Dear Rabbi – March 2023

Dear Rabbi – March 2023


Dear Rabbi,

I’ve noticed that when we say Kaddish for departed loved ones, some unusual things happen. Some people stand up, and some people don’t. There are certain parts that only one person says and other parts that everyone says. We sometimes say the prayer two times, one almost right after the other – but not always. And I thought we were supposed to read people’s names for Kaddish only on their yahrzeit, but it seems like we read some names more often than that.

If I were coming to a synagogue for the first time and saw all of this, I would find it really confusing. Can you explain a little more about what we do with the Mourner’s Kaddish and why?

-Curious about Kaddish

Dear Name,

Your questions touch on the laws and customs of mourning as well as different communities’ liturgical practices. But first, a clarifying piece: what is Kaddish?

The Kaddish prayer is a praise of God often said (as Kaddish Yatom, the “Mourner’s Kaddish”) in memory of a deceased loved one. The rationale is that we want God to look favorably on the spirit of our loved one, and in order to help God feel inclined to

look favorably; we say Kaddish in that person’s place. God then gives that person credit for our prayer, so we hope.

As with many Jewish prayers, Kaddish is a call-and-response prayer: one or more people (mourners) lead others (the congregation) in the prayer, with the congregation offering appropriate responses at specific points. Tradition tells us that it is appropriately recited in the presence of a minyan – a “prayer quorum,” at least ten Jewish adults whom Torah obligates to pray daily prayers. It is also recited while standing and facing the Aron Kodesh (the Ark that contains one or more Torah scrolls) or facing Jerusalem.

There are different customs about standing during Kaddish. According to some, a person reciting Kaddish stands, but the congregation remains seated. According to others, everyone stands. Still, others hold that because this dispute exists, standing is not required for the congregation, but neither is it forbidden (more on this at the end).

As far as mourning customs go, there are four kinds of deceased relatives for whom a Jew is obligated to observe a mourning period called sheloshim (meaning “thirty”) – a parent, a child, a sibling, or a spouse. This period lasts thirty days, including the period of shiv’ah, the week following the burial. Throughout sheloshim, we make an effort to attend at least one prayer

service a day to say Kaddish in the presence of a minyan.

When a person loses a parent, their mourning lasts twelve months, but they stop reciting Kaddish after only eleven months. The common explanation for this custom is as follows: We believe that saying Kaddish confers spiritual merit to the deceased, so we want to offer a significant benefit to our parents by saying Kaddish for several months; at the same time, we don’t want to take the full twelve months, because doing so implies that their souls urgently need as much merit as they can get! So we cut it short by one month.

Whether thirty days or twelve months, once these periods of mourning are over, it is also customary to say Kaddish again every year on the anniversary of the person’s death (the yahrzeit), as well as to light a special yahrzeit candle at sundown on the day preceding that yahrzeit. In some communities, people observe this custom only for a parent. In others, they observe it for anyone who is obligated as a mourner (the four relationships mentioned above). And it is common as well for some people to say Kaddish for anyone they may be remembering, regardless of their relationship to the deceased. (Note: teachers are sometimes mourned in the same way as parents or other close relatives are mourned.)

It might surprise you to know that there are many traditions around reciting Kaddish that are a matter of custom rather than Jewish law. For this reason, there can be considerable variation in personal practice. Here at Northern Hills Synagogue, we try to honor the many different family customs our congregants have. So we keep a list of names of those who have recently passed and read those at every service, regardless of who attends and who is “supposed” to say Kaddish for them. We also keep each name on this list for eleven months unless a friend or family member requests to have a name taken off sooner.

We also recognize that people may be unable to attend services with a minyan on the day of a loved one’s yahrzeit. They may choose instead to take advantage of being part of a minyan on another day (often, the Shabbat before the yahrzeit). So if you’re observing a yahrzeit that begins Monday evening, but you don’t expect to be at services on Monday night or Tuesday morning, you might decide to say Kaddish on Saturday.

