Opening synagogues or fighting obesity?

How can the NY faithful reduce synagogue attendance, so that state law is not snubbed? Opinion

Rabbi Daniel Green ,

New York chassid takes a walk
New York chassid takes a walk
Flash 90

How wonderful! New York has decided to allow communal prayer. Well, almost.

Today the state authorized houses of worship to function at 25% of their normal capacity.

While other non-residential structures that involve retail or professional congregating can now operate at 50% of capacity (and airplanes can fly in and out of NY at full capacity) - religious activity, according to the state, is either more detrimental to human life, or rather, less essential.

But don’t get me wrong - phase two is good news for NY Jews:

Whereas during phase one, when shuls were permitted to open with no more than ten visitors, on a first-come-first-serve basis - religious ecstasy was thought to ensue! But things got a little tricky when the first ten included a female or under-aged male (neither of whom helpful in the formation of a quorum), or if one of the ten had to leave the sanctuary to use the restroom - there was no minyan!

But now - synagogue capacity at a whopping 25%? Jews are jumping for joy!

Only problem is - how do they stop the naughty and law-breaking 75% from trying to get in? How can the NY faithful reduce synagogue attendance, so that state law is not snubbed?

Furthermore, just how can Jewish houses of worship accurately determine “normal capacity”? Does it mean the crowd expected for Yizkor services on Yom Kippur (which would mean every square foot of the shul occupied, and then some), or the early Monday morning service (which might mean the same ten retirees who had been coming even prior to phase one)?

No one really knows, and there is no “normal” in Judaism anymore anyways.

However this plays itself out, one thing is bound to happen - discrimination against the overweight!

That’s right! This 25% law is unfairly targeting people of “extra” body mass. All law-abiding synagogue administrations are undoubtedly planning to enforce the government’s “religion-controlling” regulations, and, in attempt to keep the congregation at only 25% of capacity, will be admitting only its skinniest congregants, so that only 25% of the space is occupied by possible covid-carrying body flesh, while the more pleasantly plump shul-goers will be encouraged to stay on their porches, on grounds of pikuach nefesh, saving the lives of their fellow community members!

Sorry, but this isn’t fair! Obese lives matter.

Fat is the culprit

Indeed, after months of sheltering in place, New Yorkers have put on considerable weight. No work and no working out - playgrounds, gyms and fitness centers were closed for months. No places of public amusement, no bowling alleys, no nothing.

And with all the shuls and study halls closed too, what else were people supposed to do? Eat! That's right, and that's all we've been doing since Purim!

So this seems to be what the government had in mind with its discriminatory, 25%-of-normal-capacity law. It's like a tough love message to all us overweight Jews:

You wanna daven? - lose a few pounds!

Eliminate those bulging bellies, keep the fullness of your house of prayer to a safe minimum! You will be healthier; your synagogue will be healthier; and your state will be healthier!

From erudition to rotundity

On a more serious note (and I hope I didn’t offend anyone - this three month shut-down took its toll on every New Yorker’s physique, psyche, and tact):

Let’s take a deeper look at the weight gain spurred on by covid (which incidentally means “weight” in Hebrew). I refer to a different type of flabbiness, not one that manifests in the midriff or that comes off by dieting.

Of this fat, Kind David wrote:

Tafash kacheilev libam, ”Their heart became thick like fat,”

Ani toras’cha shiasha’ati, “But I delight in Your Torah.” [1]

Intriguingly, the word tafash, which means “becoming fat,” is Hebraically synonymous with the word tipeish, a fool. Foolishness is the “fatness” of the heart - a thick-skinned callousness that hinders one’s intellectual agility and spiritual sensitivity. David stayed “in shape,” so-to-speak, because he “delighted” in G-d’s will and wisdom - Torah study.

Others, the Psalmist bemoaned, got fat. Spiritually fat.

Sadly, this is what seems to have happened in Brooklyn. When all Torah study came to an abrupt halt, every yeshiva, beis medrash, cheider [2], etc., was shut down - it took a spiritual toll. And not only were all these - the bastion of our faith - closed for months, but they still haven’t been allowed to reopen yet! Yeshivas are not permitted to be functioning at this time! The whole Jewish world stands by and watches - becoming less and less sensitive to what’s happening.

A Talmudic precedent

As referenced in a previous op-ed (Schools still closed? Something's fishy...), Rabbi Akiva insisted on teaching Torah publicly despite a government ban on such activity. His law breaking was subject to the criticism of a fellow sage, Papus ben Yehuda, who felt it in the Jews’ best interest to abide by the Roman’s regulations, suggesting that closing yeshivas will save Jewish lives. Shockingly, Rabbi Akiva called his contemporary a tipeish! [3]

Classical commentaries [4] point out the striking significance of this Talmudic expletive, keeping in mind that Papus, known as an exceptional tanna and chacham, a celebrated rabbinic scholar and genius, was far from a fool:

The word shofeit, a prominent member of the Talmudic judiciary, is spelled with the same letters as the word tipeish - shin pey tet - with the exception of a letter vav. This extra letter has the numerical value of six, which represents the six orders of the Mishnah, the Talmud.

Herein lies the intrinsic and linguistic transition from a sage to a fool. Papus the Wise lost his “vav” - he abandoned Mishnaic study, albeit due to a government crackdown. As such, the “shofeit” became a “tipeish”, the sharp and agile Torah mind became fattened and coarsely insensitive, entertaining the notion that Jews can survive without yeshivas!

(This metamorphosis was not merely the removal of one letter from the word, but the remaining letters, in fact, shin pey tet, became entirely reversed - tet pey shin! That is, standing by idly while yeshivas were closed, not only did an esteemed chacham simply lose his spiritual sensitivity and intellectual prowess, but his logic started to see things backwards, exactly opposite to prudent and sound Torah judgement!)

And this is what seems to have happened to us. Instead of crying out and joining together for the furtherance of Judaism, many of us still feel that keeping yeshivas closed is in our best interest! Many don’t realize how dangerous this is - for our very existence!

Bottom line

Dear Jewish communities of New York, and moreover, of the entire world:

It’s not too late to get back into good spiritual shape - to quickly shed those nasty galut pounds, to get into a geulah mindset [5], and, as King David concluded the verse, delight in Torah study, assiduously and unabashedly! [6]

Let us avert the decree by increasing in Jewish pride and demanding our religious freedoms, by opening all yeshivas, and shuls too for that matter, promptly and unreservedly!

Am Yisrael Chai!

[1] Psalms 119:70. Metzudot Tziyon Ibid.

[2] institutions of religious Jewish learning, at every age and level!

[3] Sifri (Va’etchanan 6)

[4] Ben Yehoyada (authored by Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Baghdad, the Ben Ish Chai) - B'rachot 61b

[5] Galut - exile. Geulah - redemption, through the imminent coming of Mashiach.

[6] Getting rid of “galut” fat is not accomplished by setting dietary limits, but on the contrary - hungrily devouring more and more Torah, without any limits, with relish and delight! Bon appetit!