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Rapping with Rapp

If a woman converts to Judaism while pregnant, is her child born Jewish? Or does the child need a conversion of its own? Is it always permitted to perform surgery — a bris — on Shabbos? Why is a candle lit at the Havdalah ceremony after Shabbos? Why is no candle lit at the Havdalah ceremony after a Jewish holiday, such as Passover?

I APOLOGIZE for the mixed metaphor. Rapping does not imply humor and, in fact, rap music, to the extent I understand it at all, is typically ominous, not hilarious. Yet, rapping does connote something out of the ordinary, something that makes you sit up and pay attention.

As in, Rabbi Dani Rapp.

Don’t ask me to repeat one of his jokes, which are so smoothly interwoven into his lectures that, as they say, you have to be there.

I did chuckle, however, in a way that might be communicable when he got up in shul the other night — mind you, 11 months after he had last been there — and began, “Picking up where we left off . . . ”

For the past number of summers, Rabbi Dani Rapp and his wife Dr. Chaya Rapp, a professor of chemistry at Stern College, have come to Denver to teach Torah. Rabbi Rapp is a leading light at Yeshiva College and also a judge on the Beth Din of America. He graduated cum laude from Columbia Law School.

Interesting cases come before Beth Dins, which only heighten Rabbi Rapp’s innate capacity to entertain while lecturing on dead-serious topics, such as stem cell research and conversion to Judaism.

As in, a case that recently came before the Beth Din of a woman undergoing a conversion while she was pregnant. Question: As the woman converts, does the fetus also convert; or does the fetus need a separate conversion?

But wait, part of conversion is immersion in a mikveh, so that as the mother immerses, wouldn’t we say that the fetus immerses, too, and that if the fetus must undergo a separate conversion, well, it has just done that with the mother’s immersion?

As in, what’s the difference? Either way, whether the fetus converts as part of the mother or separately, it’s all the same immersion. What’s the difference?

Try this: If the fetus turns out to be a boy, it needs a bris. If the fetus converted with the mother and therefore is born Jewish, the bris would be on the eighth day of his life, as with any Jewish male newborn; and, if that day were Shabbos, the mohel would be commanded to desecrate the Shabbos in performing surgery on the baby.

But if the fetus is not born Jewish, that is, it is undergoing a separate process of conversion and, in fact, completed only part of the process with the immersion of its mother in the mikveh, then the baby is still not Jewish. For it still needs a bris to complete his conversion.

And for a potential convert, that is, a non-Jew, the bris need not be on the eighth day of life and a mohel would not be allowed to desecrate the Shabbos by performing the bris for the baby boy then.

So you see it turns out that there are practical differences how one conceives (pardon the pun) the effect of the mother’s conversion on her fetus — whether it converts as part of the mother or as a separate entity.

It turns out that the intellectual side to observance — the reason for a mitzvah — can play an important role in determining the parameters of its observance.

All this was but a two-minute aside offered by Rabbi Rapp in a sophisticated lecture on stem cell research, which I shall not recap here because there isn’t sufficient space — and because I was more drawn to another brief comment the rabbi made after the morning prayers the next day.

Let us back up. Here is the context. Rabbi Rapp comes to Denver as part of a summer kollel, or summer study program, sponsored by Yeshiva University, EDOS and the DAT Minyan. Among the scholars-in-residence have been rabbinic students and senior Talmudic lecturers, such as Rabbi Michael Yammer of the Sha’alvim Yeshiva in Israel.

This summer, Rabbi and Dr. Rapp are joined by budding scholars Rabbi Ari and Meira Federgrun.

Lectures, all of which are free, are every day, extending for four weeks. They take place at EDOS or DAT or in private homes, and are like manna from heaven: first-class presentations.

Chairs of the kollel this summer are Shlomo Fried of EDOS and Dr. Terry Samuel of DAT. Many others work the scheduling, host and housing committees. Fried has worked on the project since its inception.

AFTER the morning prayers, Rabbi Rapp asked: Why do we light a fire at Havdalah on Saturday night?

The first reason points up the lack of connection between the Havdalah ceremony after Shabbos and the burning candle at the ceremony. Fire, it is said, was invented on Saturday night. To commemorate that seminal invention for humanity, we light a fire on Saturday night. There is no thematic link to Shabbos.

A second reason: The kindling of the Havdalah candle points up the radical difference between Shabbos, when the lighting of fire is prohibited, and the rest of the week, when fire is permitted.

As in, who cares? A fire is lit on Saturday night either way. Who needs the various explanations?

Actually, as in the case of the fetus converting with the mother, practical differences depend on the reason for the Havdalah candle.

For example, should a candle be lit at the Havdalah ceremony marking the end of the Jewish holidays, such as Passover, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot or Shemini Atzeret (Simchas Torah)?

It depends. If you say that the candle commemorates the invention of fire, this occurs only on Saturday night. Therefore, there should be no candle in Havdalah at the conclusion of the Jewish holidays, if they fall on weekdays.

But if you say that the candle points up the radical difference between Jewish holidays, when it is prohibited to kindle a fire, and the rest of the week, when fire is permitted, then a candle at the post-holiday Havdalah would be appropriate.

In fact, no candle is lit at the post-holiday Havdalah, indicating that the main reason for the candle is to mark the invention of fire on Saturday night. Again, the reasoning behind a mitzvah is important to its nature and observance.

THERE is a wrinkle. Mostly, Yom Kippur occurs on weekdays, yet the blessing over a lit candle is recited at the Havdalah ceremony after Yom Kippur. Why is Yom Kippur different from other Jewish holidays, when there is no candle at their Havdalah?

Here is where the second reason for Havdalah comes in: A Havdalah candle points up the radical difference between Shabbos, when the lighting of fire is prohibited, and between the rest of the week, when fire is permitted. On Yom Kippur, the lighting of a fire is prohibited, a fact marked by the use of a candle at Havdalah after Yom Kippur.

Wait a minute. Did we not just say that a fire may not be lit on any Jewish holiday? And if so, why the difference between the Havdalah of the holidays — no candle — and the Havdalah of Yom Kippur — cum candle?

Yom Kippur, like Shabbos, is more stringent than the holidays, on which a fire, though forbidden to be lit, may nonetheless be used. On Jewish holidays, cooking over a preexistent fire (lit before the holiday began) is allowed. Plus, one may light a fire on the holiday itself from a preexistent fire.

Not so on either Yom Kippur or Shabbos.

In emphasis of this point, the Havdalah candle used after Yom Kippur must be lit from a preexistent fire (lit before Yom Kippur). This practice says: One may use fire before Yom Kippur and after it, but not on it.

Well, then, should one not insist that the Havdalah candle on Saturday night also be lit from a preexistent fire (lit before Shabbos)? Actually, not, since the main reason for Havdalah after Shabbos is to mark the creation of fire; and for that, one must create a new fire on Saturday night itself. The first reason (commemoration) trumps the second (prohibition).

One last wrinkle: What happens when Yom Kippur falls on Shabbos? Must the Havdalah candle be lit from a preexistent fire? Actually, not, since, again, Havdalah on Saturday night commemorates the creation of fire, and for that, a new fire must be created on Saturday night.

RABBI Rapp said all this in about five minutes after the morning prayers.

Thank you Rabbi Rapp, for your many illuminating lectures, short and long, in Torah. And thank you to Dr. Rapp, to their five daughters, to the Fenegruns and to the organizers: An additional daily dose of Torah opens the mind and deepens the soul.

Copyright © 2013 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Hillel Goldberg

IJN Executive Editor |

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