There are many variations in these customs nowadays, and there is no single right or wrong approach. While some people are careful never to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish when they aren’t obligated to, others have a custom of reciting Kaddish in memory of friends or distant relatives, especially when there’s reason to believe that no one else will say it. Others make a point of reciting

Kaddish for Jews with no one to recite Kaddish for them – including, for instance, individuals who were murdered in the Holocaust.

Just as different communities have different customs about sitting and standing, there are some communities where the entire congregation is invited not only to stand for Mourner’s Kaddish together but also to recite the whole prayer together.

Regardless of individual practice, I believe it is ideal to have a personal connection to someone for whom we are reciting Kaddish because it is primarily supposed to help us think about the unique, individual person (or people) we are remembering. If there is any special mystical or spiritual merit that needs to be conferred on the deceased, we ought to rely on God to mete that out appropriately, with or without our prayer. For our part, we cause the departed to live on as a blessing when we remember them and put into practice the values and the lessons they taught us while they lived.

Rabbi Noah S Ferro

Dear Rabbi – September 2022 II

Dear Rabbi – September 2022 II


Dear Rabbi,

Here’s something that has been on my mind lately:

Thing 1: I know that sometimes people convert to Judaism. But (Thing 2): I remember learning that we aren’t supposed to tell people they should convert. And (Thing 3) if someone says they want to convert, we have to tell them no three times before we can finally let them in.

And also, we aren’t really supposed to talk about it when someone does convert, right?

So how does anybody ever convert in the end, and how do we deal with the whole process if it’s so secret?

-Curious about Conversion

Dear Name,

Your question is a very relevant one for our community, and it offers a chance to address some misconceptions about conversion.

First, as you say – people do convert to Judaism. Conversion has always been a part of Rabbinic Judaism. The Rabbis identify the biblical figure of Ruth as a model convert; we have a tradition that the early rabbinic sages Shemaya and Avtalyon were converts, and the great Rabbi Akiva is identified as a descendant of converts.

So… you’ve identified some things that you learned about conversion, but these aren’t necessarily the facts. There is no Jewish law concerning turning a potential convert away three times, but it’s a commonly repeated idea. It even came up in an episode of “Sex and the City” back in 2003.

There is also no explicit rule that we cannot encourage people to convert to Judaism at all, but it has indeed been the custom for a long time not to actively seek converts. During the Hasmonean period (roughly 140-37 BCE), conversion to Judaism was encouraged, even by force. One theory is that the negative results of this practice – including the rise of the disastrous Herodian dynasty – made the Jewish people stop encouraging conversion to Judaism. Medieval Jews living under Christian and Islamic rulers were frequent targets for proselytizing, and this experience reinforced their own conviction not to encourage conversion. Nevertheless, Genesis Rabbah (39:14) tells tell us that Abram and Sarai and “the souls they had made in Haran” (one translation of Genesis 12:5), the Torah is telling us that they were converting people to Judaism – the new religion to which they themselves were the first converts.

The Talmud in Yevamot 47a shapes much of what we do around conversion.

There, it says that when a potential convert appears, we ask if they understand the difficulties of being Jewish, including antisemitism. Ideally, they answer by saying: “I know, and I am unworthy.” We then inform them that becoming a Jew means taking on the mitzvot (commandments) and their consequences. If they accept this, we perform a circumcision (if this is a relevant consideration), immerse them in a mikveh (a ritual bath), and then “הרי כישראל לכל דבריו”– this person is as an Israelite in every sense.

“As an Israelite in every sense” might mean that a convert’s background has to be kept a secret. But this idea probably comes from a Torah verse and its rabbinic commentary. “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not mistreat them” (Leviticus 19:33) receives this comment: “You shall not say to a convert: ‘Yesterday you were an idolator, and today you have entered under the wings of the Divine Presence!’” (Sifra Kedoshim, 8:2) The lesson is not that we can never bring up a convert’s past, but rather that we mustn’t use their story to make them feel small or disconnected from the Jewish people.

