Change Your Clothes, Change Your Mind | Kitzur Shulchan Aruch Notes

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This piece is part of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch Notes series.


Several years ago, I worked as a marketing specialist for a local tech company. These kind souls gave me the option of working from home one day a week. This was the first time I had ever worked from home. I liked it at first, but soon found the freedom to work from a laptop on my couch in my pajamas to be distracting. So, I made little change. 

I put on my boots. 

Oddly enough, just putting on my boots dramatically increased my productivity. Why the heck would putting on boots increase my focus? By putting on my books, I was tricking my brain out of sloth-like state of “chill.”  Even while still in my pajamas (don’t worry — I’d put on real pants eventually), the feeling of the leather gripping my ankles and over the tops of my toes told my mind, “It’s doing-stuff time.” 

Siman/chapter 12 of Kitzur Shulchan Aruch discusses the logistics of prayer — how far to travel to pray with a congregation, where to stand, and how to gauge if you have to poop bad enough where it will be an undue distraction to your prayers (I guess this was a greater question of logistics before the advent of indoor plumbing). The sphere that resonates with me the most in this chapter is the question of how to dress when engaging in prayer…even if you’re home alone. 

“It is written: ‘Prepare to meet your God, O Israel.(Amos 4:12)’ Preparing yourself before Hashem, Blessed is He, means that you should dress yourself in the same type of respectful clothing when you pray, as you would when meeting a high official. Even if you pray privately in your home you should dress properly.”

The main point of being adequately dressed in this section is out of respect for the One to Whom we pray. This is fairly implied. However, I’d like to dive into what I think is a pretty solid second reason; to prime your mind. 

Back before I was an exhausted dad, I had a personal practice of which I probably need to get back to doing — every Erev Shabbat, even if my wife and I were staying put, I would go change into a collared shirt and slacks for Shabbat dinner. The main reason I started doing this stems from one evening. One Friday evening, I didn’t bother to change out of what were my Friday work clothes — jeans and a t-shirt containing the logo of the company I worked for. Welcoming in the Sabbath with a kiddush ceremony, I was suddenly overcome with the sensation that I was underdressed…even though I was at home with no plans of leaving. The holiness of the time period was a guest in our home, and here I was looking like a schmutzy schmuck. For several years following that feeling, I usually always made an effort to upgrade my appearance in anticipation for this holy presence. 

Fast forward several years into the future and being a dad has taken its toll. When my son was first born, sleep was elusive. Shabbat soon became the finish line of the week which we would stumble or crawl across and then promptly collapse. No special effort was made aside from what was absolutely required. 

These days, my son is a little over a year old and is an absolute sponge. Though he’s not quite speaking yet, I can tell he’s soaking up everything he experiences. This means that I have become especially conscious of my habits, behavior, and speech patterns. Studying this chapter of Kitzur Shulchan Aruch speaks to me — that I stop wearing my pajamas during my Sunday morning prayers before Him and him in the house — “Him” being the Creator and “him” being my son.

On Shabbat mornings, my wife and I make a special point to dress in some of our most formal attire. While this is just nice to do, this is also to set an example for our son that going to the synagogue on Shabbat is a very significant experience. Still, the Creator is not different depending on where I prayer — whether beside my bookshelf or in my synagogue. Some consistency is in order — consistency in how I present myself to Him as well as my mindset when approaching Him in prayer. 

Though I’m probably not going to start putting on my only suit to daven Shacharit (pray morning prayers) on a Tuesday, I should at least be my best self for that day when approaching Him. Though He doesn’t care what I wear when I approach Him, I, however, should.


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The Perspective-Changing Power of the Mezuzah | Kitzur Shulchan Aruch Notes

Reading Time: 5 minutes

This piece is part of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch Notes series.


Siman/Chapter 11: Mezuzot

Chapter 11 of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch discussed when a mezuzah is required. 

Background on the mezuzah: 

Much like we discussed in yesterday’s post about tefillin, a mezuzah is much like tefillin for your house. The commandment originates in the same section of Deuteronomy 6, in which we are instructed to “…inscribe them (the commandments of the Torah) on the doorposts of your home and on your gates.” These tiny scrolls are attached to the right side of the doorways of homes firstly as a reminder of the commandments and secondly, as an indicator of a Jewish household. 

