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Sunday, August 24, 2008

Religious Coercion

Lately I've been having little conversations with Yonah, our four-and-a-half-year-old son, about some of the fundamentals of making blessings (called 'brachot' in Hebrew). 

For those not in the know, Judaism has blessings for pretty much everything (even for the Czar!).  I'm not going to give a long lesson on the types or structures of the various blessings, but suffice it to say that observant Jews view brachot as one of the main things that separates us from the lower life forms; specifically, our ability and willingness to acknowledge a higher power for the things we experience and enjoy... before (and sometimes also after) we enjoy them.

One of the things about making brachot is that you need to teach kids early on that one should try to minimize the time between making the blessing and doing whatever it is you are making the blessing on.  For example, one shouldn't speak between reciting the blessing and eating something since unrelated speech would constitute an interruption.

Yonah is famous in our home for washing his hands before eating bread... reciting the blessing... and then chattering away about everything under the sun before actually eating the bread.  Since bread isn't really high on his list of priorities, no amount of explaining has had much of an effect on his inability to remain quiet between blessing and action.

So yesterday in shul (synagogue), I decided that maybe I could use something a little more attractive in order to see if I could get the message across.

I'm not the shul candy-man, but I usually keep a bag of saltwater taffy with me so that I can give Yonah a little treat wen he's behaving nicely.  I did this for both Ariella and Yonah, too, when they were younger... and (I hope) it gave them sweet associations with coming to pray.

After Yonah had been in shul for a little while and had said his morning 'Shema' prayer, I took out a taffy for him.  But before I let him have it I explained once again that once he made the blessing he couldn't talk... he had to put it in his mouth right away so G-d would know what he was saying thank you for.  I also explained about taking G-d's name in vain, and that it wasn't nice to make a blessing without actually doing whatever you were talking about in the blessing since that was also bound to be a bit confusing (not to mention disrespectful) to G-d.

[Ed. Note: Before anyone steps in to correct me, first go try talking theology to a four year old.  Nuff said]

Yonah nodded dutifully (keeping his eye on the taffy only slightly less intensely than our dogs watch me when I handle chopped liver), made a nice blessing, and popped the taffy into his mouth without the slightest hesitation.

So far so good.

A while later when he came back inside from a short play session, I decided to check to see of the lesson had been retained.  I took out a taffy and asked him if he wanted it.  After receiving the obvious answer I asked him what he needed to do before he ate it.  Without missing a beat, he made a beautiful, clear blessing (...'shehakol') and held out his hand urgently to indicate that he needed to put it in his mouth without delay.

I had actually been expecting him to simply answer that he needed to make the blessing, but seeing that he seemed to have gotten the message I dutifully popped the taffy into his mouth.

Yonah rarely stays in shul for very long so I wasn't surprised to see him leave a few minutes later.  But within two minutes he was back... this time with two friends.  They lined up in front of me, and without hesitation recited a loud clear 'shehakol' blessing and started urgently pointing at their mouths as if to imply that if I didn't hurry and give them each taffies, the sin would be on my head!

Somehow I think Yonah has taken the wrong message from this particular lesson.

Posted by David Bogner on August 24, 2008 | Permalink


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Okay, well, the message may have gotten a bit muddled, but that is funny.

At least it makes for a good humorous post. You've been a bit solemn lately.

Posted by: triLcat | Aug 24, 2008 3:08:41 AM

LOL. That's really cute!

Posted by: Erachet | Aug 24, 2008 4:41:33 AM

i like the way he thinks!! very smart little boy you have there. thanks for the chuckle.

Posted by: Hadassah | Aug 24, 2008 4:48:32 AM

It seems to me that Yonah (and his friends) learned a way to get candy from you anytime they want just by reciting the brachah of Sheakol. How about keeping a bottle of water handy to give it to him anytime he plays this new "trick"?

Posted by: David S | Aug 24, 2008 6:21:53 AM

And we thought only the last generation could produce geniuses like Rav Simcha Wasserman. The trick is to learn the response from little Simcha's brilliant mother...