Earlier, I said your question was “very relevant” for our community. In our world today, contacts between Jews and non-Jews are much more common than they were in medieval Europe, including interfaith friendships, romances, and families. This creates many opportunities for people who aren’t Jewish to

encounter Judaism as a meaningful way to live their lives and to engage spiritually with other people and with God.

Our particular community at Northern Hills Synagogue includes a number of people who are converts and/or members of interfaith families. I myself converted to Judaism as a young adult, and that experience affects my thoughts on Jewish identity, being a rabbi, and guiding the Jewish choices of others.

The bottom line: It is okay to talk about conversion, but if the conversation makes a convert uncomfortable, we should step back. Remembering Abram and Sarai, we should see that talking about finding meaning and relevance in Jewish living could help others to see its value too, whether or not those people are already Jewish. On the other hand, we shouldn’t sugarcoat the challenges of being a Jew. In the end, our tribe is strengthened by welcoming new Jews who are committed to God, Torah, and Jewish peoplehood.

Rabbi Noah S Ferro

Dear Rabbi – September 2022 I

Dear Rabbi – September 2022 I


Dear Rabbi,

What’s the deal with shaking the lulav and the etrog for Sukkot? Why does God want us to take plants and wave them around? Sorry to say it, but it all seems really pagan to me.

-Leery of the Lulav

Dear Leery,

The short answer to your question is: We don’t know. We wave the arba minim (the “Four Species”) – etrog (citron), palm, myrtle, and willow – each morning of the Sukkot holiday (except on Shabbat) because the Torah tells us to do something along those lines and because our rabbis interpreted the verses in a certain way.

A slightly longer answer: We could decide to begin and end Shabbat every week at the same time, but we don’t. We let the times of sundown and nightfall tell us when to do that, meaning that Shabbat is a very different experience in the middle of winter and the middle of summer. This keeps us in touch with nature. So too, Sukkot helps us get a little closer to the natural world and its rhythms and components. We get in touch with nature (literally) by handling these four plants in a prescribed ritual, just as we spend time eating (and sometimes even sleeping) in our sukkot.

Some scholars suggest that the Four Species could be some sort of fertility symbol, and some say that it’s all about the rain-like sound of the palm branches, thought to bring rain in turn. And still, others like to talk about the symbolism of the Four Species: the eye-shaped myrtle, the lip-shaped willow, the palm that stands and bends like a spine, and the etrog, shaped (maybe?) like a heart.

But I would encourage you to embrace the arbitrary nature of the ritual here. We do it because it is something prescribed by our Torah and our Rabbis. It helps to keep us mindful of the world around us and takes us out of our everyday experiences for a little while by injecting them with something profoundly Jewish but difficult to interpret rationally.

The rest, as they say, is commentary.

Rabbi Noah S Ferro

Dear Rabbi – April 2022

Dear Rabbi – April 2022


Dear Rabbi,

When I was a kid, my parents explained to me the basic difference between Jews and Christians. What they told me was: “Christians believe that their Messiah has already come, but we’re still waiting because we see that the world is far from perfect.” (Or something like that.)

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve noticed that there are many differences between different Jewish groups and whether or not they really anticipate the coming of the Messiah at all. I thought it was a fundamental belief, but it doesn’t seem to get that much attention in the Conservative and Reform movements, where I spend most of my time. What’s the deal here?

-Mixed-up about Mashiah

Dear Name,

This is a really big question, and I will declare upfront that I won’t be able to tackle the whole thing in one little column! But trying to keep it to the bare minimum, I have three points I will cover: the Rabbis, interfaith relations, and what I’ll call “the new spin.”

First, the Rabbis: When we say Rabbis with a capital “R,” we mean the rabbinic leaders responsible for writing and editing the early works of Rabbinic Literature (Mishnah, Talmud, Midrashim), from about the first through the sixth centuries CE. In these works, the Rabbis tell us a lot about their beliefs, way of life, and interpretations of the Bible, which became the basis for what we now call “Judaism.” One of their beliefs concerned a future Mashiah ben David – an anointed [king], descended from King David – who would be empowered by God to bring the entire Jewish people together and restore them to a state of political independence in their land. This is typically the expectation that there would again be a functioning Temple, with regular ritual sacrifices, overseen by hereditary castes of Priests and Levites.