There seem to be two possible disconnection points with this commandment to the average reader. 

  1. Is this passage meant to be poetic or taken literally? 
  2. Are we supposed to write the Torah literally on the doorposts

On the first point, many argue that this verse is to be taken poetically or metaphorically — that these commandments should be discussed in your home so much that it’s as though they are written on your doorposts. While this is true, because of the ambiguity of the instruction and our ability to perform it (unlike circumcising your heart), we should lean on the side of diligence and aim to make this possibly-poetic statement literally. 

On the second point, the command needs to make some kind of rational sense. One sign that we’re not meant to write the entire Torah on the doorpost of our house is that there’s no way the entire Torah would fit on the average doorpost. A Sefer Torah contains 304,804 letters. This can lead one to understand that a summary of the Torah should instead be used. The book of Deuteronomy is frequently thought of as a summarization of the Torah, making sections of it the most appropriate to fulfill this commandment. For this reason, Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and 11:13-21 are used. Still quite a lot to write on building supplies, these passages are handwritten on a very small piece of parchment, tightly rolled, and slipped into a small container that is “affixed” to the doorposts of a house. The scrolls are called “mezuzot”, which actually means “doorposts.” The containers/covers are often marked with the letter shin, the first letter of “Shaddai” — one of the Creator’s Names. The containers are not to be confused with the “mezuzah” (singular of “mezuzot”) scrolls anymore than a lunch box is to be confused with the actual lunch it contains. 

mezuzah scroll
Mezuzah scroll parchment.

What constitutes a house that requires a mezuzah? According to Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (aka Maimonides aka The Rambam), it must: 

  • Be at least six square feet 
  • Have two door-posts
  • Have a lintel
  • Have a ceiling
  • Have doors
  • Have an opening at least 10 handbreadths tall
  • Be used for secular purposes
  • Be a dwelling place
  • Be a place for dignified use
  • Be a permanent dwelling (the text later states this include rentals with more than a 30-day period)

These requirements rule out bathrooms, tents, and many other places. (See the text for details.)

Yeah, but why? 

It can be easy to get into the weeds on commandments that require us to incorporate certain spiritual objects into our lives. I feel that it is most important to share the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch’s purpose for the use of mezuzot. 

“One must be very diligent to observe the commandment of mezuzah because it is the obligation of everyone at all times. Wherever you enter or leave your home, you will encounter the Oneness of Hashem, the Name of the Holy One, blessed is He, and recalling His love you will awaken from your lethargy and cease going astray after the vanities of the times. You will then realize that nothing endures forever except the knowledge of the Eternal One, and will immediately return to your senses, and walk in the path of the righteous. Our Sages of blessed memory say: “He who has tefillin on his head and on his arm, and wears tzitzis on his garment, and has a mezuzah on his doorpost, is sure not to sin, because he has many reminders and these are the guardian angels who save him from sin.”

Wait, you…kiss it?

In order to help keep the mezuzah pronounced in our minds instead of it becoming yet another decorative accessory, the text, as well as custom, recommend “kissing” the mezuzah anytime you pass through the doorway. This doesn’t mean to get on your tip-toes and plant one on your doorframe. Instead, simply touch the mezuzah case and then kiss your fingers where you touched it. Visiting a religious Jewish area, you will notice people doing the “tap-kiss” as they pass through most any doorway that contains a mezuzah. One of the things that stood out to me about my wife while we were dating was that she never passed by a single mezuzah without giving it a tap-kiss. 

charria touch mezuzah

charria kiss mezuzah
“I’ve never met a mezuzah I didn’t kiss.” – My wife. She didn’t actually ever say this, but it’s just what I noticed.

The chapter ends by recommending that the text on the scroll should be checked for damage “two times every seven years” a domestic mezuzah or “two times every fifty years” for an organizational one to keep it from being bothered too much. Modern authorities may recommend checking them every year before Rosh HaShanah, though I don’t personally know anyone who does. 