Posted by: rutimizrachi | Aug 24, 2008 6:22:06 AM

Smart kid, that Yonah.

But I'm smart, too. When I say Shehakol, I get a shot of whisky.

Posted by: Elisson | Aug 24, 2008 6:32:15 AM

Somewhere above, Maslow is beaming with pride. : )

I noticed that when we spent Shabbat with you all, I believe it was when you were reciting the blessing over the wine, you also remained quiet until the final blessing over the bread. That's a first for me. I've never seen anyone do that before, not at any of the shuls I been too (orthodox), school functions, or in homes of friends and family. Is that a family custom?

Very cute story (especially the part of bringing his friends along.)

Posted by: jaime | Aug 24, 2008 7:42:01 AM

Just to be clear, I've only been exposed to the custom of not talking (humming allowed) from the time of washing hands to eating bread, not from the blessing of the wine to eating bread.

Posted by: jaime | Aug 24, 2008 7:56:32 AM

You got a wise guy for a kid, you should be so proud.

Posted by: Child Ish Behavior | Aug 24, 2008 8:17:01 AM

Clever one, that Yonah!

Posted by: Gila | Aug 24, 2008 8:50:07 AM

My comment seems to have vanished....

1) Yonah is clever.

2) Does anyone know the proper bracha for a spouse?

3) How about for a new, souped up bike?

Seeing how well this worked for Yonah, I may as well try it for myself, you know?

Posted by: Gila | Aug 24, 2008 8:52:03 AM

When I was at school back in the '50s (I was 5 at the time), we all had to stand in line outside the dining hall with our fingers on our lips to make sure we didn't speak between the bracha for washing our hands, and the bracha for bread.

The noise that broke out after we'd eaten our bread must have been ear-splitting :-)

Posted by: chairwoman | Aug 24, 2008 10:24:26 AM


I don't think it would be a good idea to say a bracha that required you to be quiet until you found a spouse ;)

Posted by: Safranit | Aug 24, 2008 10:50:36 AM

Yonah is in good company.

There's a story about a hassidic Rebbe (at least one account says that it was the Rozhiner) who used to tell about how, when he was a child and wanted an apple, he would make the blessing over it so that his father then had to give him one. So, he said, when we make the blessing for forgiveness on Yom Kippur, God must grant us forgiveness....

Posted by: Rahel | Aug 24, 2008 11:53:07 AM

The making of a good leader - his peers are part of the learning process. :-)

Posted by: Rami | Aug 24, 2008 12:18:59 PM

Jaime - there is a custom followed by those of us of German descent to wash first, then say the kiddush over the wine, and then say the bracha on the bread and eat it (on the Sabbath).

Posted by: westbankmama | Aug 24, 2008 4:16:37 PM

And so the student becomes that master... :)
Smart little guy you've got there!

Posted by: Sara K | Aug 24, 2008 4:37:39 PM

"I don't think it would be a good idea to say a bracha that required you to be quiet until you found a spouse ;)

Right--forgot about that little detail. Never mind then!

Posted by: Gila | Aug 24, 2008 4:38:16 PM

You realize, don't you, that you've been completely outsmarted by a 4 and 1/2 year old.? He has a bright future ahead of him ;)

Posted by: QuietusLeo | Aug 24, 2008 4:45:00 PM

That reminds me of the joke about the Jew being chased by a Cossack (or any antisemitic thug you choose.) The Jew realize that the Cossack is about to kill him, and that he can fulfill the mitzva of dying via kiddush hashem. So with all of his strength, he belts out a very powerful bracha: "Baruch atah hashem ... asher kidishanu ... al kidush hashem!". The Cossack is frightened by the Jew's fervor, so he runs away.

The Jew runs after him saying, with lips closed, "Mmmm ... mmmm...."

Posted by: Dave (Balashon) | Aug 24, 2008 7:20:20 PM


Can we ever relate!