Where this vision comes from is hard to pin down. It does not appear in the Bible but rather arises from a school of biblical interpretation that is likely older than the Rabbis. Explicit biblical mentions of a mashiah (“anointed one”) deal almost exclusively with kings and High Priests, who were literally anointed with oil in order to indicate their ascent to their particular office. A notable exception is one prophetic verse (Isaiah 45:1) that depicts God speaking to “His anointed one,” King Cyrus of Persia – “anointed” (selected) by God to serve a particular function in history: to conquer Babylonia and send its Jewish captives home.

The birth of the idea of Mashiah ben David seems to occur in the Second Temple period, with the rise and fall of the Hasmonean dynasty (~140-37 BCE). This dynasty brought together the crown of kingship and the crown of priesthood in a single family. In contrast to the expectation that kingship would always belong to the tribe of Judah and the house of David (see Genesis 49:10, II Samuel 7:16, Hosea 3:5); the Hasmoneans were of the tribe of Levi and the house of Aaron. According to the limited historical accounts of the period, the Hasmonean rulers and their adoption of Greek names and customs ultimately proved unpopular with the people (particularly, the religious traditionalists). Two centuries of non-Davidic rulers, Hasmoneans and then Herodians, were followed by the Roman Empire’s oppressive rule over Judea. Perhaps for these reasons, the idea began to circulate in certain Jewish groups that God would one day send a proper ruler descended from King David to restore the people’s fortunes.

The Rabbis wrote about this idea both directly and indirectly, and it came to play a big part in their vision of the future fate of the Jewish people. Subsequent generations of rabbinic thinkers continued this trend, with Maimonides (in 12th century Spain) ultimately stating in his Thirteen Principles of Faith that one of Judaism’s core beliefs should be “the coming of the Messiah.”

Today, the Messiah concept is influenced by our contact with Christianity because Messianism is central to Christianity’s very identity. The prevalence of Christian assumptions in secular and interfaith spaces can make it difficult even for Jews to differentiate Jewish expectations of the Messiah from Christian ones or to imagine certain biblical verses as being unrelated to the idea of a Messiah. In Judaism, Messianism is a belief not so much about individual spiritual destinies as collective historical ones. Nevertheless, if our Christian friends’ and neighbors’ belief in a personal Messiah can offer them spiritual meaning and a charge to walk a path of kindness and virtue, then we can see this as a spiritual benefit (dare we say a kind of “salvation”) that we should try to respect, as we seek similar benefits through our relationship with God, Torah, and Jewish peoplehood.

Finally, we can look at “the new spin” concerning Messianism in Judaism. Since the mid-to-late eighteenth century, many Jewish thinkers have come to place an increasingly strong emphasis on the idea of a “Messianic Age” (or “Era”), rather than on a personal Messiah. Some of those who have espoused this view have looked to general human progress and advancement across all cultures as a basis for their convictions. Others have been strong advocates of Jewish nationalism.

The upshot, in any case, is the same. Rather than saying that we can know what to expect about the future based on the traditional religious expectations of the past, perhaps the best way to find continued relevance in Jewish tradition is to acknowledge how contemporary events might both subvert and fulfill those expectations at the very same time. We can be mistaken about some of the details of what we expect out of God while still embracing, in a general sense, what God places in front of us through faith. In this way, we cling to two important Jewish values in equal measure: humility and hope.

Rabbi Noah S Ferro

Dear Rabbi – December 2021

Dear Rabbi – December 2021


Dear Rabbi,

In last month’s article, someone asked you a question about the names of God. I want to know something about the names of people.

When I was growing up, it seemed like we always used to call everyone by their father’s Hebrew name. Now I hear us using mothers’ names sometimes too. Is this just a modern cultural thing? And is there any rhyme or reason to it?

