Blog: April 2008

Most of these posts were originally posted somewhere else and link to the originals. While this blog is not set up for comments, the original locations generally are, and I welcome comments there. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Let all who are hungry come and eat

A previous entry has spawned a discussion in comments that I want to call out, because two days is forever in blog time and I have some readers who might be interested.

The magid (in many ways the main part of the Pesach haggadah) begins with the following declaration: "This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Whoever is hungry -- let him come and eat. Whoever is needy -- let him come and celebrate Pesach!" (This is known as "ha lachma anya", for the opening words -- which are in Aramaic, the then-common tongue, so that they would be understood.)

I, and most liberal Jews I know, interpret this pretty broadly; we would invite a Jew or a gentile who expressed interest. Some traditional readings say this applies to a Jew only, pointing out that "come and celebrate Pesach" was originally about joining in the korban (animal sacrifice), which is only applicable to Jews. But (as someone pointed out else-thread), you must include your servants under most circumstances, even if they're non-Jews, so clearly there is some room for interpretation here.

I have a lot of readers who are learned in such matters, so I pose the question to you: whom do you feel obligated to include per "ha lachma anya", and who else would you include anyway? What are the issues?

Personally, I would include anyone who asked out of apparent sincerity, Jewish or not. I don't really care if the person is a seeker exploring Judaism or just curious; if he wants to learn enough to show up, he's welcome. The only bar would be to someone who has made it clear that his goal is to harrass, or who somehow poses a serious threat to me or my other guests. (That's hypothetical, but I include it for the sake of completeness.)

I am also mindful that I was that outsider once, that then-gentile who crashed a seder at the last minute because I realized it mattered. So there's some amount of "pay it forward" in my reaction, but it's not just that. I want to be the kind of person who says "of course; we'll just add a chair to the table", and the kind of person who is approachable in matters of religion.

There is discussion in comments on Dreamwidth, also archived.

Blogger captchas

Dear Blogger users,

I would like to be able to comment on your posts at times, but the Blogger captcha (the prove-you're-a-human-and-not-a-spambot image with distorted letters) has been getting harder and harder to read over the last several months, such that it usually takes me 3-4 tries and today I failed after 8. I infer that clicking on the little wheelchair icon is supposed to give me an alternative, but it didn't do anything for me.

Does Blogger give you the ability to whitelist IP addresses? Is there some other way to solve this problem? Or do I need to stop believing that I'll be able to comment on posts?

Lots of discussion in comments (archived).

What makes a good seder?

On Friday a coworker asked me how my Pesach sedarim had been and I said "eh", and she said something like "that's too bad -- mine was great". Hey, I thought to myself, I didn't know you were Jewish. She saw my puzzled expression: no, she's Roman Catholic, but several years ago she asked friends if she could join their seder because she was curious, and it was great, so she does it every year now. She described some of what they did and I was drooling inside. ("I thought of you!" she said. Rub it in. :-) )

Let me be clear that everyone involved in the sedarim I went to acted with good will. These are good people; we just have some differences in approach that are turning out to be hard. Clear?

The thought of "how come my Roman Catholic friend gets a more fulfilling seder than I do?", combined with a recent discussion in a locked entry, leads to this question: what is it that makes a seder fulfilling for me? What elements make me come away at the end feeling that I'd been at a good seder? (I encourage y'all to chime in.) Read more…

Trip to Toronto

Dani and I went to Toronto to spend the beginning of Pesach with his family. Overall the trip went reasonably well. The weather was gorgeous, so we and his sister went out for long walks on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. They live in a pretty neighborhood. Traffic was fine on the way up -- dodged everyone's rush hours. On the way back we caught some slow traffic in Pittsburgh, and we had bad lane-choosing luck at the border and toll booths, but other than that it was fine. Read more…


The polls were practically deserted when I went this morning on my way to work. There weren't even any campaigners out front -- just one guy from the Sierra Club with a petition. Weird. (My district -- or maybe my state, for all I know -- doesn't tell you what voter number you are for the day, like I've heard some places do. So we'll have to wait for the news reports to find out about turnout.) For better or worse, I've now done my small part to nudge the election in the direction I prefer. We'll see if it did any good later.

Over the weekend we got automated phone spam from Hillary and three of her supporters, all of it devoid of positive content. Yuck. We also got phone spam from the Obama campaign -- one succinct, positive message with a URL, either from an actual human or using much better recording technology than the Hillary campaign. So that's minus 4 points for Hillary and minus 0.5 points for Obama, more or less. (No, this didn't affect my vote.)

