The ProsenPeople

The Chuppah: What’s Happening Underneath?

Wednesday, August 17, 2016 | Permalink

Rabbi Lawrence Hajioff’s new book, Will Jew Marry Me? is a great selection with the Jewish celebration of Tu B’Av on the horizon. Rabbi Hajioff is guest blogging for Jewish Book Council asa part as the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.


Of all the traditions we have in Jewish life, the one I believe is full of the most meaning yet is the least understood and appreciated is the ceremony that takes place under the chuppah, the traditional Jewish wedding canopy. The bride and groom will spend months preparing the right hall, caterer, band, and dress for their big day, but many times they give little thought to the aspects of the ceremony itself. I wasn't pleased with this, so before I perform a wedding ceremony, I always invite the couple to join me in learning what is actually go on under the chuppah.

I also use treat the chuppah ceremony itself as a teaching moment. I ask couples if they are okay with me giving very brief explanations of various parts of the chuppah as they happen. Nearly all couples are delighted at the opportunity of having their guests appreciate the customs of the chuppah and not have to sit through another boring Jewish ceremony. Invariably I’ll receive positive feedback from the people in the audience, and quite surprisingly the people who enjoy the ceremony the most are often non-Jewish guests who, in most cases, are experiencing a Jewish wedding for the first time.

When writing my book Will Jew Marry Me? I decided to add a chapter outlining some of the beautiful and ancient customs we perform under the chuppah. Here are a couple of highlights:

The Chuppah

The Chuppah is a public display that the bride and groom are now becoming husband and wife by symbolizing the home the couple are about to build together.

If the chuppah represents the Jewish home, wouldn't it make more sense for the chuppah to have four walls like any regular home? Instead, the walls are removed and four poles hold up Chuppah canopy. This design comes to remind us of the original Jewish couple from the Bible, Abraham and Sarah. We are told that Abraham and Sarah lived in a tent. Although in their day people were living in stone structures, despite being very wealthy Abraham and Sarah decided to live in a more portable structure so they could keep moving around to different population centers. They did this so they could fulfill the incredible mitzvah of hachansat orchim, welcoming guests into their home. It was for this reason they kept their tent open on all four sides, so that passing travelers traveling from all directions knew they were welcome into the tent of Abraham and Sarah. Jewish couples recreate this tent at every wedding to reimagine themselves as the first-ever Jewish couple, opening their homes to the needy.

The Wine

Wine is used as part of the ceremony at many Jewish lifecycle events, and the chuppah is no exception. (White wine is generally used under the chuppah, since red wine could stain the brides dress, which is never a good thing!)

Wine represents change. An eight-day-old baby boy at his brit milah, or ritual circumcision (often called a bris), is given wine, as he is about to enter into the Jewish covenant. We welcome in the Shabbat with wine, as the week is changing from the mundane to the holy. On Passover we drink four cups of wine as we celebrate the change the Jewish people went through from slaves to free people. Under the chuppah, the wine represents the bride and groom’s transition from single to married.

Why is wine chosen for this—why not water, orange juice, or coffee? Well, we like wine! But furthermore wine itself contains within it the greatest change: at one point the grapes sat on the vine basking in the sun, before they were plucked, and crushed. An outsider would wonder why such a beautiful thing as a grape would be given such harsh treatment. However after tasting the result of the crushing in the delicious wine it produces, we understand that the suffering the grape had to endure was truly worth it.

Relationships are the same. We go from our single, independent lives into the sometimes challenging environment of sharing every part of our lives with another person. For many people this can be an extremely challenging transition. The wine teaches us that the grape is wonderful on the vine, but through some challenge and a little pressure, an even greater life awaits it in the future.

Rabbi Lawrence Hajioff is the author of Jews Got Questions? and Will Jew Marry Me?: A Guide to Dating, Relationships, Love, and Marriage.

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Would Tu B'Av Dating Work Today?

Monday, August 15, 2016 | Permalink

Rabbi Lawrence Hajioff’s new book, Will Jew Marry Me? is a great selection with the Jewish celebration of Tu B’Av on the horizon. Rabbi Hajioff is guest blogging for Jewish Book Council asa part as the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.