In the more old fashioned Jewish world, there is an idea of the mezuzah possessing an abundance of spiritual power. Some claim this is legitimate while others write it off as folklore and superstition. Examples of this way of thinking may include someone experiencing a terrible illness, injury, or if children lose interest in being religious, an invalid mezuzah or tefillin may be thought to be the culprit. 

I don’t personally believe that a few cracked letters can result in a few cracked bones. I do believe, however, that there is a more sensible and psychological connection to an invalid mezuzah and lapsed faith. Someone who hasn’t paid their mezuzah any mind in decades likely hasn’t paid any mind to other aspects of their Torah observance. Those mezuzot that have blended into the architecture of the house may belong to a family where the meaning of a mezuzah has faded from the consciousness of the home. 

In this fast-paced world littered with constant distractions, taking the time to acknowledge a mezuzah upon entering or leaving a home can adjust how you view the world and your life within it. 

As bonus material, enjoy a video I made many years ago about mezuzot for a now-defunct website. 


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Tefillin: Portable Time Sanctifiers | Kitzur Shulchan Aruch Notes

Reading Time: 3 minutes

This piece is part of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch Notes series.


Chapter, Siman 10: Tefillin

Chapter 10 of Kitzur Shulchan Aruch concerns the construction, meaning, and use of the tefillin. For those unacquainted with tefillin (or “phylacteries” — though I’ve never heard a Jewish person call them this), they are the materialization of the verse in Deuteronomy 6 – “Take to heart these instructions which I charge you this day…Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead…”

Literally or Poetically?

Many outside of mainstream Judaism have argued that this is a poetic verse, not intended to be taken literally — much like the instruction to “circumcise the foreskin of your heart” in Deuteronomy 10:16. While it’s true that open-heart surgery would have proved tricky in the dessert, the practice of binding instructions to your hand and making symbols between your eyes or on your forehead is something that can be done.

Basic Summary of Tefillin

Tefillin are two small black leather boxes that contain tiny rolled up pieces of parchment containing select verses from the Torah. Today, these boxes are typically only worn during morning prayers on weekdays (Sunday – Friday) that are not holy days (Yom Kippur, Rosh HaShanah, Passover, etc.). One of the boxes is attached to a long black leather strap containing a loop. The loop is tightened around the bicep of the non-dominant arm, wrapped seven times around the forearm, around the knuckles of the middle finger, with the excess strap length wrapped around the hand. This is known as the tefillin shel yad — or the hand tefillin. The other tefillin box has a similar long black leather strap attached to it that wraps around the head— the tefillin shel rosh (head tefillin). The back is tied with a particular style slip knot that sits where he skull meets the neck near the brain stem. The box sites right at where the hairline usually starts. Though upon the forehead where a baby’s skull is soft, it is aligned to be directly between the eyes. The excess straps lay down the chest like brained pigtails.

boy wearing tefillin

Tefillin As Time Sanctifiers

Despite being a part of Jewish movements in the past that did not believe that Deuteronomy 6 was to be taken literally, I’ve understood tefillin as a physical embodiment of a mental and spiritual act — to bind the instructions of my Creator to my hand (representing my actions) and make them symbols between my eyes (representing my focus). One of the first reasons I was drawn to Judaism as a teenager was the idea that positive actions could stabilize my fleeting attention and focus. The Kitzur Shulchan Aruch states that tefillin can help us preserve our focus as well.

“As long as you are wearing tefillin your attention must not be diverted from them even for a moment, except while praying the Amidah and while studying Torah. It is forbidden to eat a regular meal while wearing tefillin, but eating a snack [while wearing] tefillin is permissible; but taking even a short nap while wearing tefillin is forbidden.”

When I don tefillin every weekday morning, I feel like they help project a temple I can visit. This is not a temple of bricks and mortar but instead constructed of time. I know that if I’m wearing my tefillin, my focus is on the weightier matters — interaction with the Holiness of the Creator, His Torah, my own gratitude towards all of the gifts He provides and asking for help. Any place I put on tefillin becomes my morning phone booth — from my neighborhood synagogue to my living room, an Airbnb or the bank of a river on a camping trip. Any of these places can become the Beit HaMikdash (the Holy Temple) in my mind and heart with the help of tefillin.

ken lane's tefillin


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Secret Embarrassment as Punishment | Kitzur Shulchan Aruch Notes

Reading Time: 3 minutes

This piece is part of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch Notes Series. 


