Sometimes Bad Pennies Have Good Sides

To make sure I read a least a little Hebrew every day, I subscribe to a Kitzur Shulchan Arukh Yomi service. Each day (except for Shabbat and certain holidays), I receive a text message designating a passage from the Kitzur Shulchan Arukh, an abbreviated quick-reference guide to the everyday aspects of halakhah (Jewish law) as they might confront an observant Jew living in the mid-1800s in Eastern Europe. (In case you’re wondering, the messages double-up on the day before Shabbat or holidays with similar restrictions.)

I don’t ordinarily read the entire passage; I didn’t do so yesterday, either, but that is because the first couple of paragraphs caught my attention and I just didn’t move on from there. And I think that text provides some nice ideas for our own time.

Photograph of the "heads" side of a penny, highly oxidized so that the copper has turned from red to green

A bad penny – used under Creative Commons license

Yesterday’s reading was in chapter 61 of the text, which deals with reciting blessings related to life-threatening situations, either before or after they have occurred. So the chapter opens with instructions for the blessing traditionally recited after someone has “dodged a bullet” (this can also be literal!) while traveling, or has survived a serious disease, or has been released from prison for monetary matters only (debtors’ prisons were still common in 19th century Europe).

How does this work? Suppose you’ve been traveling and were set upon by bandits, but were spared. (Again–highway robbery was not uncommon thing in the mid-19th century in Eastern Europe, perhaps especially if you were visibly Jewish.) You make it home.

“Phew!” is likely your first thought. Okay, sure. But after that? Halakhah required that you do a little acknowledgment of Yahweh for getting you out of that predicament. If these days we say, “There’s an app for that,” we would say for rabbinical forms of Judaism, “There’s a blessing for that.” Specifically, here, the text of the blessing is the usual “Barukh … ha-Olam,” followed by the following phrase: “Ha-gomeil l’chayavim tovot she-g’malani kol tov,” which means, “Who bestows good things upon those who are liable [i.e., are undeserving], Who bestowed upon me every good thing.” (Kitzur Shulhan Arukh 61:1) (There’s also a response from the congregation. I’ll have more to say on the chatterings later.)

Now, I know. You’re going to say, “Hold up! This blog’s title says ‘secular Jew.’ It’s right there! What exactly are you up to!?” Hang in there a second, Nervous Nudnik.

How do you do the acknowledgment, according to halakhah? With ten other men, preferably with two who are engaged in Torah study. It is customary, the text says (I’ve filled in some lacunae to make the translation more easily understandable), “to recite the blessing [the Ha-gomeil text above] when one is called up for an aliyah to the Torah, after he has recited the concluding blessing for the Torah reading.” (Kitzur Shulchan Arukh 61:2)

So, face danger, survive, go to a synagogue with a minyan–ten adult males other than yourself–and, when the Torah is read, you get an aliyah (which customarily meant that you gave money–this was often a pay-to-play kind of thing). After you say the concluding blessings from the reading during your aliyah, you recite Ha-gomeil, the congregation responds with its responsive recitation.

I was reading this procedure in the Kitzur text, and it occurred to me: in all the years I spent in Conservative synagogues and in and out of various other places, I never once saw this happen, at least that I could remember. Now, in fairness, the text also says that you shouldn’t wait too many days to recite the blessing–so if you dodge danger on Monday, you don’t wait until the Thursday Torah reading to recite the blessing, though you still recite with a minyan–and so perhaps it happened during the daily services and I just never saw it.

But it occurs to me, looking at the list of situations in which you are supposed to recite this blessing: these things still happen in the modern world, but they don’t happen all that often to most Jews, and especially Jews in North America.

Consider: How often are you laid up with a truly severe illness for more than three days? Not often; the flu isn’t usually life-threatening in the U.S., for example, but it was a real killer two hundred years ago in Eastern Europe. Bandits? I haven’t seen them very often on the airlines or our interstate highway system, but pogroms became more common as the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires faced more and more difficulty holding their polities together.

In other words, what has become a very uncommonly recited blessing in many Jewish communities may have been a pretty frequent occurrence in the world that produced the Kitzur Shulchan Arukh (and, for that matter, the original Shulchan Arukh). Many communities, of course, continue to recite the Mi She-Beirakh prayer often read for the sick in congregational settings (to use Anne Lamott’s formulation, the “help” piece of “Help, thanks, wow!”), but the “thanks and wow” part of the equation is often missing.

This is understandable if you’re a liberal Jew today; as I’ve discussed elsewhere, the relationship with god-language is pretty tortured in the liberal Jewish movements that continue to use traditional liturgical materials, and the place of halakhah is even more odd. So it’s not surprising, given what life is like for U.S. Jews and the theological twists of liberal Judaism, that we don’t really see Ha-gomeil commonly recited in liberal congregations.

Nevertheless, I think there’s something to the custom associated with Ha-gomeil‘s recitation that we can use today, even in the world of Secular Humanistic Judaism. Like Shabbat blessings, avoiding leavened bread on Passover, and other cultural phenomena that mark 2000 years of Jewish life, Ha-gomeil is deeply ingrained into the fabric of some areas of Jewish life. And given the infrequency of recognizable mortal danger in our modern lives, it makes sense to make a place for acknowledging just how remarkable it is not only that mortal danger is survived, but that it’s become so rare to begin with.

So, how might we do this–in any liberal Jewish setting, to be sure, but even in, say, the newly burgeoning secularist Sunday Assembly groups gathering around the world?

As far as text goes, we don’t need the traditional blessing and its response, nor its Torah-reading setting. (The response amounts to “What just happened? Let’s hope Yahweh saves your bacon again.” Yeah, I used bacon. See “secular,” supra.) Each group can roll its own thing if it needs to. But depending on how often a given community meets, perhaps one out of every three “congregational service” events can have an equivalent worked in. Or maybe, when the group is small enough, it gets worked in when someone has such an event happen to them (though you might lose the benefit of acknowledging regularly how remarkable it is that we don’t face these dangers too often). Perhaps a group solicits anonymous intentions before its celebrations and, when the intentions are correct, the modern replacement for Ha-gomeil is worked in–which can create a powerful experience not only for those presenting the intentions, but those who are part of the larger community.

In any event, I think there’s value to “reviving,” if you’ll forgive the term, an enduring and insightful custom that, as traditionally constructed, is not particularly valued in liberal settings and reshaping the custom to our present needs and environment. As the title of the post says, sometimes bad pennies have a good side.

And now, speaking of pennies, Secular Jew, Jr., is really, really invested in going to Toys R Us today. So, I have to go deal with that bit of everyday life in these gradually thawing reaches of the crossroads of the nation.

Shabbat Shalom.

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One thought on “Sometimes Bad Pennies Have Good Sides

  1. My Reform shul actually started doing this, but as more of a Thanksgiving for various things not /just/ escaping from danger. It became a lovely way for people to share good things and making it through bad things.
    Interestingly, when the rabbi who started it left and the temp rabbi arrived, he (the new rabbi) shifted it to its traditional meaning of ‘making it through a hardship’ and the participation level dropped significantly.

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