Wednesday, January 27th, 2021

Engaging with a Difficult Halakha: May One Show Affection Toward their Children in Shul?

September 13, 2009 by  
Filed under Halakha, Jewish Culture, Prayer


Engaging with A Difficult Halakha:  May One Show Affection Toward their Children in Shul?

by Nathaniel Helfgot


1. Much, if not most, of the halakhic lifestyle that many of us practice on a regular basis, especially in the relative comfort of our western-world middle class existence is pleasant, enjoyable and often fills our life with meaning and purpose. There are, however, halakhic demands and restrictions that, at times, challenge us physically, financially, intellectually, or more profoundly challenge our ethical, moral and even emotional and psychological intuitions. This reality cuts across the halakhic system whether we are speaking about laws rooted in biblical or rabbinic mandates, or simply customs that arose in the medieval or modern period that have become widespread as normative practice. In these areas, the halakhic Jew is often called upon to manifest, what the Rav zt”l would consistently term “heroism” in climbing the hurdle and remaining loyal to his or her commitments.

One of those proscriptions that many people instinctively react to with difficulty is the ruling of the Rema in Orah Hayyim 98:1 “that a father should not kiss his young children in the synagogue”.  This ruling which is not based on any talmudic or geonic source is first found in the writings of the medieval rabbinic scholar, R. Yehudah ha-Hasid of Germany and is subsequently cited by other Ashkenazic rishonim as the centuries pass. It is subsequently reaffirmed in the post-Shulhan Arukh literature and is explained by most as reflecting the notion that one should not demonstrate that a human love superceeds the most important, significant and ultimate love, which for the religious individual must be the love of God. This ruling (and its rationale) looked upon dispassionately seems to convey a powerful message that is jarring in its intensity. In effect it suggests that every time the individual Jew enters a house of prayer that individual is literally retracing the steps of Abraham on his way to the Akeidah. In confronting God on a regular basis in the shul context we are called upon to rise to the level of the ultimate expression of Yirat and Ahavat Hashem in our tradition-be-zeier anpim -in miniature by expressing (by omission rather than comission) that the love of God takes precedence over all else that is most precious to us.

2. And yet, on the practical level many people have great trouble wrapping their heads around this demand, especially in our culture that sees emotional and expressive love between parents and children as so critical to healthy and loving relationships between the generations. And simply on a practical level it is simply difficult for many people to restrain the natural urge to kiss their children when those youngsters enter shul on shabbat or Yom Tov. It is interesting that in surveying the halakhic literature on this topic there exists a great number of caveats that have been attended to this ruling of the Rema which I think bespeaks some of the human difficulty that the poskim are trying to address with sympathy and understanding.

3. Caveats:

1. Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l is cited in a number of sources (it is not found in Igrot Moshe) as arguing that the placement of this halakha by Rema in Hilkhot Tefillah and not Hilkhot Beit ha-Knesset points to the fact that this proscription only applies during the actual time that tefillah, e.g the 35-50 minutes of time that shaharit is taking place in the shul. Thus at any other time during the day, one could indeed show that affection to one’s children. It would be interesting to explore if there would be any poskim who would be willing to go further and limit this law to the actual sheat ha-tefillah in the sense used by the Mishnah-i.e Shemoneh Esrei, when one is directly standing before the King, in the language of Rambam, which would further limit the actual parameters of this halakha.

2. A number of poskim note the common sense point that this halakha does not refer to situations in which a child has fallen or is crying and one is kissing the child to calm them down or “fix the boo-boo” which is not included under the rationale of this halakha.

3. A number of poskim note that if one is kissing another individual out of respect, especially respect mandated by the Torah- e.g. child to parent, to teacher,  (as is common in many Sepahrdi shuls and as developed by Rav Ovadyah Yosef in Yehaveh Daat Vol. 4 in his discussion of this issue) there is no prohibition. Extending this concept somewhat, Piskei Teshuvot cites opinons that permit one to kiss someone in shul of out of respect and admiration for having completed some sort of milestone e.g made a siyum on a masechet etc. However, he claims (in his notes) that this would not apply to a father kissing his son after his aliyah as bar mitzvah becuse it takes place during tefillah and is reflective of parental love. In discussing this issue informally a few weeks ago with Mori ve-rabi, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, he suggested (after first noting that he had not checked the sources carefully) that he found it difficult to imagine that kissing a child in the context of his fulfilling a mitzvah or element of the tefillah experience would fall under the rubric of this proscription as it directly related to the child becoming a bar hi-yuvah and involved in the tefillah process.

4. A Personal Note:

This last point is not a halakhic one but a deeply felt personal reflection that impacts my thinking and struggle with this topic. I simply share it with readers with whom it may or may not resonate. Rav Yehuda Amital in a famous siha (later published in the volume by Moshe Maya on Rav Amital and the Holocaust) notes that while Rabbeinu Bahayei argued that the foundation of all of one’s avodat Hashem should be based on a sense of hakarat hatov-gratitude to God, after the Shoah it is simply impossible to continue to advocate such a position and we must look to alternate models to inculcate and strengthen our sense of obligation in Torah and Mitzvot. In a word, Rav Amital has argued that our relationship to God needs to account for the reality of the Holocaust and its impact on our hashakfat olam. By analogy, for me, at least, when my young children enter shul to join me for tefillah or go up to say ein keilokeinu in the space that we gather together as a Jewish community I often find myself experiencing a powerful sense of connection to Jewish history, to the sense of am yisrael chai and the wonder of our continued existence and the feeling of “ud-mutzal mei-eish” and thinking of the children and parents who did not make it through the hell of the crematoria and the ghettos. I find tremendous spiritual and emotional force in those moments that often bring forth a powerful emotional desire to embrace my children in love and a sense of cherished blessedness. (I still cry every time I hear the song “Circles” by Abie Rothenberg which speaks of a group of survivors in 1945 who return to the shul in their town on Simhat Torah and cannot find any sifrei Torah and discover two children who are miraculously survived the war and pick them up and dance with them in place of the sifrei Torah!-Am Yisrael Hai)

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