Many of you know that Abe Salem (z”l) passed away this week. He was the former minyan leader and Torah reader here at Beth Shalom. As I was preparing for the funeral, I watched the video he made for the Holocaust Center (we sent out the link with the death announcement), and of course struggled to understand him, because he used to switch back and forth between English and Yiddish. So that got me thinking about Yiddish, and then I realized that one thing that we Jews have given to the world is the kibitzer.
What is a kibitzer? Definitions vary. Some kibitzers are funny people, joking and making fun and generally spreading good cheer. Some kibitzers offer unwanted advice. Some are there to throw off the rhythm of others engaged in serious activities, like playing chess or cards.
My wife recalled to me that when she was a little girl, her mother would play cards with her Hungarian friends, and ask Judy to be a kibitzer, but she was not sure exactly what that meant; neither of them spoke Yiddish. (BTW, I checked my trusty Modern English-Yiddish / Yiddish-English Dictionary, by Uriel Weinreich, and apparently the correct English term for “kibitz” is “kibitz.”
But we all know these characters. They are a standard feature of Jewish life steeped in Eastern European ethnicity. Wherever these Jews gathered, historically, there were kibitzers. Along with the nudnik, the schnorrer, and the yente, they form a certain stratum of Jewish society that serve as social connectors. They were part of the fabric of Jewish life that marked close neighborhoods, in which everybody knew each other (and of course each other’s business). We have a talent for connecting people together, and we have particular people that do it in particular ways.
(FYI: nudnik is a pest; schnorrer is a beggar, or somebody who takes advantage of others’ generosity; and a yente is a busybody.)
Of course, as a group, most American Jews today, even though we are mostly descended from people who knew these roles and the people who played them, we no longer have that sense of ethnic interconnectedness. Squirrel Hill, it seems, is something of a throwback among Jewish neighborhoods, but even so, many have told me that it’s not what it used to be. And
And the same is true for the wider society in which we live. As the saying goes, the Jews are like everybody else, only moreso.
There are many little ways through which we demonstrate our awareness of and respect for others around us. One small example is how drivers behave at stop signs.
Back on Long Island, I used to live right by an intersection with a four-way stop. From my kitchen window, I could see cars driving through the intersection without stopping all the time. Some slowed down. Some did not. (Some seemed to actually speed up as they were approaching.)
Now, I cannot say that I myself have never rolled through a stop, or exceeded the speed limit. But I think it’s notable that we are living in a time in which it is almost expected that, except when one is in the presence of a law enforcement officer, certain illegal driving behaviors are ubiquitous.
The sociologist Robert Putnam, whom you have probably heard me mention in this space before, wrote a seminal work of contemporary sociology called Bowling Alone, in which he documents the decline of interconnectedness in our society, and the consequences thereof. One of his measures of this sense of interconnectedness is, if you can believe this, stop sign behavior.
A long-term study of intersections in New York, cited by Putnam, yielded this: in 1979, when the study began, 37 percent came to a full stop. In 1996, 97 percent did not stop at all.
Traffic laws, health and safety standards, business regulations, and so forth – these are all designed to create a just society in which people are safe from the yetzer hara, the evil inclination of others. They are all reflections of a deeper set of principles, which the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau referred to as the social contract: that in order to live in a free society, we as individuals must surrender a few freedoms to protect most of the others.
The Torah, of course, contains principles of law which govern our public behavior, to benefit the general good. One such example is that when you build a house, you must put a parapet around the edge of your roof, to prevent people from falling off (Deut. 22:8). Another is that if you dig a hole in your yard, and somebody’s ox falls in and breaks its leg, you are responsible to pay monetary damages for the ox (Ex. 21:33). And there are many more such examples.
And a whole order of the Mishnah, one sixth of that earliest rabbinic work, is dedicated to what we call today tort law. It’s called Neziqin, “damages.” And several tractates of the gemara are likewise devoted to these cases.
The point, of course, is not merely to protect people or make sure they do not get hurt, but also to maintain our sense of awareness of the other. If you think about your neighbor’s safety, you are going to want to build a parapet on your roof and not leave dangerous holes in your yard. You want to protect the people around you from harm. You care about them. As with every good habit, it takes practice, consistency, and a healthy dose of mindfulness. That’s what the Torah and the Talmud are going for.
So the stop sign is one side of that interconnectedness: the things that we do to protect others from harm. But the other side is the social connection that happens organically when people gather together. And that brings us back to the kibitzer, and to Parashat Emor, which we read this morning.
It’s not explicitly stated, and it’s not really something you can glean from the English translation, and that message is this: some of the holy opportunities of Jewish life are for you singular, the individual. And some of them are for you plural, the collective. Society writ large. And all of them are, as Katriel suggested earlier, for the sake of Qiddush HaShem, sanctifying God’s name.
Last week, in Parashat Qedoshim, we read the Holiness Code, a kind of guide to the kinds of interpersonal mitzvot / holy opportunities that help set up a just society. But mostly they are for individuals, and the language of the Torah reflects that: Do not profit from the blood of your neighbor. Do not bear a grudge. You should not use dishonest measures in the marketplace. And so forth.
But this week in Parashat Emor, we find the holiday cycle, and those mitzvot are in plural. Since we’re in Pittsburgh, yinz all know what the correct colloquial plural for the second person nominative pronoun is. Yinz shall keep My appointed times. Yinz shall observe Passover for seven days. And so forth.
Why plural for the festival cycle? Because those are the things that we do as a group, as Am Yisrael. The suggestion is, yes, you might be able to maintain the holiness in your individual relationships on a one-on-one basis, but yinz better be celebrating together. Because that’s what Jews do. We are individuals who are part of a collective. When we are together, we make a greater whole, and those are the times when we are closest to God.
And whom do you encounter at these group observances and celebrations? The kibitzers, of course, and everybody else.
So you may want to consider this the next time you come to a stop sign, but even more than that, think about it as we kibitz at the luncheon today, and the next week, and for Shavuot in two weeks, and so forth:
If you are doing Jewish right, you are sensitized to and aware of all the people around you. That is what our tradition is for. And that is what we stand for as we make the words of Jewish life and learning alive for us today.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 5/13/2017.)