Siman/Chapter 9:20 | Embarrassed by Invalid Tzitzit

Around section 20 of chapter 9, we wrap up (no pun intended) the regulations of valid versus invalid tzitzit threads. We’ve covered that there are a handful of requirements of tzitzit to make them acceptable, but this section talks about what happens if finding valid tzitzit or fixing invalid tzitzit is simply impossible. 

“If you go to a Synagogue on Shabbos and discover that a tzitzah (fringe) of your tallis (prayer shawl) has become invalid and you are unable to borrow another tallis and you are embarrassed to sit without a tallis, then, since it is not possible for you to tie another tzitzah on this day, therefore for the sake of your dignity you are permitted to wear the tallis as is but you should not recite the berachah. This is applicable only if you were unaware before Shabbos that [the tzitzah] became invalid, but if you knew before Shabbos that it became invalid you are forbidden to wear the tallis, since you should have fixed it the day before.”

We notice here flexibility and a balance in the text towards keeping the rules and the unpredictability of life. So, you arrive at synagogue only to find that one of your tzitzit is invalid, rendering the entire tallit technically unsuitable for use. To make matters worse, there isn’t another one you can use.  

What was your intent? To be compliant with the rules. 

What happened? You’re in an unavoidable situation where you can’t fix the wrong, but you’ll also be embarrassed by praying without a prayer shawl. Though we shouldn’t dwell on how others think about us, they’ll quickly notice your lack of a tallit in prayers and wonder what’s going on. This may even be distracting. Can you imagine if the rabbi in services one morning just decided to go without a tallit? It would likely cause a commotion that would injure the quality of the service. 

What is the remedy for this situation? Do you just carry on as though nothing had happened? Almost. 

As we read, the text says you can wear the tallit, but you can’t recite the blessing on it. Reciting a blessing associated with a tallit is usually in hushed tones or before you enter the synagogue, making your lack of doing so unlikely to draw much attention. Actually, you will be able to carry on throughout the service as though your tzitzit are completed valid. 

But you’ll know.

You’ll know that you’re technically wearing an invalid tallit. You’ll know that you didn’t say the blessing. In this case, the punishment for this crime is your own knowing. 

It’s not unusual to delight in observing the commands of Torah and the stipulations of halacha (tradition). In fact, doing so can be quite pleasurable for someone who feels that doing so pleases G-d and injects increase purpose and divine structure into their lives. Many on the outside fail to see the appeal in this and ask, “Well, what happens if you don’t do something? Are you punished?” 

Our answer is often, “well, no.” Our response, however, should be, “indeed, there is punishment — harsh punishment indeed.”

“Well, what is this punishment of which you speak?” 

“Anytime I don’t do a mitzvah, I miss an opportunity to do a mitzvah. That is my punishment. Likewise is the reward I receive from performing a mitzvah — the great gift of being able to perform a mitzvah.” 


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Borrowing Priceless Items Without Permission | Kitzur Shulchan Aruch Notes

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This piece is part of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch Notes series.


This piece is in commemoration of the 5th yahrzeit (anniversary of passing) of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi — a soul whom I never met, but who I couldn’t help but feel knew me whenever I study his teachings.


Siman/Chapter 9, Part 1: Tzitzit

For those who know me know that the mitzvah/commandment of tzitzit (“zeet-zeet”) is one close to my heart and beginnings in the Jewish faith.

As an overview, the Torah commands Jewish people to don four fringe tassels on the corners of their four-cornered garment also known as a tallit (“tah-leet”). There are two types of talitot (“ta-lee-tote” — the plural version). There is a tallit katan (“katan” meaning “small”), a smaller, undershirt-sized poncho-like garment typically worn underneath their regular shirt daily. There is also a tallit gadol (“gadol” meaning “big”) which is also known as a prayer shawl. This is what you’ll see worn by Jews during morning prayers.

