Hard To Swallow: Controversies Over the Kashrus of Contemporary Toothpaste

Does your smile reflect halacha?

May this special post be an iylui neshama (merit for the soul) of my dear mother, Mrs. Joan Maybruch, Yocheved Pesha bas Hillel a”h, on her yahrzeit (date of passing).

Is Kosher Toothpaste A Paradox?

Toothpaste is on a very short list of items that many people put into their mouth without a concern for kosher supervision. This is a curious phenomenon, because commercially made fluoride toothpastes contain glycerin. Glycerin is a syrupy, sweet liquid that can add both texture and taste to the paste. There are many sources for glycerin; some are vegetable and some are animal. Manufacturers frequently alter the type of glycerin they use based on the market price. That means that many products that have glycerin as an ingredient might contain a non-kosher meat byproduct, which is prohibited.

There are two angles from to explore this question. Firstly, toothpaste is not eaten altogether. It is just used in the mouth and expectorated. Does that pose a kashrus concern? Secondly, toothpaste is a non-food. Is there a need to be concerned about its kashrus?

Tasting a Non-Kosher Food Without Swallowing

The first issue, if brushing with toothpaste is considered eating, hinges on a century-old debate. The Talmud discusses an ancient practice of smelling the scent of wine with one’s mouth, without touching the actual beverage. Abaye prohibits smelling non-kosher wine and Rava permits it. Rava maintains that fragrance alone has no substance and cannot be considered non-kosher (reicha lav milsa hi). The Rivash (Responsum 288) notices that the Talmud stops short from allowing one to actually taste the wine, even if it would not be swallowed; it only permits smelling it. This implies that putting a non-kosher food in one’s mouth without swallowing it is prohibited.

The Rivash is curious as to why tasting non-kosher is prohibited, after all it is not full-fledged eating? He advances two possibilities. First, he suggests that it might go along the lines of the prohibition of eating miniscule amounts. Although halacha only exacts punishment for eating a specific amount of prohibited food, less than that is also included in the prohibition. This is termed chatzi shiur – less than the requisite amount. Similarly, the Rivash suggests that when one puts non-kosher food in his mouth, he is doing part of the act of eating, and it is prohibited. Chatzi shiur usually applies to eating small amounts, here it applies to a small part of eating. The Rivash then rejects that possibility. He highlights that the Talmud (Yoma 74a) explains why eating less than the requisite amount is still prohibited. If one would keep on doing the same act of eating, it can become a full-fledged violation of halacha. Therefore, even ingesting less than the punishable amount of a forbidden substance is prohibited, lest he continue. In contrast, putting something into one’s mouth without ingesting it cannot become a full prohibition. It requires a new action – swallowing – for it to become a prohibition. Since the act of tasting itself is not the same as eating, the Rivash shies away from saying that the Torah would prohibit tasting as a part of eating.

The second rationale the Rivash advances for prohibiting tasting without swallowing is that it is simply a rabbinic enactment. The Sages wanted to ensure that a person would not mistakenly swallow non-kosher, so they added a restriction on tasting, too. The Rivash concludes his responsum in favor of that logic. Tasting without swallowing is a rabbinic prohibition lest one come to swallow.

This ruling of the Rivash is codified by the Rama in Shulchan Aruch (YD 108, 5).

Two Are Better Than One

Although tasting without swallowing is prohibited, a fascinating leniency is advanced by Rav Menachem Mendel Krochmal of Nikolsburg (1600 – 1661) in his Responsa entitled Tzemach Tzedek. (This work is not to be confused with the work of Rav Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch (1789 – 1866) who also composed responsa entitled Tzemach Tzedek. Both authors had the same names and both chose the same titles because the gematria of “Menachem Mendel” is equal to that of “Tzemach Tzedek.”)

The Tzemach Tzedek (Responsum 47) was asked about the permissibility of a soaper tasting his soap while it was being made to check the ingredient proportions. The soap contained non-kosher fats, as well as ashes and lime. Although it was not a foodstuff, since it contained non-kosher, it might be prohibited to taste.The Tzemach Tzedek rules leniently. His logic is based on a combination of rabbinic prohibitions which synergize to make it permissible.

Firstly, soap is not fit for human consumption. The Talmud (Avodah Zarah 67b) rules that a prohibited food which becomes inedible is no longer forbidden. The Talmud hermeneutically deduces this from the unique phraseology used in the Torah (Devraim 14, 21). It describes that if one finds an animal that died without shechita in his possession, he should give it to a non-Jewish neighbor. The Talmud understands that the Torah is hinting that a non-kosher item remains non-kosher only as long as it is suitable to share with another person. When it decomposes or reaches an inedible state, it is not longer covered by the prohibition of non-kosher. (This is termed nosein taam lifgam.) Although a now inedible food is biblically permitted, it is still rabbinically prohibited. As mentioned, tasting a prohibited food without swallowing it is also rabbinically prohibited.