-Musing about Monikers

Dear Name,

When you say “call everyone by their father’s Hebrew name,” I’m assuming that you’re talking about calling people to the Torah.

This is true — the established traditional practice was for a man to be called to the Torah by his Hebrew name in its patronymic form (i.e., “[son] son of [father],” like “Ya’akov ben Yitzḥak”). And when we began to show more concern in the Jewish world to the idea of gender egalitarianism, including by calling women to the Torah, we also began to think about ways to modify this practice, like by calling people by the names of both of their parents (e.g., “Ya’akov ben Yitzḥak ve-Rivka”) — using a name with both patronymic (father’s name) and matronymic (mother’s name) components.

When we use both parents’ names, usually the father’s name comes first and the mother’s comes second, but when the father is a Kohen or a Levi, the father’s name will move to the end (e.g., “Moshe ben Yoḥeved ve-Amram ha-Levi”).

But while it is a ḥiddush (an innovation) to include the mother’s name when calling people to the Torah, there is a well-established traditional time to use a person’s mother’s name: when saying a healing prayer for them, like the Mi Sheberakh prayer. For this reason, it is not uncommon to reverse the order of mother and father (e.g., “Ya’akov ben Rivka ve-Yitzḥak” instead of “ben Yitzḥak ve-Rivka”) when we mention a name for a healing prayer.

Today, these sorts of customs vary widely. Some people maintain the traditional practices: patronymic form for Torah (as well as for signing official Jewish documents, like a marriage contract or a divorce decree) and matronymic form for healing prayers. Others will use both names for both, and reverse the order for healing prayers, as indicated above. Still others will use both names for everything, without reversing the order (unless the father is a Kohen or a Levi). In our own synagogue, we typically let individuals determine how they prefer to be called, either in the traditional style or in the more modern, two-parent style.

It also sometimes happens that a child has only one Jewish parent; in these cases, if that child is Jewish (whether Jewish by birth or by conversion), we would typically call them only by the name of the Jewish parent.

With all of the above, it should be noted that there are exceptions. New cultural developments invite us to innovate further as well. The fact that many contemporary Jewish households include two parents of the same gender, or include individuals who identify as neither male nor female, demonstrates that the formula “[child] son/daughter of [father] and [mother]” isn’t one that will work for all situations.

There is also much more to say about names than I can fit in this space. Sometimes people change their Hebrew names, and sometimes people choose to be called according to different names for certain purposes or situations. If you (or another reader) would like to speak to me at greater length about your own name or about the varieties of practices around naming, please let me know.

Rabbi Noah S Ferro

Dear Rabbi – September 2021

Dear Rabbi – September 2021

Do you have a question for the rabbi? Write to Rabbi Ferro at with the subject “Dear Rabbi…”

Dear Rabbi,

I’ve noticed that for “pandemic mode,” we’ve abbreviated our High Holiday services a bit. But there are still some pretty long parts we’ve kept in. How do you decide what to keep and what to take out? And how about the parts that get read in English?

-Wondering About Worship

Dear Wondering,

Thanks for noticing!

The shortest answers to your questions are: the longer the prayer has been a part of the service, the more likely we are to try to keep it in, in one form or another; and the prayers that we read in English are the ones we feel like reading in English to help people stay connected to what’s going on — as Jewish tradition explicitly tells us that prayers may be recited in Hebrew or in any language that the pray-er can understand.

However, there’s a bit more to say here, of course.

The key statutory prayers of our tradition are the Shema, with its blessings before and after, and the Amidah, the 19*, 9, or 7 blessings for Weekdays, Musaf on Rosh ha-Shanah, and all other special days, respectively.

(* – We actually have 20 blessings in the Fast Day liturgy when the prayer leader recites the full Amidah; but this is better for Jewish trivia than answering the question at hand here.)

The Shema is a twice-daily meditation and declaration of faith, and we give it its due by surrounding it with blessings. The Amidah is a replacement for the sacrifices of the Temple that we recite three times a day (four on Shabbat and most holidays, and five on Yom Kippur).