Gretta, our 4.5 year old chatterbox sees the time between washing and eating bread (esp. on Shabbat in front of guests when we all wait to bless & eat the challah together) as her stage time.

She nods solemnly, big brown eyes wide with earnestness, when we explain (yet again) that she needs to be quiet all the way to the eating.

Then, as everyone quietly assembles at the table, she jubilantly narrates and comments and sings...

So we all "Shush" her. Delighted, she'll pause her monologue just long enough to "shush" us back, eyes twinkling and giggles overflowing.

If we try to give her the "fish eye" and show a serious face with our fingers over our closed lips, inevitably, the guests will burst out laughing at her reaction, in total sympathy with her.

All of this has served to reinforce the whole pattern, rewarding her with unbounded attention.

Thank G-d, she's so full of joy and what to say. But still, the bubbling flow needs to have a valve sometimes.

When it comes to controlling this, we have about as much authority as water we can hold in our bare hands.

Posted by: Juggling Frogs | Aug 24, 2008 8:00:01 PM

Great story! Clever kid.

Posted by: Ilana-Davita | Aug 24, 2008 8:40:45 PM

Reminds me of the time I overheard my little brother (he would have been a bit older than Yonah) tleling the non-Jewish kid next door what we do on Shabbos. "First my father makes kiddush and we all get to drink wine. Then we wash our hands and the only word you're allowed to say is "nu?". Give Yonah a big hug from me!

Posted by: Marsha in Englewood! | Aug 24, 2008 10:58:25 PM

Could it be that Yonah is the teacher here? Is the Giver ever under obligation because one has the foresight to say a ritualistic thank you?

Posted by: Bob | Aug 25, 2008 12:50:20 AM

I have no doubt that the lesson intended has taken seed somewhere in there, and will blossom in due time. Cheers; I am thanking G-d post-reading your post, before I go off to read anything else.

Posted by: Wry Mouth | Aug 25, 2008 4:02:51 AM

Dave (Balashon) -- I am laughing...

Posted by: Wry Mouth | Aug 25, 2008 4:03:46 AM


Posted by: Jack | Aug 25, 2008 9:38:52 AM

Kid knows how to work the system...Great story!

Posted by: psachya | Aug 25, 2008 3:45:33 PM

I find it funny how obsessive people seem to have become about not talking between washing and making hamotzi, especially when the talking has to do with procuring the bread, the salt, or the like. First of all, there is debate in the Shulchan Aruch as to whether there is a problem of talking between washing and Hamotzi at all (although the S.A. concludes that it is "good" to be stringent). According to the Mishna Berura (O"C 166:2) it is completely permissible, according to both opinions, to talk about things directly needed for the meal. I personally make a point of this; whenever I wash but for some reason am unable to find the bread (or salt if it's shabbos) I directly ask other people to help me locate what I'm looking for, then immediately make hamotzi once I get it. When I get strange stares, I just say "that's the halacha."

Posted by: Toviah | Aug 25, 2008 8:39:30 PM

Safranit -- My friends and I used to do that to each other when we wanted to "force" each other to hand over a bit of our snacks... we would walk up to them, say the bracha, and help ourselves to a bite of the candy bar, or whichever.

Posted by: A Living Nadneyda | Aug 26, 2008 12:11:54 PM

Another wonderful Yonah story. What a character that kid is.

I didn't have the blessing of having such wonderful parents teach me the brachot, so I must admit that it has been a challenge for me to teach them to LO since they don't come naturally to me...I pretty much hear a shehakol come from her for just about everything. (At least she is trying!)

As for keeping silent between hand washing and bread...you met her - I bet you can guess how often we hear that silence!

Posted by: orieyenta | Aug 26, 2008 4:53:01 PM

That's *brilliant*. Nice :)

Posted by: Ezzie | Aug 27, 2008 5:58:30 PM

Reminds me of the story with the boy n the apple--


Posted by: the sabra | Aug 28, 2008 11:03:45 AM

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