The Tzemach Tezek rules that those two rabbinic prohibitions combine to create permissibility. While the Sages prohibited ingesting inedible food, they did not prohibit tasting it without swallowing. Full consumption of an inedible food is rabbinically prohibited, but the Sages did not prohibit mere tasting of it. Therefore, the soaper may taste his soap.

Don’t Swallow!

The Nodah B’Yehudah (YD 52) clarifies the ruling of the Tzemach Tzedek. He accepts the permissibility of tasting non-food items theoretically. Yet, he is concerned that if one puts a non-kosher food into his mouth, it is almost inevitable that he is going to swallow some of it. Swallowing non-kosher is a biblical prohibition. Therefore, even if the food itself is inedible, the act that one is doing should be prohibited. How can one allow putting a rabbinically prohibited food in his mouth – if it will result in ingestion of a small amount? Consequently, the Nodah B’Yehudah maintains that when the Tzemach Tzedek wrote that one is allowed to taste an inedible food, he only meant to permit tasting it with his tongue, which will not lead to ingestion.The Tzemach Tzedek concurs that putting a non-kosher food in one’s mouth fully and expectorating it is still prohibited because it is inevitable that he is going to swallow some of it.

The Pischei Teshuva (YD 88, 1) quotes the Nodah B’Yehudah and disagrees. He maintains that when the Tzemach Tzedek permits tasting of inedible food, he even means inserting it fully into his mouth. It appears that the Pischei Teshuva is not concerned about the minute amount a person may swallow. SInce the prohibition of eating inedible food is rabbinic, the Sages did not include ingesting a minute amount while tasting in the prohibition.

In summary, in the view of the Nodah B’Yehudah, one may not put a prohibited food in his mouth, even if it is no longer edible, because it is inevitable that he is going to swallow a bit. In contrast, the Pischei Teshuva maintains that one may put food that is inedible in his mouth completely. Even if he swallows a bit, that is not included in the rabbinic prohibition of eating inedible foods.

Brushing With Toothpaste

This dispute has direct relevance for using toothpaste. Toothpaste contains abrasives, such as hydrated silica. This substance renders the toothpaste on the whole a non-food item. If it would contain animal glycerin it still would be rabbinically prohibited to eat, like any other food that is nosein taam lifgam. Yet, it would not be biblically problematic.

Consequently, it falls into the dispute between the Pischei Teshuva and the Nodah B’Yehudah. In the view of the Pischei Teshuva one may put it into his mouth and then dispose of it. Even if it is inevitable for him to swallow some of it, that minute amount was not prohibited by the Sages. However, according to the Nodah B’Yehudah, putting non-food items in the mouth past the tongue is prohibited. Therefore, one might not be able to use toothpaste that contains glycerin. Since toothpaste is a non-food that is rabbinically prohibited, he may not brush his full mouth with it because it is inevitable that he is going to swallow some.

[It is curious that Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank (Har Tzvi Responsum 95, where I first encountered the citations of many of these sources) writes that brushing teeth with prohibited toothpaste should be permissible even according to the Nodah B’Yehudah. Since one expectorates, even the Nodah B’Yehudah would allow it to be fully in the mouth. Yet, that sentence appears to be difficult to swallow. The Nodah B’Yehudah unequivocally rejected having non-kosher in the mouth beyond the tongue. He reasoned that one always swallows a bit. Consequently, Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank’s stating that even the Nodah B’Yehudah would agree that toothpaste may be used seems to go against the thrust of the Nodah B’Yehudah’s words.]

Rocky Ground

The second perspective that one can explore to allow using toothpaste containing glycerin is the rule of nullification. Halacha states that if a non-kosher substance is mixed with a kosher food, the mixture may be eaten if there is a ratio of 60:1 of kosher to non-kosher (Shulchan Aruch YD 98). That ratio does not usually exist in toothpastes. Even if it did, glycerin is intentionally added to the paste for taste and body and its effect on the mixture is noticeable. Therefore, it falls into the category of products that impact their mixtures (milsa d’avida l’taama) and is not nullified even after 60, as codified by the Shulchan Aruch (Rama YD 98, 8).

Yet, Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky (recorded in the footnote to Emes L’Yaakov YD 103) used an intriguing and novel idea to permit toothpaste with glycerin. He states that in most cases of halachic nullification, a proportion where the kosher food is in a simple majority to the prohibited food is permissible. There is no need for a ratio as large as 60:1. Halacha only demands a proportion of 60 in order to obliterate the flavor of the non-kosher food. If it would not give flavor, the simple majority would suffice.