These two elements are both considered important ritual duties of every single Jew, and for this reason, we do not remove these from our prayer services.

Other items are largely optional, like Psalms (biblical poems) and piyyutim (post-biblical poems). In fact, the liturgical poetry of piyyutim runs throughout the Rosh ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur liturgy and is a big part of what makes it as large as it is. Some piyyutim are very traditional, dating back as many as a thousand years or more. But there are three competing tendencies in our tradition that can apply to our High Holiday services and the elements of prayer that we can consider optional:

  • adding new obligations or customs to Jewish life and prayer without ever letting go of old ones;
  • trying to practice a Judaism similar to one of the rabbis who lived during the Talmudic period; and
  • not making ritual demands of people that they cannot actually meet.

When it comes to requiring the lengthy recitation of as many medieval poems as possible, we would certainly have a hard time balancing all three of these tendencies at once.

Lastly, though also very important, is the question of what really “moves” people. In most synagogues, people really appreciate hearing the Shema and the Amidah in Hebrew, even if they themselves do not understand it. I couldn’t possibly imagine not reading Kol Nidre with its traditional Aramaic text and the traditional melody; it wouldn’t feel like Yom Kippur for me without hearing these.

So when we make our decisions, all of these issues come into play. They help us decide what to shorten, what to retain, what to read in English, and what to read in Hebrew or Aramaic, but in reality, there’s no “secret recipe.” It’s mostly the same year to year (most years), but with small experiments scattered throughout. As we hear from you (and from everyone else) about your yearly experiences, we’re able to make some additional adjustments for the following year as well.

Dear Rabbi – July 2021

Dear Rabbi – July 2021

Do you have a question for the rabbi? Write to Rabbi Ferro at with the subject “Dear Rabbi…”

Dear Rabbi,

I thought I understood what all the Jewish holidays were supposed to be about, but I’m confused about Tish’ah b’Av.

With most holidays, there’s something I can find in our prayers or readings that makes me feel uplifted. But with Tish’ah b’Av, it’s all doom and gloom!

I have a hard time mourning for a Temple I don’t really feel a connection to, especially now that Jerusalem is rebuilt and there’s a State of Israel. Is that really all there is to it? We’re sad and we fast because the Temple was destroyed a long time ago? Or is there something else I’m missing here?

-Tripped Up by Tishobov

Dear Tripped Up,

Tish’ah b’Av (AKA Tishobov, the Fast of Av, the Ninth of Av) is an unusual holiday on the Jewish calendar. As you rightly identify, it is a fast day connected to the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. According to tradition, these were destroyed in 587 or 586 BCE and in 70 CE, respectively, both on the very same day: the ninth day of the summer month of Av. (This year, 9 Av begins on the evening of July 17, after Shabbat.)

Tradition associates other low points in the story of the Jewish people with this date, including the decree of the Israelites’ punishment to wander in the wilderness (Numbers 14:22-23). And a number of major moments from the Holocaust and medieval anti-Jewish persecutions can be reliably dated to 9 Av or near it.

So in that sense — yes, there’s more to this occasion than just remembering the Temple or the destruction wrought on Jerusalem at two particular points in history.

But even with a thriving modern Jerusalem a mere plane-ride away, we shouldn’t ignore the significance of the destruction of the Temple — even those of us who don’t look forward to seeing ritual sacrifice return to prominence some day.

Archaeology and a careful study of our biblical sources point us to the likely possibility that the Temple in Jerusalem was only one part of how the Israelites observed their religion in earliest times. But the Temple eventually became essential to an important ritual process of atonement — you made mistakes, you brought offerings to the Temple, and the Priests offered them up on your behalf to cleanse you of guilt.

With the destruction of the First Temple, people had to forgo this ritual of atonement for less than a century. With the destruction of the Second, they had to forgo it for millennia, and possibly forever.