In the last few elections there's always been a bake sale at the polling place, run by kids. (I assume it's a fundraiser for their school. Now that I wrote this, though: are schools not in session today, or were these kids missing classes?) I try to support fundraisers where the kids themselves are doing the work (as opposed to when parents shill for their kids); I think it teaches good values. But I didn't expect this to work today. When they asked if I wanted any cookies I said "got anything that's kosher for Passover?", and they actually did! They had macaroons that they'd arranged to make in a kosher l'pesach kitchen. Cool. So I bought some. They are far from the best macaroons I've had, but they're ok and really, the cookies were secondary anyway. I strive to support with my dollars -- and my votes -- the behaviors I want to encourage, and withhold both in response to behaviors I find objectionable.

Visit to Village Shul

We were in Toronto for a few days, so Shabbat morning I went to services at the Village Shul, which is run by Aish HaTorah. We don't have Aish in Pittsburgh, so I was curious. I understand them to be in methodology kind of similar to Chabad -- friendly outreach to people at various levels of observance -- without the chassidism and the strange moshiach stuff. So I figured I'd go there and see what it was like, and if it was horrible I had a backup a few blocks away. Read more…

A little talmud

At the end of this morning's service the rabbi did some teaching of his own. (This isn't usual, but through logic that I'll explain if asked and punt otherwise, doing so was useful today specifically.) He brought the mishna about our obligation to remember the exodus from Egypt both during the day and at night. Some of this is in the haggadah; since my family skips that part I was glad to have it here. In short, the torah passage says "all the days", but if it just meant "the days" it could have said so, so "all the days" means day and night. (The torah, like a good technical spec, is not supposed to contain unnecessary words.)

This obligation is fulfilled in the liturgy in the paragraphs after the sh'ma ("I am the lord your god who brought you out of Egypt..."). This passage ends the paragraph about tzitzit (fringes), which (the torah says) we are to wear so that we will see them and remember the mitzvot. We don't wear tzitzit at night (because it says you have to see them; the mishna predates good lighting). So, the rabbi asked, why do we read about tzitzit at night and not just in the morning? He gave Rashi's answer, that we say that paragraph because of the exodus part (and I guess the rest just gets brought along).

I offered a different answer: if we need the fringes to remember the mitzvot, and we need to read about that in the morning even though we're already doing it, then how much the moreso would we need to read that passage at night when we aren't wearing them? To this the rabbi said that I grok talmudic reasoning. :-)

(No, he did not actually say "grok".)

Shabbat service times

Does this happen in other cities too? Can anyone explain why?

This week our main service (at 8:00) is mildly unappealing, so I thought to look for options. (That's fine.) My congregation also has a 6:00 service, but Shabbat right now starts around 7:30, so I'd rather find one a little later. The congregation where I go for weekdays has their Friday servies at 5:45 every week (save one per month). There's a newish (traditional egalitarian, unaffiliated) congregation in town I've never been to, so I looked them up -- also 5:45. Ok, what about the traditional (non-egalitarian) shul just down the street that I've been curious about? 6:30 -- ok, that's closer, but still a little surprising. Most of the explicitly-Orthodox congregations don't publish times (presumably it's candle-lighting time, give or take five minutes).

I'm surprised by the number of congregations that are doing services that far in advance of sunset. Reform congregations do not tend to feel as time-bound, so that doesn't surprise me, but I expected Conservative and "traditional" congregations to follow the sun. So do people in these congregations just add time to their Shabbat? I know you're allowed to start Shabbat early, but adding a couple hours (more in summer) is not always what you want to do. Or is the model that you go to services and get home before candle-lighting (which means you can drive, which makes the time hit less)? That feels odd too -- either you're doing the kabbalat shabbat service but not actually accepting Shabbat, or you're just doing mincha and going home, not doing a Shabbat service in community.

I do realize that in more traditional congregations the model is that the men go to services while the women stay home and prepare dinner. That's a model that doesn't work so well for a woman who prepares dinner (before Shabbat, of course) and goes to services. But I don't think that's all of it. Do the men in these congregations get home from work on Friday in time to prepare for Shabbat, walk to shul, and start a service two hours early, without being rushed or cutting out of work earlier than they would otherwise? Do they go to shul on their way home from work (and you just have to have done all your Shabbat prep that morning)? Something else?

Some of the congregations that have early services say they do it to make it easier for families with young kids to attend. That would argue against the "the men go and the women don't" model, but it still seems challenging to me. But then, I don't have kids.

Any other ideas for what might be going on here?

There is lots of discussion in the comments (archived).

SCA: Siege at Harlech Castle

Yesterday was a small local event -- with fighting and archery being the main planned activities -- held at the baron and baroness' castle. Dani was in charge of reservations, so we were there at the beginning. (Actually, earlier -- the construction we had allowed time for was absent on the way up.)