Rav Yaakov maintained that in non-food items, a simple majority is always sufficient. Since it is a non-food, the addition of flavor by the prohibited food is irrelevant. Therefore, there is no need to have a 60:1 ratio. A simple majority of kosher to non-kosher is enough to permit using it.

Consequently, Rav Yaakov would say that as long as toothpaste is less than 50% glycerin, it is permissible. Since it is a non-food item, it only needs a simple majority to nullify the glycerin.

Not Too Abrasive

There are different approaches regarding if Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky’s fascinating leniency applies to contemporary toothpaste. When Rav Yaakov issued his ruling, there was a large amount of abrasive (originally calcium carbonate) in toothpaste. Toothpaste was mostly tiny pieces of mineral rock, with some glycerin, water, and other ingredients added. Rav Yaakov even refers to toothpaste as “stone.” In the toothpaste of Rav Yaakov’s day, the abrasive alone was enough to outnumber the glycerin; it was a direct majority in proportion to it. In that toothpaste, Rav Yaakov maintained that since it is mostly abrasive, there was no need for a proportion of 60.

More recently, the American Dental Association advocated severely reducing the amount of abrasive in toothpaste. The abrasive (now commonly hydrated silica) is much less prominent as an ingredient. It usually takes up no more than 20% of the volume of the toothpaste and does not have enough volume to halachically counteract the glycerin. Yet, aside from the glycerin and abrasive, the toothpaste contains halachically and gastronomically neutral ingredients such as water, fluoride, and flavorings. The volume of all the other ingredients compared to the glycerin is still greater than 50%, even though the abrasive alone does not outweigh it. Since the abrasive does not outnumber the glycerin, but the ingredients combined still do, may one use Rav Yaakov’s leniency that non-foods needs a simple majority?

Two major American Kashrus organizations, the Orthodox Union and the Chicago Rabbinical Council, maintain that Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky’s leniency would not apply anymore. They explain that because many of the other ingredients in toothpaste are easily ingestible and the non-food abrasive does not directly outweigh the non-kosher glycerin, Rav Yaakov would no longer say that a simple majority against the glycerin is sufficient.

One might cogently advance a different approach. Although the direct ratio of abrasive to glycerin has greatly changed, toothpaste is still fundamentally a non-food. The addition of even a small amount of silica, a mineral rock, should still warrant categorizing toothpaste as a non-food item. Since it is a non-food, it would governed by Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky’s principle that in non-foods a simple majority outnumbering non-kosher is enough to permit it. The abrasive and halachically neutral ingredients in toothpaste together may be considered a simple majority against the glycerin, rendering all toothpaste kosher.

Which Tube To Use?

In conclusion, toothpaste is a non-food, which still might be rabbinically prohibited. Yet, there are at least two reasons to permit toothpaste even if it contains animal glycerin:

  • One does not swallow toothpaste but expectorates it. In the view of the Pischei Teshuva one may put a non-kosher non-food fully into his mouth. Yet, the Nodah B’Yehudah disagrees because one will inevitably swallow some.
  • Toothpaste itself has a simple majority of kosher ingredients that can nullify the glycerin. Although the usual proportion that is necessary to nullify non-kosher taste is 60:1, Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky maintained that in non-food items a simple majority is sufficient.

Whichever toothpaste you use, I hope you have a lot to smile about!

What’s Black and White and Read All Over?

Is anything really “simply stated?”

“Don’t shoot the messenger!”

“It’s not my fault. I just work here!”

Life experiences might have demonstrated to you that when someone says those excuses, he is usually slithering out of his own responsibility. Curiously, for the ill-fated spies that went to explore the Land of Israel, that claim seems to have had veracity. The Jews in the wilderness, led by Moses, had dispatched them. The spies were deployed to research and report the physical nature of the Land of Israel and how easy or difficult it might be to conquer its inhabitants. When the scouts came back, they reported truthfully. They described the land as bountiful and its residents as strong, formidable opponents who were battle-ready. When the Jews assimilated the account of the fortitude of the Canaanites, they felt dejected and hopeless. They mourned their lot and dreaded fighting battles for Israel that they might lose.

G-d punished the Jews for being fickle and having lack of faith. Surprisingly, the spies got penalized too. Something appears unfair. The Jews’ outlandish behavior demonstrated that they were skeptical of Divine assistance. Why were the spies punished? They reported back what they saw. Don’t shoot the messengers!