When the First Temple fell, we came to understand that God dwelled not only in the Temple’s sacred precincts in Jerusalem, but in any place in which the Jewish people found itself. When the Second fell, we came to understand that ritual sacrifice (and perhaps even ritual itself) lacked the power to assure that God would have a good “working relationship” with the Jewish people (and more broadly, with all of humanity).

We read the following in an important rabbinic work called Avot de-Rabbi Natan:

“Once, Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai left Jerusalem, and Rabbi Yehoshua followed after him and saw the Holy Temple destroyed. Rabbi Yehoshua said: ‘Woe to us, for it is destroyed — the place where Israel’s sins are forgiven!’

[Rabbi Yoḥanan] said to him: ‘My son, do not be distressed, for we have one form of atonement that is just like it. And what is it? Acts of loving-kindness, as it says, For I desire loving-kindness, and not sacrifice (Psalms 89:3). And so we find that Daniel, that proper man, would busy himself with acts of loving-kindness. And what were these acts of loving-kindness that he was so busy with? … He would help a bride and bring her happiness, he would escort the dead [in a funeral procession], and he would always give a perutah [a small coin] to a poor person. And he would pray three times a day, and his prayers would be gladly accepted’ (Avot de-Rabbi Natan 4:5).

In this passage, Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai suggests that perhaps sacrifice isn’t the point, and never was the point. Some of the Prophets in the Hebrew Bible make some similar statements. And in the Middle Ages, too, the great rabbi and scholar Maimonides suggested that ritual sacrifice was something God was once willing to accept as a concession to human beings’ own primitive nature, rather than something God truly desired.

I therefore believe that there’s a blessed and glorious “a-ha moment” buried in our mournful Tish’ah b’Av observance: the realization that the Temple and its rituals belong not so much to a divine plan as to a human one. The divine objective — encouraging us to pursue relationships with God, nature, and one another that are meaningful, deep, and moral — can be better served today by means other than ritual sacrifice.

So if that’s the case, why mourn on Tish’ah b’Av?

First, we know that tragic historical moments like those commemorated on Tish’ah b’Av caused physical harm to individual people that has had real and lasting effects on the Jewish people as a whole. Real people died, painfully and horrifically, in these acts of war and destruction. Imagine: maybe you could be lucky enough to survive the destruction itself, but at the cost of losing the people and things that made your home a home; to say nothing of the sight of seeing your own neighborhood in flames, or the knowledge that your enemies have triumphed over you so completely.

Now add to this the pain of thinking that God, too, is somehow in league with those enemies — or that God used to care what happened to you but no longer does. Perhaps you called out in prayer or offered countless sacrifices as you believed you should — but nothing worked.

In discovering that God doesn’t only care about Jerusalem, or that ritual behavior isn’t the only way to garner God’s attention, we may have gained useful and important insights into the nature of the Divine. At the same time, we discovered that God doesn’t always act the way we might expect on Jerusalem’s behalf, and that God doesn’t always respond to our rituals reliably and consistently.

Much like Adam and Eve in Gan Eden, we found our eyes opened by the loss of our Temple. Though we may have come out the wiser for it, we also lost a great deal of our innocence in a painful way. This experience is a trauma in Jewish history that still resonates today and still threatens individual Jews’ spiritual health and equilibrium.

This fact alone would justify the somber observances of Tish’ah b’Av.

Dear Rabbi – February 2021

Dear Rabbi – February 2021

Do you have a question for the rabbi? Write to Rabbi Ferro at with the subject “Dear Rabbi…”

Dear Rabbi,

We’ve gotten a lot of snow lately. When I was a kid, we would always play in the snow when we had a chance, including on Saturdays.

I’m a lot more observant today than I was growing up, though, and I know that there are a lot of things we aren’t supposed to do on Shabbat.

No, I don’t really make snowmen or have snowball fights anymore, but my grandkids do. So I’m wondering: does halakhah (Jewish law) have anything to say about playing in the snow on Shabbat?

-Snowbody in Particular

Dear Snowbody,

I have good news and bad news. The good news is that halakhah has things to say about playing in the snow on Shabbat; the bad news is I don’t think it gives us a conclusive answer.

