A debate has raged this week at iWorship, the URJ’s listserve for synagogue Ritual or Worship Committee members, regarding the timing of Havdalah.
In this late stage of halachic development, I’m a little amused and taken aback that such a debate could rage at all. Certainly, the timeframe for Havdalah is well established. It must be done after dark, once three or more stars are visible. Simple, right?
Nonetheless, the following query was brought before the list earlier this week:
After many years of only observing B’Nei Mitzvah at Shabbat Morning Services, our Ritual Committee and Congregation determined a few years ago that Shabbat Minchah B’Nei Mitzvah would be an alternative available to each family. [...]
The start time of our Shabbat afternoon B’Nei Mitzvah is 5:30 p.m. (The service concludes with Havdalah.) In recent months, three families have asked that the start time be made later, up to an hour later. The requests have related to spring and fall B’Nei Mitzvah, when the sun sets later. Until now, we have denied those requests. Our Ritual Committee now plans to take up this issue. [...]
So, my question is really directed at those whose congregations already hold Shabbat Minchah B’Nei Mitzvah. What time do they start and is there any flexibility regarding the start time?
List members reported, without variation, that, no, in their congregation there was no variance in the start time of Shabat mincha B’nei Mitzvah.
I was shocked, though perhaps I shouldn’t have been. Growing up in the Reform world, I’m used the mentatlity that Kab Shab must begin at the same time every week, or else the sky will fall. I don’t like it, but I’m used to it. Yet, in the synagogue I grew up, where Havdalah was not a weekly occurence, when it did happen, it happened after dark, regardless of the time of year.
In Reform, we all agree that we can exempt ourselves from halachah when we so choose. But we do not do so at whim. We do it for reasons, I hope. Yet no one could seem to give a reason, a Jewish reason, as to why Havdalah should begin in broad daylight.
One rather eloquent iWorship member, one whom I usually agree with, brought up the principle of ”Im ein kemach, ein Torah.” It means, “With no bread, there is no Torah.” The idea behind the saying is that being a Torah scholar is great, but if you do at the expense of your material needs, that’s a problem. It’s a principle meant to keep us from venerating impoverished scholars.
The thought behind bringing up “Im ein kemach” in this discussion was that (I think, I’m still not totally clear on the point!) if syangogues aren’t Bar Mitzvah factories, bowing to every whim of Bar Mitzvah families, and if synagogues don’t have everything start at easy to remember, inflexible times, all of their members will leave and take their money (kemach, bread) with them. I fail to see how this argument plays out logically.
This same list member asked me, on the list, “Who said everything has to make sense?”
If we look back at Reform history, we’ll find that “Does it make sense?” is one of our central questions. Does it make sense to keep kosher? I don’t think so, therefore I don’t. Does it make sense to wear tzitzit? I think it does, so I do. Does it make sense to begin Havdalah, a ritual about darkness and steeped deeply in the symbolism of light and dark, when the sun is up? No. So what’s the deal folks.
This conversation on iWorship shows us that ritual decisions are being made in synagogues acorss America with not throught being given to their meaning. And I feel like a lone voice crying out in the wilderness.
When we don’t think about our religion as a religion, when we turn it into a customer service department, we are doing ourselves a grand disservice and we are spitting at our tradition. We’re saying that we think our tradition is pretty, but that it doesn’t deserve any real thought.
And in the end, I’m just not convinced that publishing a different start time every week is going to turn Ritual Committee members into starving scholars.