This question has been addressed and readdressed by commentators through the ages. The Ramban advances an extraordinary approach. At first, the spies faithfully reported facts back to the Israelites. They described the agricultural abundance of Israel and its succulent fruit. They also related truthfully that the current inhabitants were strongly armed and well prepared for battle. Their description was not only truthful, it was responsible. It was their job to report about the land and its people, and they did as they were charged.  The spies would have been negligent if they omitted the description of the Canaanite nations as robust and substantial. They conveyed the information as they saw it. Yet, the foible of the spies was the word that they added to their communication: “efes,” which means “zero,” zero chance and zero possibility. They added that they saw no odds for the successful conquest of Israel. “No way!” they exclaimed. “The nations that are there are too strong.” The spies conveyed to the Jews that they had absolutely no opportunity to ascend to Israel.“ It is impossible to enter the Land!” they proclaimed. “Disregard any previous positive information. There is absolutely no possibility that we will succeed.”

According to the Ramban, the spies were culpable for simplifying their situation. They took a complex reality and saw it as binary. If the question was, “Can we succeed or not?” the answer the spies gave was a resounding “No, not a chance!” The fundamental error of the spies was that they did not allow themselves to see ambiguity and complexity. For them, the situation was black and white. The case was open and shut.

A more truthful response would have taken into account the components of the situation. They might have considered the different aspects of their combat. They might have posited, “The current inhabitants are strong. We also have an army. We have a large population. We might need to devise strategic methods to fight. We have Divine protection. G-d has provided miracles for us during our Exodus.” They did not allow themselves to see the equation as complex. Instead, they looked it at with a simplistic vantage, “The enemy is robust, so we can’t succeed.”

It is common to think that a major aspect of the sin of the Jews and the spies was that they did not trust in G-d and his ability to follow through on his commitment to bring the Jews to the promised land. It was more basic than that. There was nothing to begin to trust G-d for. In their minds, entering Israel was an impossibility that warranted no further discussion. To the contrary, in their immature simplicity, they might have seen entering Israel as prohibited. If there was no possibility for success, waging a losing battle would be suicide. Jewish law demanded that they did not enter!

Life is complex. We might have a desire to simplify our situations, our interactions with others, and our thoughts. Yet, most often there are shades of grey and webs of complexity instead of the black and white we pine for. Many errors in religion and relationships have their roots in unjust simplification of a complex situation. It is easy to see one’s specific religious practice as correct, with all others lacking. In certain situations that might be true; in many others it is a cry of simplistic judgement where more complexity is warranted. In relationships, it is so tantalizing to aim to isolate wrong from right and correct from incorrect. On might gain from observing that almost never – since Creation – is there a relationship disagreement where one party is absolutely wrong and the other is absolutely right. Human relations and human relationships are sophisticated and multifaceted. It is easy to simplify, but that is often not truthful.

Developmental psychologists note that adolescents often think in black and white terms. As they begin to be exposed to life and its experiences and their minds develop, they tend to passionately see circumstances and positions as simply wrong and right. As one matures, he ideally departs from this more simplistic tendency, and begins to appreciate life’s complexities. It has been stated that most extremists are either young or unintelligent. It can be easier to be an extremist, but it might not truly reflect life’s intricacies.

Similarly, Korach rebelled and desired to serve in the Tabernacle like Moses and Aaron. He shamelessly demanded that he be given a chance to serve. Korach was guilty of the same error as the spies. He oversimplified. Korach didn’t allow himself to appreciate the complexity of laws, of societal differentiation, of different strokes for different folks. He passionately desired to work in the Tabernacle and rebelled. He died because of his undying dedication to simplicity.

If some of life’s greatest sins and mistake come from using binary, simplistic thought, then the converse is also true. One of the greatest strides one can make psychologically, religiously, and in relationships, is to appreciate the complexity of most situations and experiences. It can be enriching, gratifying, to embrace life’s complexities. It’s not simple, but neither is life.

Oiling a Change?

Shift into “How” with a resounding question mark.

Do you know how to change your car’s motor oil? I don’t. When the indicator light is on in my car, I bring it to a mechanic. He changes the filter, puts in new quarts of oil, and usually attaches a clear colorform-like sticker to the top left of my windshield.

I don’t know how to remove the oil, dispose of it, or replace the filter.

But there’s one thing I am sure of. As long as I keep on saying, “I don’t know how to,” that will still be true.

What if I decide that I want to be independent of the gas station and do my own oil changes? I might explore how to do it. I could research it online, ask a handy neighbor’ s advice, or watch a mechanic several times. Perhaps I would do all of those.

A powerful shift would take place as I journey from being unaware to accomplishing. I would go from saying, “I don’t know how to change the oil,” to “How do I change the oil?” Instead of making a statement, I would begin to ask a question. When I would make that shift, I would be speaking volumes. By changing from a statement to a question, I then allow myself to entertain the possibility that I can do it. My sedentary nature becomes activity when I change around a few words and I go from declaring that I don’t know how to to inquiring how to.