I’ll explain. We start with the Talmud, which doesn’t have much to say about snow one way or another. But it does discuss an idea called nolad, meaning “[just] born.” An item that is nolad is something that has just come into being, and these items are generally understood to be off limits on Shabbat: things we shouldn’t handle or move. But the Talmud tells us that rainwater does not fall into this category, and our later halakhic judgments mostly agree that this also extends to snow (R. Moshe Feinstein is a notable exception). So from that point of view, handling snow is not problematic in and of itself.

Then we come to a few other opinions which deal specifically with snowballs and snowmen themselves. The tendency in Orthodox halakhic literature is to forbid the making of snowballs on Shabbat but to permit the use of snowballs already prepared before Shabbat.

Two major figures we see articulating the mainstream view are Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach and Rabbi Moshe Stern. Permission to throw snowballs also assumes that you are not in a space where carrying is forbidden by Jewish law, i.e., that you are within an eruv or a private domain. A few Orthodox figures also permit even the making of snowballs on Shabbat. No mainstream Orthodox figures, however, permit the making of a snowman on Shabbat. While there may be other concerns at play for some rulings, the overarching concern about a snowman seems to be the sense that in putting snow together with more snow to form a particular shape, one is building something (boneh) and thus violating one of the thirty-nine categories of forbidden labors on Shabbat. I will not presume to offer a decisive halakhic ruling here for our community, but I do need to point out a few problems with the Orthodox position on our friend the snowman. All of the opinions mentioned above come to us from the mid- to late twentieth century.

So I am left wondering: Did the question actually never come up until then? Or did our prior legal decisors simply assume that Jews did not need guidance on this subject? We’re also left with other uncertainties. Authorities who feel that the halakhah “clearly forbids” the building of a snowman on Shabbat pull from a few different sources — chiefly, from the Talmud (Beitzah 32b) and Rambam’s Mishneh Torah (Hilkhot Shabbat 7:6). Both of these supports, however, are difficult to apply to our situation. The Talmud passage cited tells us that the rabbis issued a decree against building temporary structures on Shabbat lest we come to build permanent structures of similar design or using similar techniques and materials. For obvious reasons, extending this logic to include the use of snow as a building material is hardly a natural inference.

The Rambam suggests that “Whoever gathers one part to another part and sticks everything together until it is one body, this is surely similar to building.” We must note a few things here: First, Rambam is speaking in the context of making cheese — gathering up curds and putting them together to make a larger, solid mass of cheese. Second, the phrase used here is “similar to building” — which is very different from what was said in two consecutive sentences immediately before about other parts of the cheesemaking process: one is liable on account of a particular, identifiable forbidden labor.

Finally (and not insignificant here, as above), is that the passage has nothing to say about a material like snow which is inherently impermanent. Clearly the voices that permit the making of snowballs on Shabbat would agree that this Rambam does not apply neatly to that question, and one wonders on what ground it might apply differently to making a snowman.

In the end, it is not clear what the Torah or the rabbis of the Talmud have to say about snowballs and snowmen on Shabbat. Conservative Jews following more stringent patterns of observance are likely to refrain from these activities on principle — either because our Orthodox compatriots do, or simply because in the absence of a clear answer it is common to err on the side of caution.

If you’re committed to making the most of snowy days with kids, there may be forces pulling in the opposite direction. Jewish law commonly relies on explicit rulings and precedents but also has a reverence for established practice, and one can ask in good faith whether the absence of any discussion in the literature of “building” with snow for nearly two thousand years doesn’t establish its own sort of precedent, especially since we know that snow itself was not considered extraordinary by our sages (see Yoma 35b and Psalm 148).

We are told in the Torah (Deuteronomy 13:1):The whole of that which I command you — that shall you take care to do; do not add to it or take away from it. In accordance with this verse, we might find grounds either to forbid or to permit a wide variety of activities — including some common ways of playing in the snow. So long as it is done with integrity, I do not believe that either course is mistaken.