A tzitzit fringe is made of four wound wool strings that are run through holes in the four corners of the tallit katan or tallit gadol. These strings are folded in half, making the appearance of eight strings that are knotted and wound in a method containing ritual numeric significance. The knotted and wound section make up about a third of the overall fringe that is approximately a foot long.

The purpose of the tzitzit is to be a visual reminder to a Jewish person of the commandments of the Torah.

“And you will look upon it and you will remember all the mitzvot (commandments) of Hashem (God).”- Numbers 15:39.

In the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, there are many requirements of tzitzit.

– The hole of the tzitzit should be no more than three thumb-breadths from the corner and no less than one thumb-breadths so that it is still considered the “corner” while not being so close to the edge that it may be easily torn off. – Even if the hole is ripped after the tzitzit was tied to the garment, it’s ok — as long as it was tied in the proper place when first tied. – If a tzitzit is torn completely off, it must be untied and re-tied through the mended hole — not merely having the hole mended around the existing loop. – You should check your tzitzit before putting them on to make sure they’re in good shape and not tangled. One exception is if you’re running late for prayers. – Before you put on a tallit gadol, you should utter the blessing of “al’mitzvat b’tzitzit” — “concerning the commandment of tzitzit.” – Before you put on a tallit gadol, you should put it over your head, utter the blessing of “l’hita-tef b’tzitzit” (“to enwrap ourselves in tzitzit”) while throwing the corners over your left shoulder up to your neck and wrap yourself in the manner of the Arabs.”

It’s customary to keep the tallit gadol over your head for four seconds. I never quite understood this until I saw the late Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, ob’m, do so. The way he did so was as though he was giving his tallit gadol—and by extension, his Creator — a loving hug. I continue to practice this mostly due to the way this action struck me.

– The blessing of tzitzit should only be uttered during the daylight hours because the purpose of tzitzit is to see them. – If you take off your tzitzit with the intention of putting them back on soon, such as taking off your tallit gadol before using the restroom, you don’t have to say a blessing. However, if your tallit gadol fell completely off accidentally or you took it off without intending to put it back on, you need to say the blessing again before putting it on. – etc.

There is one part of tzitzit/tallit gadol wearing that surprised me in this section.

“It is permissible to borrow someone’s tallis (tallit gadol) on an irregular basis, even without his knowledge, and use it for prayers and to recite a berachah (blessing) over it, because it may be assumed that one is pleased that a mitzvah is performed with his property, if it is at no loss to [the owner]…”

Wait a minute. This means that if, say, I’m running late to services and find someone’s tallit gadol there and know that they probably won’t be attending services, I can pull it out, unfold it, and throw it on as though it were my own?

Yep — even if I’ve never met this person.

What makes this halacha (ruling) even more significant is that someone’s tallit gadol is an extremely personal item. Ritually speaking, a man from an observant Ashkenazi (European) Jewish background first receives their tallit gadol as a present from their wife on their wedding day. They pray with this item every morning. Because they’re worn as shawls, they’re rarely washed, so over time, they start to take on that person’s familiar scent (the scent of my own daily-worn prayer shawl reminds me of the smell of my father’s or grandfathers’ jackets — natural scents I inherited from them). When this person dies, one of the tzitzit fringes is cut off to symbolize that the commandments no longer apply to them. Their body is wrapped in the tallit gadol in their casket. For those buried according to Jewish ritual, this is the only personal item they are buried with. They’re not even buried in any of their own clothes, instead dressed in linen burial tachrichim — simple white pajama-like garments made for this purpose. This tallit gadol is essentially like a child’s beloved security blanket, yet I’m allowed to just borrow it, willy nilly?

Yep.

The message this sends me is that community trumps materialism. In the western world, we’re all about our stuff. We lock our doors. We customize our homes. We have our stuff just the way we like it. Our possessive spirit creates a bubble around us. You have your stuff. I have my stuff. “Never the twain shall meet.”