Sometimes the most significant transformations in life are represented by moving from a statement to a question. When you ask “How,” you are digging yourself out of the quagmire of helplessness to vistas of possibilities. That shift is the key to any successful endeavor, change, or accomplishment.

When you say “I don’t know how to,” the punctuation is a period. The sentence is over. There is nothing more to discuss. Intervention, learning, or change can only begin to happen if you append an inquisitive, somewhat mischievous hook to its top. It turns into a question mark. One might say that the goals of teaching and psychotherapy are to put that crooked mark on top of the period.

Consider trying this exercise. Next time you find yourself stating “I don’t know how to” do something, change around a few words. Cut of the first three words, “I don’t know,” and begin your sentence with “How.” That seemingly small word shift opens up a universe of possibilities. It dramatically declares to yourself that there are ways for you to do it. Even if you don’t have the requisite skills, knowledge, or acumen, you are indicating that it’s something that you can theoretically accomplish.

Positive experiences begin by changing “I don’t know how” to “How do I?” The boring period becomes an exciting, daring and perhaps impish question mark. That phraseology and bold punctuation mark is the harbinger of being able to achieve.

I still don’t know how to change my oil. I am complacent with keeping that as a statement. But if I want to, or to oil any other change, I would need to make a word shift. I would discard the “I don’t know” and begin with “How do I,” ending with a question mark that hints that a world of possibilities is dawning.

Creation, Individuation, and a Nation

What are your relationships like?

A beautiful newborn lies in his loving mother’s arms. He silently sleeps as his mother marvels at the tranquility on his sweet little face. After a while, he wakes up with a tiny yawn. He stirs and then starts crying. Mother senses that he is hungry and tenderly nurses him.  As she does, she thinks about the special and unique connection that she is creating with her precious baby.

Baby sees it differently. He doesn’t see a relationship between himself and his mother. He simply sees mother as part of him. He is hungry, and he is then fed. He needs cuddling and is held. Developmental psychologists suggest that for the first period after a baby’s birth, he thinks that he is the same person as his mother. His mother is part of him, and he is part of her. He’s unaware that she provides food and care for him. He just sees her as an extension of himself.

As baby matures, he gradually learns that his mother and he are not the same. She can feed him, or not feed him. She can satisfy him or frustrate him. This astonishing realization can provide baby with a sorrowful awakening to the realities of life. He is alone and dependent on the world for survival. Although he tries to control that world with his cry, he is not always successful. The world might respond to his needs, and it might not.

From that epiphany and on, baby begins a lifelong journey of psychological differentiation. He starts comprehending that he has a unique existence that is not connected to anyone else. The journey of individuation continues for years, and perhaps throughout one’s life.

Years later, this differentiation can include the individual becoming aware of his own sense of self in a deeper way. He can become aware of his own thoughts, feelings, and emotions. He comprehends that the ideas are in his mind and not shared by anyone else. Many people might even disagree with his concepts or thoughts. In a more profound sense, differentiation means understanding that he himself is responsible for the ideas in his head. Even if others have created experiences, shared connections and conversations, or given presentations that have impacted him, the thoughts in his brain are the products of his own processing. It is also his choice to try to alter or dismiss them if he chooses to do so.

Psychological individuation can be very significant for a person. Individuation brings with it a sense of responsibility and ownership of oneself. Perhaps it is the only way to fully exist. If one is psychologically tethered to his home and his early influences, he is not really an adult, but a grown child, connected to his early caregivers by a psychological umbilical cord. He is not his own person with independent thoughts and desires.

Despite the beauty and power of individuation, the mind craves the safety and security of its early existence when it was one with Mom. It deeply desires the comfort of childhood where one’s caregivers’ ideas were one’s own. The process of differentiation connotes greater and greater separation from one’s parents. Leaving psychological home and moving further on that path can be dreadful and bitter.

It is possible that relationships that one develops through life partly imitate the original parental connection. Peer relationships such as marriage or friends can partially echo the longing for caregiver connection. They can provide comfort to an individual whose mind silently mourns home. When one connects with a spouse, associates, or acquaintances, they can partly take the place of parents in one’s mind.

For example, it is often significant for each spouse to care for and responsible to the other. Sometimes a spouse can demonstrate an intense and consistent need to be taken care of that stresses the marital relationship. This might be a manifestation of that spouse’s wish to recreate a parental relationship in her marriage. If the latent wish to recreate a parental connection becomes prominent enough that it upsets a relationship’s functioning, it should be thought about and analyzed closely. Perhaps this is a simple meaning of the Torah’s description of marriage when it describes Adam and Eve, “one should leave his mother and father and join with his wife and they will be one flesh.” The Torah is describing the psychological differentiation that is necessary to create a peer marriage rather than a recreation of the parent – child dynamic.