Dating has become a real challenge for many young Jewish men and women. Most people have taken to online dating in order to find their soul mate. Websites like JDate and Saw You at Sinai as well as apps like JSwipe have become most people’s first choice in finding their other half. For some, these avenues have proven successful, but for many others online dating hasn't delivered in its promise of finding, as JDate puts it, “People who share your love of bagels and lox.”

Some are calling the surplus of young and eligible Jewish men and women a “singles crisis”. Maybe it is, or maybe it isn’t, but either way, this isn't the first time in Jewish history we’ve seen a large group of Jewish men and women trying to find love relationships.

In Taanit 30b, the Talmud speaks about one of the happiest days in the Jewish calendar, the Fifteenth of Av, or Tu B’Av, as the date spells out in Hebrew. A number of events are attributed to this festive day in Jewish history. One of them involved a certain custom of pairing up young single men and women for marriage. The women of Jerusalem would dress up in white borrowed garments and go dance in the vineyards. The young single men would go and watch them, and the women would say, “Young men, raise up your eyes and see what you choose for yourself, do not pay attention to beauty, pay attention to family.” This was the successful method they used in stemming the tide of singles in the Jewish community. And, according to the Talmud, it worked.

Is there a secret here which may help us match up Jewish singles today?

Well the first thing that struck me about this Tu B’Av ritual was how our ancestors considered the matching up of young men and women for potential marriage as the happiest day of the year! It wasn't seen as an inconvenience, or a pitiful event to offload the remaining singles; on the contrary, matching singles was seen as a very spiritual and holy duty, that the Talmud even compared to the spiritual effort that was put into Yom Kippur.

Another aspect to this ancient version of JDate I find interesting is how young men and women were not left to their own devices in finding a marriage partner. It wasn't a case of go to college, get a job, and go find a spouse: instead the entire community took responsibility for all the singles, helping them find their potential soul mates. In my new book, Will Jew Marry Me? A Guide to Dating, Relationships, Love, and Marriage, I write that of all the mitzvot in the Torah, getting married is considered a Jew’s first priority. As a community we do a number of actions to take care of others. We assist others in finding work, we give charity to the needy, we build hospitals and libraries and perform many other wonderful charitable acts. I believe just like our ancestors, matching singles should be a communal project we all join in to perform.

What was the purpose of the women borrowing white garments—why didn't they just wear their own? The reason is so that no woman would be embarrassed by those who had more. The king’s daughter, who was presumably very rich, wore the same attire as the daughter of the daughter of the High Priest, who may not have been so well off. This extended to all of society, in which rich and poor, irrespective of what they possessed, would look the same on Tu B’Av, to be valued for who they were, not what they had.

I’m not sure making women wear one another’s clothing would work today, but the message is a good one. Giving advice to single men and women in their dating efforts and assisting them with sound and honest council, so they don’t make the mistake of judging potential mates purely by what they have, but rather by who they truly are, could do much in helping them find their way under the chuppah.

Finally, and I realize that this is a stretch in dating today, the amount of time young men and women date for, needs to be curtailed somewhat. I’m not suggesting one night dating like the original Tu B’Av is at all practical today, however the young men and women I meet who date for three, four and sometimes many more years before they become engaged (or in many cases break up) can be reduced in order not to waste each other’s time.

So maybe dancing in vineyards like our ancestors isn't really viable in today’s day and age, however creating communal events, having married couples take responsibility for setting up their single friends, and structuring our communities as a source of advice and support for dating couples certainly is.

Rabbi Lawrence Hajioff is the author of Jews Got Questions? and Will Jew Marry Me?: A Guide to Dating, Relationships, Love, and Marriage.

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Jews and Their Many Questions

Friday, January 09, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Rabbi Lawrence Hajioff wrote about how he approaches challenging queries and the benefits of crowdfunding one's book. His book, Jew Got Questions?, is now available. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

One of the first Jewish books I remember reading as a child belonged to my sister; it was the Jewish Book of Why by Alfred Kolatch. Its easy-to-read Q&A style kept me interested enough till the next question. When I began to formulate the idea for my book, I felt the short answer formula was the way to go. I reasoned if people didn't have patience to read a long answer thirty years ago, how much more so today!

As I mentioned in my previous post, writing 'short' answers to 'big' questions carried with it the danger of trivializing questions that need a longer more nuanced response. But the 'Kolatch way' was well received, so why wouldn't mine be?