This ruling, however, tells a different story. It says: My most prized, personal, spiritual possession is also yours to use if you so need it. If I am not in immediate need of it, I am willing to lower my force field of materialistic grasp and offer it to you. You should not be without simply because of my own connection to and history with this particular item.

What if we treated not only our items this way, but also our time? What if we said, “If I can help you, my help is yours”? Like another’s tallit gadol, how many of us would accept this help? After all, this help smells like you, it feels like you — like the grasp of your hands and all of your experiences.

Like we offer up our prayer shawl to those without one, we should also offer up our time and help. On the other side of this situation, we should be willing to embrace the broken-in prayer shawl of another and embrace their help.


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The Best Part of Waking Up is…Prayer | Kitzur Shulchan Aruch Notes

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This piece is part of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch Notes series.


Siman/Chapter 7

Picking up where chapter 6 left off, in chapter 7, we mostly look at when specific blessings should be uttered and by whom. Some examples include not uttering blessings that don’t make sense to utter (saying the blessing for the sunrise while it’s still dark), but also some unlikely blessings that, in a round-about-way, make sense — such as a blind person saying the blessing on sight, because people who can see assist the blind.

Siman/Chapter 8

In Chapter 8, we learn that prayer comes before any personal luxuries in the morning. Before the consumption of sweetened coffee or tea, food, or non-health related personal matters, one’s attention should be on giving thanks. You’re not even supposed to greet people before you have prayed and given thanks because that is essentially maligning your priorities.

I used to practice this idea of rolling out of bed and praying. However, for a time, I realized that, fresh out of bed without coffee, I was mentally useless. Because unsweetened coffee is allowed before prayer (how I take it), I would let myself to have coffee before I would pray.

  • Because coffee takes about 30 minutes to actually kick in, I would allow myself to read a bit before I would pray.
  • Because I’m at my best once I’ve exercised, I’d allow myself to jump rope before I’d have my coffee.
  • Because I was pretty gross after I had jumped rope, I’d allow myself to shower afterward.
  • Because I had showered, I’d allow myself to get dressed before I’d get my coffee…before I’d read…and before I’d pray.

After a while, prayer started to get pushed back to being one of the last things I would do before leaving the house, making it a hurried endeavor — not the way prayer should be.

Many people of a spiritual persuasion who strive to develop morning routines allot some of that time to morning prayer. Still, the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch tells us where prayer falls on your morning agenda is also important. Not only are you more likely to do it, but by making it a top priority, you realign your priorities in accordance with this truth — that giving thanks and asking for help takes precedence over everything else in your day.

To try:

If you absolutely need coffee or tea in the morning in order to get to a place where you can offer thanks, don’t escape the peaceful solitude of your own mind. Don’t open a book. Don’t fire up a podcast. Whatever you do, don’t turn on your TV, computer, or phone. Sit. Enjoy your beverage. Let your mind slowly boot up. Look at your own thoughts. Once your mental processor is online, start your consciousness by offering thanks.


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When Good Habits Backfire | Kitzur Shulchan Aruch Notes

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(This post is part of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch Notes series.)

Chapter/Siman 6

In this chapter, we learn about something which I’ve already written about: the value of reciting a bracha — a blessing. While the importance seems to be understood in the text (you can read my past article on it learn about the benefit of incorporating the recitation of blessings in your daily life), this text tells how to recite a bracha.

  • Know which blessing you are about to recite so you don’t say God’s Name in vain.
  • Take time to understand and savor the meaning of what you’re saying.
  • Don’t recite the blessing solely out of habit and without thought.
  • Don’t multitask while reciting a blessing.
  • If someone makes a blessing around you that you agree with, say “amen” to it as well.
  • Etc.

The source texts used to substantiate the claim that you shouldn’t recite a blessing thoughtlessly comes from the prophet Isaiah 29:13:

“My Lord said: Because that people has approached [Me] with its mouth And honored Me with its lips, But has kept its heart far from Me, And its worship of Me has been A commandment of men, learned by rote—”

All too often, it’s easier to make poor decisions than choices that are good for us at the moment. Developing positive habits help to remove the friction of making great choices.