The same analysis might be important in peer relationships. Connections with friends can be an important aspect of life. At the same time, if social groups usurp one’s individuality, it might be important to question that friendship or peer group. In some friend groups among adults, one can find it hard to be accepted if he engages in a certain mode of dress, style, or religious practice. One often obliges because that social circle is significant to him. Is that a peer group or a recreation of a desperate need to connect with others that are representing one’s parents? When Chazal relate that the Jewish people surrounded Sinai to receive the Torah “like one person with one heart,” it seems to be describing a powerful peer relationship where everyone was accepted and there was little hierarchy.

As we approach Shavuos, perhaps it is worthwhile to examine our relationships. Do they echo the beauty of Matan Torah, “like one person with one heart?” If they do, they might be very worthwhile to invest in further. If not, perhaps there are changes that one might consider as he becomes an individual, with the freedom and power that it produces.

Do You Hear What I Am Saying?

How the simply audible becomes deeply understandable.

Amidst the melodious clamor of the beis medrash, two chavrusos animatedly discuss a fine Talmudic point. One man asserts his analysis. The other counters; he comprehends the idea in a divergent way. They argue repeatedly and volley their opinions as they become more entrenched in their perspectives. An intellectual tug of war comes alive between them. One becomes more and more convinced that he is correct. The other has no doubt that his understanding makes the most sense. Then, in their spirited discussion, one begins to see a grain of truth in his colleague’s approach. He stops the conversation, closes his eyes and re-contemplates the logic. His brow furrows as he weighs the pros and cons of his partners assertions. He begins to see how it can make sense. Perhaps his friend’s point is on par with his own thinking. Maybe it is even more valid. In a valiant effort to now partially capitulate, the chavrusa offers one of the highest verbal accolades to his intellectual adversary: “I hear what you are saying.” With that brief phrase he virtually embraces his studymate and acknowledges that he is beginning to see merit in his assertion.

The socioculturally unique usage of that phrase has its etymology in Yiddish. There are two words that describe the word “hear.” The first sounds like its English counterpart, “hehr,”  and simply means to “hear.” A more intense version of the word is “derhehr,” which means to hear intensely. In common use, the word “hehr” might be used to connote audibility, that one can physically hear. In contrast, the word “derhehr” indicates intensive listening, or understanding. The verb “derhehr” became so synonymous with understanding and comprehension that it is used as a noun also. One may say, “I have an interesting derhehr,” meaning an understanding or thought. To make matters a bit confusing, the word “derhehr” sometimes becomes shortened back to “hehr,” too. The result is that the word “hehr” – hear – can mean to physically hear or to deeply understand. Do you hear what I am saying?

These two Yiddish words also highlight a powerful truth about conversations and relationships. When one talks to another, the speaker desires one thing over all else – a listening ear. The talker has an intense thirst that his conversational partner can quench. He does not want to simply be heard – hehr. He wants to be derhehred – understood. He passionately wants the other to comprehend his words and his thoughts.

Speakers do not necessarily desire that their listener concur with them. They fervently desire that the other person digest what they are saying, even if he disagrees with it wholeheartedly. Speakers want to be derhehered.

If you are in the role of the listener in a conversation, what might stop you from derhehring the other? True listening entails focusing on the speaker instead of yourself. When someone else is talking, that point of the conversation focuses on him, not on you. Even if you are the subject being discussed, the speaker is usually expressing his thoughts, his feelings, or his emotions – not yours. When you listen, your “I” takes a back burner to the “I” of the talker.

When Moshe Rabbeinu recounts the giving of the Torah, he states (Devarim 5, 5), “I stood between G-d and you.” A Jewish witticism highlights that Moshe is hinting that too much focus on the “I” can separate between one’s self and his connection with Divinity. Interpersonal relationships function similarly. If one feels an overwhelming need to protect his “I,” it can create a large divide in a relationship and prevent him from listening and understanding what a speaker is saying.

Yet, it can be very difficult to put your desire to express yourself on hold and listen to a speaker’s perspective. This is because you probably have your own thoughts and view about what he is saying.Whether you agree, concur with part of what he is saying, or completely disagree, you might feel emotions well up inside of you, eager to be voiced. When you are triggered it can be difficult to contain yourself. The speaker’s need to be listened to seems to pale in comparison to the need you feel to air your reaction.