Two weeks before the event, we had 15 reservations. A week before, it was up to around 30 or so. On Friday, there were 58 in hand and a couple dozen verbal ones (which technically don't count, but it was a hint). The cook planned for 80, but said selling more was ok and let him know if we went over 100. He was doing an all-day sideboard, not a sit-down feast, so some flexibility was possible here. The autocrat had arranged for someone to do a grocery-store run if needed.

People came... and came... and came. The cook said "ya sure, go ahead". In the end we cut off on-board at 140. There were another 20 or so people who came but did not buy the food. Oof. I talked with the (first-time?) autocrat about advance deadlines; as a barony we need to get a little better about this kind of institutional wisdom. Fortunately, the cook was prepared to roll with it, but there are other areas where it's helpful to have some idea how many people are coming, and I think everyone involved has a better appreciation for that now.

This was a free event (the fee was for food, not admission, and you didn't have to buy the food if you didn't want to). I've been trying to encourage donation-funded events; there's been a lot of push-back from the officers, but we've done it a few times at free or inexpensive sites with modest success. I think yesterday set a record (at least for this decade): $260. Everyone involved was shocked. There were $20 bills in the donations basket -- granted, some people made change from the basket, but I saw several who put in bigger bills and took nothing out. Before Shabbat I gave Dani $5 as a contribution -- I specifically wanted a $5 bill, not five ones, to go into the basket as a subtle hint -- and was surprised to see it dwarfed. :-) (It was still above average per capita; whether it was above average per donation I don't know. There were a lot of ones in the basket too, though from what I saw when I was sitting at the gate, they usually did not go in singly.)

I do my best to help with events that are free or donation-funded (I do not donate labor to events that unnecessarily collect the corporate tax). Helping in the kitchen on Shabbat is pretty much impossible; helping Dani with the gate was another obvious option modulo the Shabbat issues. SCA rules require that there always be two people at the gate; we agreed that I would handle the people who were pre-registered (welcome, here's a program, please sign the waiver if you need to, changing rooms are upstairs, etc), and he would handle anything having to do with money. Another person was also available for a few hours in the afternoon, so we kind of traded off (and I made sure that someone else was there when it was time to reconcile money so I wouldn't get pulled in).

The fighting included spear-fighting on the drawbridge and a rush-the-gate challenge with combat archers shooting down from the walls, both of which were a lot of fun to watch. (There was also target archery and a conventional fighting tourney.) Inside, the heralds were doing something in one room and two rooms were occupied with people doing sewing. One of the folks in the sewing rooms was Viscountess Judith, from whom I got Erik and Baldur when they were kittens, so we chatted about cats for a while. The mom-cat is still alive; Judith thinks she's about 17. (The mom-cat was a stray and already pregnant when Judith took her in.) It's good to know that longevity runs in at least one side of the family. :-) I asked Judith if she knows much about the other two cats from that litter, but the family who adopted them moved to Atlantia and she hasn't seen them much since then.

The event schedule included one class, on serving a 14th-century high table. (The event had a 14th-century theme.) I attended, and was pleasantly surprised to see that the instructor was a 12-year-old girl. At the end of the class she put out a blank book and asked people to give her feedback. Neat.

This site would be good for small schola events; there are several rooms that could be used without encroaching on the great hall and kitchen areas. I think the first event at the castle was a schola, actually; I was out of town and missed it. (Other events were Purim last year, 12th night this year, and yesterday's event.)

While there were 160 or so people at the event, a lot of the "usual suspects" weren't there and there were lots of people I didn't know. I assume most were local (and that the barony is somewhat fragmented), but since the king and queen came (this was a surprise to me) that might have caused some people to come from out of town. Not knowing very many people at the event triggered my shyness and introversion, so I was glad to have something to semi-do for a good chunk of the day. Sol la Cantor, who used to live here, came back for the event; it was nice to see her, though she spent a lot of time hanging out with the heralds so I didn't spend a lot of time talking with her. (The heralds were running a consultation table, and it was kind of hard to tell at any given point whether they were working or just hanging out. I wonder if every local event really needs a consultation table, but hey, if it makes them happy...)

There was a lot of meat at the buffet. The cook is probably a carnivore (and I do know the difference between carnivore and omnivore), so that didn't surprise me; I'm just puzzled by how he was able to afford it. Of the non-meat dishes, the chickpeas with garlic were especially tasty, and there was an interesting compote of assorted veggies flavored with fennel. (There were also the usual suspects -- bread, cheese, hard-boiled eggs, green salad, fruit.) There was a mushroom roll (wrapped in bread) that I ate even though I don't care for mushrooms; it went well with the mustard sauce that was probably intended for one of the meats.

On the way home we hit all the construction delays we had dodged on the way up. I guess that's fair. :-)