Thou Shalt is a Jewish advice column for anyone navigating a Jewish situation about which they are unsure. Which is understandable: For thousands of years, Judaism has been rolling through time and space, picking up everything in its path. Which is awesome and beautiful and great, but also means that we’ve inherited a tradition with a complicated and often confusing mix of rituals, identity markers, red lines, and ways to practice. The peculiarities and particularities of the diverse Jewish world have tripped up many well-meaning Jews and non-Jews alike, and the goal of Thou Shalt is to create a space where we can all help decode our Judaism for one another, and the world.
Meet the Chametz
Last week, I tried to sell my chametz to a non-Jewish co-worker in my office. We’re friends and close in age, and I quickly explained that if she signs this document, she would own all the snacks I keep around the office, as well as some of the other items in my apartment, including two bottles of scotch. To my surprise, she declined, explaining she “doesn’t want to eat that many carbs.” I found out later she thought she would be obligated to consume all the snacks during the week of Passover. I want to explain to her that the whole transaction is fake, and doesn’t really mean anything, but that both undermines the legal fiction and makes Judaism sound even weirder. Any thoughts?
Not A Cookie Monster
It sounds like your coworker didn’t even understand what you were trying to accomplish in the first place, which is frustrating, but I think you have to let this one go. She may have been puzzled by the request, but is not actually that intrigued or interested in the ritual—otherwise, she would have followed up with more questions, or asked for a more thorough explanation. If you bring it up again, it will seem like you’re continuing to try and engage her in conversation about your religious practices and the complexities of Jewish legal fictions, which would indeed be weird, or even that you’re peeved she wouldn’t buy your snacks. Honestly, I really do want to correct her misunderstanding that she would have been contractually obligated to eat 25 Nutrigrain bars in one week—Judaism is weird, but not that weird!—but it’s not worth fanning the flames of this communication disaster any further. She just doesn’t care. Move on.
I wear a kippah around my office building, and there is another guy on my floor (but not connected to my company), who also wears a kippah. A few days ago I was getting water from the kitchen when he walked in and introduced himself. We started chatting, and he told me that there is an afternoon mincha minyan every day on the 12th floor. I thanked him for the information. I’m not a regular minyan person, but I might be interested in going every now and then. I’m worried, however, that if I drop by occasionally I’ll then feel obligated to go more than I want, or be summoned upon to make a minyan when they’re short. If I can’t commit, should I just avoid the thing altogether?
Dear Minyan Man,
Right now, your question revolves mostly around speculation: You’re not actually trying to get out of a request to join a minyan; instead, you’re just worried that such a situation may arise sometime in the future. Maybe it will—who knows? Or maybe you’ll step in to your office building’s minyan and find out it’s a huge and happening communal gathering and that your presence (or absence) would barely be noticed. When you think about it, the fact that nobody had sought you out earlier to ask you to attend might suggest that your presence isn’t urgently needed. So there seems little risk in checking out the scene.
If you find that this minyan is a small gathering—the kind where all eyes swing expectantly to the opening door—then be clear from the get-go that you can’t be relied upon for minyan help. If they say, “see you tomorrow!” respond, “probably not, but I’ll try to come occasionally when I can!” Stay light-hearted but firm. They might be disappointed, but they’re no worse off than the current situation where you never come at all. And if benefitting from the occasional minyan without contributing more regularly starts to grate on you, then you can always stop going all together. At the end of the day, the worst that could happen is you help somebody say kaddish.
On Jewish Time
I know one should always show up on time to a seated dinner party, and a little bit late to an actual party. If I’m invited over for a Shabbat meal, when is the best time to arrive? I feel like I keep coming right on time, and then am always the first one there.
On the Dot
You should arrive on time, generally, though err on the side of being a few minutes late rather than a few minutes early. If a dinner is called for 8 p.m., say, the difference between 7:56 and 8:04 can feel crucial to the host, who may still be rushing to get everything ready. If it’s assumed that guests are coming from synagogue services, then it’s likely that the meal will have a fluctuating start time, and in most cases there is a flexible window of about 20 minutes before dinner would actually start in earnest. So feel free to add about ten minutes to the called time and don’t worry too much. There is no faux pas in being on time.
How do I submit a question?
Questions can be sent to [email protected].
Are all questions anonymous?
Yes, no identifying information will ever be revealed or published about the letter-writer or their situation. Your email address will be seen by those monitoring the inbox, but won’t be published.
I’m not Jewish. Can I still submit a question?
Definitely. If your question touches on navigating a Jewish situation—be it attending a synagogue service for the first time or baking a welcome pie for your new Jewish neighbors—then this column is for you.
Shira Telushkin is a writer living in Brooklyn, where she focuses on religion, beauty, and culture. She is currently writing a book on monastic intrigue in modern America.