You might find it difficult to listen for another reason, too. You might feel psychically petrified that the speaker will conflate your listening with agreeing. If you listen to what he is saying with an open heart and a free mind, you can give him the impression that you concur. That might weaken your approach in his eyes. Even worse, if you truly listen, you might be intellectually seduced by his words to accept some of his points. If you do not protect yourself, you might become a traitor to your own convictions!

Listening is the foundation of profound relationships. It means changing a simple “hehr” into a deep “derhehr.” That often takes practice and conscious effort because it entails temporarily stifling your “I” to give the speaker the opportunity to share his thoughts and words. Sometimes being aware of its importance and why it can be so hard can help you embrace this formidable challenge.

Do you hear what I am saying?

Counseling Inappropriate Technological Behavior? Consider One Cigarette!

One small step for man…one giant leap for man!

Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky, a renowned rabbi, teacher, and scholar, spent some of his last winters in Miami. One day, during a stroll, he was accosted by a distinguished looking man, dressed in a black fedora and a long black frock. “Shalom Aleichem, my master and teacher!” the man said energetically. Rav Yaakov was not a stranger to such receptions. His trademark congenial nature combined with his sagacity made him adored and revered by Jews the world over. Yet, something about this man’s greeting led Rav Yaakov to believe that he was supposed to recognize the man. Uncharacteristically, Rav Yaakov could not place his face. He apologized and asked him if they had ever met. The man smiled and told Rav Yaakov that they had met many years ago, in Canada.

When Rav Yaakov first came to North America from Europe, his first position was in an Orthodox shul in Toronto. Orthodoxy in those days was not as defined as today, and many of the congregants did not implement the work restrictions mandated on Shabbos. On Rav Yaakov’s first Shabbos Shuva, he gave a moving and emotional drasha (sermon) where he spoke about the charm and beauty of Shabbos. With his trademark warmth, Rav Yaakov spoke from his heart to the congregation. “My dear people,” he began. “I understand that you are not prepared to keep Shabbos. You might work and carry out business as usual. At the same time, you know that Shabbos is a unique and special day. Perhaps you can do something small in honor of Shabbos. Maybe consider smoking one less cigarette in honor of the specialness and sanctity of the day.”

The man in Miami Beach explained that he was one of those congregants who did not keep religious restrictions on Shabbos. When Rav Yaakov said those remarks on Shabbos Shuva, the man went home and discussed it with his family. “The rabbi is so warm, with such an encouraging and engaging smile. Let’s try it. I’ll smoke one less cigarette on Shabbos.” The man continued to explain that after a while he thought, “If I am having one less cigarette, I bet I can avoid having any cigarettes on Shabbos.” After a few weeks of abstaining, he gathered his family together and they decided that if the father made such a life change, they could really start having Shabbos meals too. Sometime later, the man remarked again, “if I am not smoking and we are having Shabbos meals, I bet I can manage not working on Shabbos either.” Eventually the man and his family became completely Shabbos observant, and then became scrupulous about all the commandments. The children grew up observant, and dedicated themselves to many years of intense Torah study. Their children continued on that path. The man himself now dressed the part of some of his coreligionists, with a long coat and black hat, and conducted his religious life with sharp contrast from the more cavalier approach of his youth.

The man said, “Rabi U’Mori (my master and teacher) might not remember me, but how could I ever forget him and the indelible impact he made on my family for generations…from one cigarette!”

This man’s interaction with Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky can make a halachic statement regarding counseling clients that manifest halachically discordant behaviors. An increasingly common example is Orthodox individuals that compulsively use the internet for pornographic purposes. This socioculturally and religiously dissonant internet use can cause sharp divides in marital relationships, social interaction, and religious practice and affiliation, and result in deep feelings of guilt and negativity about the self. In addition, it can be both indicative of and create emotional or psychological pain that the user is experiencing and is attempting to cover over or forget.  Most users are aware that their religious beliefs and culture sharply censures their behavior. At the same time, it can be habit forming and addictive and challenging to cease.

If a rabbi or psychotherapist suggests immediate termination of inappropriate behavior, the behavior might or might not cease, and the intense guilt and other presenting issues will usually linger and fester. On the other hand, a benevolent dialectic of acceptance of oneself, one’s current behavior, and one’s relationship with G-d, combined with analysis of factors that increase internet use and exploration of psychodynamic experiences that might have created it and foster it can be much more successful for the client. This approach does not usually demand cessation of the unwanted behavior. Therefore, a halachic risk with dialectic models is that they might allow one to be supported and persist with behavior that is halachically frowned upon, with termination as perhaps an eventual target, but not an immediate goal.

When I discussed the benefits of a broader dialectic of self-acceptance with Rav Mordechai Willig and queried about halachic support for it, he included that story of Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky in an affirmative response supporting dialectic interventions.

