kiddushim. The sum is modest enough that no one feels it is something they cannot afford, whilst those who could afford a great deal more are not left feeling that they’ve barely fed their guests. Even then, I’m certain that the guests are more than compensated with numerous courses of delicious food at the lavish bar or bat mitzvah parties that often follow.

For me, and I know for these communities, there is a fragile beauty in creating a communal space after our services where everyone can enjoy a nosh and a nibble, relish each other’s company, delight in Shabbat, continue building a close-knit community, and, perhaps most importantly, where all families, from all sorts of economic backgrounds can be equally generous and equally satisfied. Surely that is what is really meant by contributing as our “hearts are so moved”.

Rabbi David Mitchell
February 2010

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.