While we can afford to allow most habits to be mindless (drinking more water, exercising, etc.), there are instances where it’s worthwhile to “wake up” and be present. Spending time with loved ones, consuming useful content, and prayer — these are instances where only the cue to perform these activities should be habitual. While eating something can be a cue that you need to make a blessing, the blessing itself should not be a mindless utterance.

It’s important to remember which habits can afford to be mindless and which habits require mindless cues that lead to true mindfulness. Other positive habits can also be connected to others.

To try:

Cues

  • Eating can be a cue to make a blessing.
  • Putting your kids to bed can be a cue to exercise.
  • Etc.

Batching

  • Making coffee can be batched with practicing meditation.
  • Feeding the cat can be batched with going morning prayer.
  • Etc.

While I’d like to say that habit cues and habit batching were my ideas, I can’t take credit. I read about them in James Clear’s Atomic Habits which I recommend to everyone.


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The Jewish Rules of Pooping | Kitzur Shulchan Aruch Notes

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This piece is a part of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch Notes Series.


Just warning: you’re about to read about pooping, peeing, farting, and nakedness. Yep, the Jewish law of farts is real. Proceed with caution.

Siman/Chapter 4 & 5

I love that there are chapters of halacha (daily ritual Jewish law) about poop, pee, farts, and nakedness. Say hello to chapter four and five of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch! Man, I love studying Jewish texts. Nothing is off limits.

Summary:

Chapter 4

  • It’s best to poop in the morning.
  • Don’t hold in your pee.
  • Don’t mess around in the bathroom. It’s a place of business.
  • Don’t poop in a crowd, though you can pee in a crowd…because you shouldn’t hold your pee. (Gee, I hope the music festival people don’t find out about this.)
  • Don’t poop standing straight up. Wow, ok.
  • Don’t push too hard when you poop or you could hurt yourself.
  • Don’t pee on your shoes.
  • Don’t even THINK about Torah in the bathroom. Think about business dealings instead…unless it’s Shabbat…then think “of interesting events that you saw or heard.”
  • Don’t say holy things with a dirty butt.
  • If you’re right-handed, wipe your butt with your left hand. If you’re left-handed, vice versa.
  • When you’re done, wash your hands and say asher yatzar, aka: the “Thanks for allowing me to poop and therefore continue living” blessing (I’m paraphrasing, obviously).
  • You don’t need to say that blessing if you think you have diarrhea…because you’ll be baaaack.

Chapter 5

  • Flush the dang toilet. (Ok, it literally says to bury what you did, but I think flushing is the modern equivalent.) 
  • Don’t even think about holy things if you’re somewhere where it stinks.
  • Wash your pee off of stuff you pee on.
  • Don’t say holy things while you have poop or pee on your clothes.
  • Don’t say holy things if poop is anywhere on you…unless you have chronic hemorrhoids. (Because people would start to wonder why you’re so quiet?)
  • Don’t pray in a house where there is poop in the attic. (Was this a problem back in the day?)
  • Poopy infant diapers aren’t as gross as human poopy stuff…unless the baby has started eating solid food…then watch out (can confirm).
  • Stay away from poop or dead stuff…even if it doesn’t stink.
  • If you find poop in your synagogue, you can’t pray until it’s removed.
  • If you unknowingly prayed in a synagogue that contained poop, the prayers need to be said again in a place without poop. However, if it’s just pee…eh, you’re fine.
  • If someone farts, they can’t pray until the fart cloud dissipates.
  • If someone else farts while you’re studying Torah, you can continue to study through their fart cloud. (But that’s gotta kill the vibe, ya know?)
  • Stay away from the bathroom or bedpans made of wood or earthenware while praying, but clean metal or glass bedpans are ok.
  • Don’t say or even think about holy things while in the shower.
  • Don’t talk about holy things while you’re naked or you’re around nakedness…even if your eyes are closed.
  • The more traditional interpretation of this lumps women’s singing voices together with nakedness…but really? Still, you can pray if you hear women’s “naked” singing voices…as long as you concentrate really hard.
  • This last one, I don’t quite know what it means: “If your heart sees your own nakedness, even if your private parts were covered, as when wearing a robe, it is also forbidden to recite any sacred text. You must either wear trousers, which cling to your body, or put on a belt, or place your arms against your robe, in order to create a separation between your heart and your nakedness. A woman is not required to do this.” So, don’t look at your own nakedness…with your heart?