The more I thought about, the more I realized how much of an important role questions play in Jewish life.

Many of us fondly remember standing as a young child by the Pesach seder asking the four questions. With our parents and grandparents watching us with tremendous pride, our entire introduction to familial Jewish life was through those four questions. Even though we were reading from a script laid out in front of us, we understood that questions were good. We loved them and we sang them.

The ‘four sons’ of the haggadah are also part of the world of questions. We have the ‘wise son,’ the ‘wicked son,’ the ‘simple son,’ and the one who ‘doesn’t know how to ask questions.’ Traditionally we look at the ‘wicked son’ as the worst of the bunch, with his question that is both cynical and disrespectful. Does he really want to learn or is he just asking in order to mock? Either way we give him a response to keep him engaged in the conversation. The best of the bunch, one would expect the ‘wise son’ to be beyond questions and be answering questions the other three sons are posing him, but he too is asking a question, albeit in more respectful and interested manner.

The worst of the four I have come to believe is the last in the list. He sits alone, outside of the conversation, not knowing what is going on and is barely present except for his blank stare at the excited goings-on at the Pesach seder, the son who has no questions. He is a tragic and mute character who is not part of our people as he isn't even inquisitive enough to ask about the strange and foreign rituals he is watching.

Over the years I had heard countless stories of people describing their frustration at not being able to ask questions during their time at Hebrew or Jewish day school. They felt judged or were humiliated by teachers who may have felt threatened by being asked philosophical questions about G-d, Judaism, heaven, hell, or anything else. The fear of asking questions is antithetical to being Jewish. To be part of the people of the book is to take pride in learning and questioning until the truth is revealed.

Why are questions so important? The Maharal of Prague explains that people feel satisfied with their view of life. Thus they are complacent when it comes to assimilating new ideas. But when a person has a question, it is an admission of some lack. This creates an "empty space" to be filled.

Ultimately I wanted to allow the reader to finish reading my few hundred questions and feel confident enough to ask some of their own.

Originally from London, England, Rabbi Lawrence Hajioff graduated with honors in political science from Manchester University. After working for MTV in news production, and winning the national competition 'Jewish Stand-Up Comedian' of the Year, Rabbi Hajioff traveled to study in Israel and then Monsey to receive his rabbinical ordination. Rabbi Hajioff is the educational director of Birthright Israel Alumni in Manhattan, New York.

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A New Take on Old Classics: How a Rabbi Approaches Challenging Questions

Wednesday, January 07, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Rabbi Lawrence Hajioff wrote about the benefits of crowdfunding one's book. His book, Jew Got Questions?, is now available. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Rabbis get asked lots of questions. In many cases the answers we provide are not as good as the questions we are asked. I have a saying, "There's no such thing as a stupid question," but believe me there are some pretty stupid answers. Hence my concern with answering three pretty big questions that have either been troubling theologians for thousands of years or have become a concern only over the past few generations.

In no specific order, here are some challenges I faced when tackling these questions.

Why do bad things happen to good people?

This is the question that, in its many forms, I have been asked the most. It's also the question I least look forward to answering. The best answer to this question that I could give in the book was "I don't know." To even attempt at answering this question is the height of arrogance; however, my publisher was insistent that I pose and tackle this question to the best of my ability. As my publisher put it: "How can you leave out such a question?" How indeed.

Compounding the problem was the style of my book, which is composed of short answers to questions. Can this dilemma be dealt with in a few paragraphs? Ultimately, I added a long preface disclaimer and then gave a number of possible solutions to the answer. Regardless, though, of  whatever answer I attempted to give, the answer was not as good as the question.

According to Judaism, what is the age of the universe?

This question, although only taking up a couple of pages, set the deadline on my book back around three months. This is a topic that is constantly changing with new theories being proposed and new books being written from either a scientific or theological perspective or both! While attempting to answer this question a new book was published by a rabbi in Israel which, despite being rather disappointing, still had to be read and somehow incorporated.

After reading a number of Jewish books on the topic, I felt I needed to read an updated book or two from the scientific world. Luckily my chavruta (learning partner) is a doctor with a keen interest in this field. He selected books for me to read and ended up helping me write most of the answer, although I still had to deal with the publisher who had their own editor they had chosen to review all of my answers.

