Dear Rabbi: Your Talmudic Advice Column
Published in The Jewish Standard
My husband and I were thrilled to be invited for Shabbos dinner at the home of a lovely, warm couple. This couple, always gracious hosts, had also invited four other couples. As we gathered around the table, the host, a gentleman who learns daily asked the men if anyone wanted to make kiddush. All agreed that they would be “yotze” the mitzvah with the host’s kiddush and not recite their own. Wine was poured, and all stood waiting for the host to begin. Just a few words into the bracha, a man at the table interrupted the host, correcting his pronunciation. Graciously, the host accepted the correction and finished the blessing.
The person who made the correction is known around town to be very learned. He wears a black hat, which he keeps on until after motzi. But I was really mortified to be sitting at the table where a host, or anyone, is embarrassed publicly. I said nothing at the table, but I do wonder if I should have said something and if it is halachically correct to correct/embarrass someone, even if it means a well-meaning bracha might be said with an incorrect pronunciation.
How far should we go, or should we go at all, to embarrass or correct someone, even if we see it as upholding Torah? This disregard for a person’s feelings under the guise of Torah values really disturbed me.
You provide me with rich detail, and you seek advice about sensitive issues of etiquette. You describe an occasion at a home meal where you assume correctly that common table etiquette should prevail. Indeed, it is rude to correct or embarrass the host at his own home. And if that was all that happened, you were right to have been upset.
The case you summarize, however, is not so simple. It involves a Jewish religious ritual, namely the recitation of kiddush to sanctify the Sabbath table by the host on behalf of all the others assembled.
To understand this better, let us consider how things work inside the rituals of an Orthodox synagogue. As you no doubt know, in every shul a leader recites prayers on behalf of the congregation, and a Torah reader chants the Torah as an agent of all those assembled. The congregants want their communal prayers and chanting to be flawless. That way, there will be no doubt that they have fulfilled their obligations through the proxy chanting of the leader. On occasion a leader may make an error, and one or more congregants may detect it and call out their correction. That’s an abrupt interjection from the assembly into the service. But in context, it usually is welcomed. It is not considered rude. It helps insure that the public ritual is impeccable.
Of course, by the way, this possibility of getting corrected can make a prayer leader nervous. If he is a sensitive person, it can cause him mild embarrassment if he makes a mistake and is called out on it from the gallery. But it shouldn’t be a cause for great concern because these things happen. In short, in shul it’s not rude to correct a reciter.
But you should now rightly argue that the Shabbat table is in a home, not in a shul. An interjected correction in that context must be deemed a rude interruption. And I do side with you in this case. I would not interrupt a host to make a minor correction to the pronunciation of a word. I probably would politely clear my throat, but only if the host made a gross error — for example, if he recited the entirely wrong kiddush, saying a festival kiddush on a Shabbat. So yes, from your perspective you were right to be upset with a disruption at the table over a small matter.
But from the perspective of the gentleman with the black hat, several things justified his behavior. He chooses to appear scrupulously Orthodox by his attire. And that means to me that he aspires to make a perfect kiddush, with not even a hint of mispronunciation. Now you can say to me that he was not making the kiddush. The host was. But he would say to you that the host served as his representative, and that he had every right to expect from him a perfect kiddush.
From what you describe the host did not take offense to being corrected. As a good host, he accepted the agreed-upon scenario that he pronounce the kiddush to satisfy the standards of his guests. In short, the host and his hat-wearing guest tacitly agreed that this was an occasion of religious ritual that had to be done in just such a way.
On the other hand, you did not see things that way. As a gracious hostess yourself, when you are at your own table, your balabusta values require scrupulous protection of the conduct at the table — that it be governed by generally accepted rules of etiquette that are prevalent in your social circle. You put those social rules as primary, and you set the religious rules as secondary.
Where there is a gray area, and a religious ritual is performed at a festive table, the priorities of etiquette values do differ. And so you need to be careful. You might find yourself in a similar situation again.
What then might you do to avoid becoming upset and having something like this ruin your Shabbat? To avoid this in the future, before Shabbat, if you are invited out, you can discreetly ask your host who else is coming to dinner. If the offensive person that you mention in your question is on the guest list, then you can fortify yourself in advance and go to the dinner, or you can make a polite excuse and not attend what may be to you a potentially awful event.
I hope that you find helpful this talmudic analysis and advice for the day-to-day reality of our world, where one person’s piety may be another person’s poison.
My child attends a Jewish elementary school. He recently came home excited to tell me about a new supplementary sports program that will be held outside of school hours on Sundays. He reported that it will be led by a young Torah teacher at the school, Rabbi K. The rabbi will coach the kids in various sports and take them to games, he said.
I immediately did not like this idea. Something seemed off to me. But I am too busy to look into this and my son insists that he go. “All the kids are going,” he claims. What should I do?
If the blink reflex of your intuition tells you to say no to your son, then do that. As Malcom Gladwell showed in his 2007 book, “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking,” your instant insight is often incisive and correct. No need for you to investigate or ruminate over this.
It’s probable that there is nothing untoward in the proposed arrangement. School administrators are more alert than ever to preventing improper relationships between teachers and students. But we still hear of unfortunate breaches wherein a teacher becomes too close with students, leading to direct access to them and to acts of abuse.
You always have to be careful about the safety of your children, without lapsing into hyper-vigilance. In this case, follow your gut feeling. Say no to the extra sports program. Your child will be disappointed at first. But that will pass, especially if you spend more time with him and you take him to some games.
Rabbi Dr. Tzvee Zahavy was ordained at Yeshiva University and earned his Ph.D. in religious studies at Brown University.