I have observed obfuscation in the Orthodox world, among rabbis, educators, and psychotherapists, as to how to target pornographic internet use in accordance with halacha. It is such an important dialogue that it is often not discussed, like many of life’s most important conversations.

To that end, I created a symposium, taking place in less than two weeks, in Passaic, NJ. On Sunday, May 7/ 11 Iyar, rabbis, rebbetzins, educators, and psychotherapists will come together for a symposium entitled: Practical Counseling of Inappropriate Technological Behavior: Halachic, Hashkafic, and Mental Health Perspectives. The speakers include Rav Mordechai Willig, as well as rabbinic and mental health practitioners. You can find the detailed schedule here. It is the first symposium that I know of to tackle illicit internet use in the Orthodox community with a synergy of the rabbinate and psychotherapy. I am eager for rabbis, educators, and therapists to join together to begin the discussion on this issue, which is becoming an increasingly common phenomenon in the Orthodox community.

Most of us can have similarities to that man in Miami Beach. We can be involved in emotional, religious, psychological, or physical behaviors that others might warmly encourage us to slowly terminate. When we accept ourselves and continue on that journey, we might end up making significant progress beyond what we had imagined, all because of one cigarette!

Please come and join the symposium! Exclusively for blog readers, there is an early registration discount until April 29, by clicking on this link after registration. (Do not use the standard link on the website. It is not discounted!)

That’s Very Personal

The pinnacle of the Exodus might help one exit personal predicaments.

This post is a repost from two months ago, when I entitled it, “O Say Can You See.” I am reposting it in honor of the Seventh Day of Pesach, when the splitting of the Red Sea occurred. Chag Sameach!

A people in bondage for over two centuries was majestically and miraculously led out of enslavement to its national destiny. The capstone of that magnificent exodus was the splitting of the mighty waters just as their persecutors hounded them. The Jewish people paraded through the Red Sea. The Egyptians, following them in hot in pursuit, drowned soon after. Exhilaration filled the air as the nation witnessed the miracle of G-d parting the Sea and flooding the forces of Egypt. The Jews were filled with gratitude and emotion, and erupted unanimously in resplendent poetry and song to G-d.

The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Shemos 15, pointed out to me by my friend Rabbi Ari Chechik) highlights a powerful aspect of the Jewish experience at the Red Sea. After the Egyptians drowned, the Sea ejected them onto the shore. The Jews walked along the banks and found the Egyptians that had wronged them. They pointed to the hands that brutally enslaved them and the arms that were merciless to them lying lifeless. They remarked to G-d “You did all these miracles for us, we will not be ingrates. Let us sing praises and song!”

The Midrash is highlighting a paradigm shift in the Israelite mindset. The Jews had experienced their miraculous salvation from Egypt as a people. G-d took His nation out of bondage and redeemed them from slavery. The salvation was on a national scale and the people on the whole were ecstatic. The Jewish people were profoundly thankful and might have expressed their national thanks for communal salvation.

Yet, when each Jew exited the Red Sea, he encountered a new experience of personal emancipation. Each former slave walked along the Sea and saw the specific Egyptian that was so callous and malicious to him lying lifeless. Among the thousands of corpses, each newly free man was able to sense his individuality. When each Jew realized that G-d had meted out retribution on his personal persecutor, the exodus had moved from being a solely national event to an intimate, personal one. Each Jew felt his own, special connection to G-d, and erupted in a personal song of euphoria.

The monologue in the Midrash describes each Jew’s mindset. He was formerly going to thank G-d as part of His nation. When he experienced his newly found intimate religious experience, he declared to himself that he will not lose that realization. He affirmed to notice the personal experience in addition to the national miracle and began to express his exultation as an individual among his compatriots. The Song of the Sea was composed in singular phraseology rather than using plurals. Even though millions of Jews sang it contemporaneously, each one felt his own uniqueness, individuality, and relationship with G-d.

In the United States, two mottos are often used, “In G-d We Trust” or “E Pluribus Unum (out of many – one).” When the Jews emerged from the Red Sea, they seamlessly integrated both ideas. Their trust in G-d was not only national, it was personal. Out of the pluribus of their fellow Jews, each felt unum, an intimate and special encounter with the Divine.

Modern society sometimes emphasizes community belonging and identity, both explicitly and implicitly. Religiously and culturally, we see value in creating a cohesive society of somewhat likeminded individuals. Does that come at the expense of individuality? Can we model our social organization to encourage individual religious feeling and expression like the Jews did after the splitting of the Red Sea? Perhaps greater attention to the beauty of individuality will foster a contemporary euphoric symphony similar to the exquisite Song of the Sea.