After much back and forth with the publisher we found a common ground. I ended up taking an approach which I felt would be best appreciated and, quite frankly, understood by any reader from my target audience.

Why can't I marry my non-Jewish partner?

The challenge here was that I know many of my readers are in fact intermarried or children of intermarried parents. The last thing I wanted to do was offend them, or make them feel any less Jewish. Like the first question, answering this question in a 'rational' manner is a challenge because the question is invariably 'emotional.' In other words, the questioner is really saying "I'm in love, why are you rabbis against me marrying the person I'm in love with?" No real answer was going to suffice on an emotional level.

However, with intermarriage rates at 53% and with so many young Jewish men and women dating someone not Jewish, I felt I had to tackle this question head on. Ultimately, it was my work with many people who are dating a non-Jew or who are married to one that led me to write an answer that I believe delicately but unapologetically gave some perspectives on this question.

Originally from London, England, Rabbi Lawrence Hajioff graduated with honors in political science from Manchester University. After working for MTV in news production, and winning the national competition 'Jewish Stand-Up Comedian' of the Year, Rabbi Hajioff traveled to study in Israel and then Monsey to receive his rabbinical ordination. Rabbi Hajioff is the educational director of Birthright Israel Alumni in Manhattan, New York.

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Five Reasons You Should Crowdfund Your Next Book

Monday, January 05, 2015 | Permalink

Originally from London, England, Rabbi Lawrence Hajioff graduated with honors in political science from Manchester University. After working for MTV in news production, and winning the national competition 'Jewish Stand-Up Comedian' of the Year, Rabbi Hajioff traveled to study in Israel and then Monsey to receive his rabbinical ordination. His book, Jew Got Questions?, is now available. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Books don't grow on trees. A close associate of mine had started a shirt company and had crowdfunded his new venture. He suggested I try doing the same for my book. I knew very little about crowdfunding, but a student of mine had introduced me to a young Jewish guy who had founded Indiegogo, a highly successful crowdfunding platform.

I launched the campaign and it was hugely successful. I managed to raise all the funds I needed to hire the best editors, designers and professionals to make my book a showstopper. Here are five reasons you should crowdfund your next book.

1) To Create Buzz

One of the best things a crowdfunding campaign does is create buzz and excitement for your upcoming book. As any author will verify, we write books to be read. As a first time author, no one knew I was writing a book except the few people I managed to corner in synagogue or at work, and even they were a little sick of hearing about my book project again and again. A good crowdfunding campaign engages people with whom you don't have regular contact, making them aware that you are writing a book.

2) To Raise Money

I never realized how much money was needed to write and publish a book. Crowdfunding brought in the funds I needed from people who I would never normally ask for sponsorship. We all have an inner circle of close friends we can call at a moment's notice. We also have an outer circle of people who know us and maybe keep up with us via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or other social media channels. Good fundraisers tell you that people give money to people not causes. If you have a relationship with someone, they may want to help you be successful just because they like you, appreciate your friendship, and want to see you be successful.

3) To Get People Involved in the Book

People like to be involved in cool projects. As a college professor and as a professional working with the alumni community of Birthright Israel, I had a large network of men and women I had built over the years. These were people who had been in my classes, has been with me to Israel or Poland, maybe they had been to a Friday night dinner I had hosted. The campaign allowed to me reengage with people I had not seen in months or even years.

People were given "perks" depending on how much they contributed. For $36 they received a copy of the book. For $100 I included the contributor's name in the preface to the book. It's incredible how many people appreciate their name being included in a book! For higher amounts I added personal Torah learning sessions and even a chance for someone to host me in their community as a 'scholar in residence.' You can tailor your perks based upon what you do and what you can offer.

4) To Increase Readership

Social media is inundated with with lots of great projects and causes. I wanted my books to be one of them. As more people see your campaign video on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and via email, the greater the chance they'll want to read it whether they contributed or not. Making a video about your book works wonders and of course it will allow people to understand why you wrote the book and how important the book is to you in a fun and different way. If the video is well made it could even take on a life of its own and possibly go viral.

5) To Have Fun!

Writing a book is a long and laborious task. Crowdfunding lets you have fun and feel appreciated every step of the way!

Rabbi Hajioff is the educational director of Birthright Israel Alumni in Manhattan, New York.

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