There are two reasons why I structured this post in this way:

  1. I find bodily functions hilarious. Poop jokes, fart jokes — I still laugh. I guess that makes me tremendously immature.
    Even though most of these guidelines can go unspoken, they are discussed anyways.
  2. There is no part of our lives that isn’t subject to intentionality (even if we’re intentionally trying to spark a chuckle with a poop joke). When we start to do things solely because it seems like the way they should be done, we run the risk of living aimless, profane lives.

The word “holy” comes from the Hebrew word “kadosh” — “set apart.” Purposeful. Intentional. I know it sounds slightly juvenile, but when we mix our discussions on our most treasured concepts with sitting on the toilet, they’re no longer set apart. They’re bathroom chatter. Then the holiness is gone.

And you never really appreciate what you’ve got until its gone.
Exhibit A: toilet paper.


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Intentionality Starts with Your Pants | Kitzur Shulchan Aruch Notes

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Later Siman/Chapter 3

We left off with a look at how to dress and to not seek after the arrogance of others. We continue with how to get dressed in the first place.

While this sounds like something your mother taught you, the reasoning behind this particular method of getting dressed is the infusion of intentionality.

“Since we find that the Torah gives deference to the right hand: in regard to service in the Temple [The priest used his right hand when he performed the necessary sacrificial rituals such as the sprinkling of the blood.] and in regard to the thumb and big toe referred to in the milu’im [When Aaron and his sons were consecrated, blood was applied to their right thumbs and big toes.] and purification of the metzora and in the mitzvah of chalitzah; [See Deuteronomy 25:5–10; Maseches Yevamos 104a.] therefore in dressing and in other activities you should begin with the right [hand or foot] as opposed to the left [hand or foot.]

Many of us are familiar with the idea of “waking up on the wrong side of the bed.” Fewer of us are familiar with starting our day with the right sleeve, pant leg, or shoe. This is essentially what this passage is instructing.

You may be saying, “Ken — yeah, sure, the priests in the Temple valued the right over the left. They did a lot of things in certain ways — everything from wearing turbans to dressing in linen. Does this mean that we are to do these things as well?”

You’re missing the point, my hypothetical friend. The point is that there is a point. Still confused? Yeah, I’m beginning to confuse myself, but let me explain.

For most of our day, our activities are unconscious. According to the “Passive Frame Theory” as discussed in a study by psychologist Ezequiel Morsella, only pressing decisions are served up to the forefront of our consciousness. While this may make it seem like we’re just zombies going through life, this is actually an incredibly efficient use of mental bandwidth. Most repetitive actions we do daily are relatively inconsequential. Which hand towel you use in the morning will not alter the course of history…unless your wife specifically told you not to use the nice towels to clean the toilet. I’m sorry, honey.

The downside of this mental autopilot is that it takes us out of thoroughly savoring the present. When our mind is running in default mode, choosing positive emotions over neutral or even negative ones can prove challenging because we’re mentally checked out.

What if we could mentally check in more often throughout the day? Well, we can…starting with our pants.

When was the last time you ran a cost-benefit assessment of putting your right pant leg on first before your left? You probably never have. It seems inconsequential, right? What if you could tie a benefit to putting on your right pant leg over your left? That’s what the text is doing in this instruction.

Though the benefit provided in the text is emulating the priest in the Temple, the goal is to channel that level of intentionality into your life. Everything about the Temple service was meticulously intentional. This level of intentionality in our actions is sorely lacking in our daily lives. What if we could use our pants, our shirts, or our shoes to infuse intentional positivity into our lives? This is what is possible by following the instructions in this text.

Something to try tomorrow, when you get dressed:

  • Put your right pant leg on first to symbolize walking in the right direction.
  • Put your right arm through your shirt sleeve first to symbolize making right actions.
  • Put your right shoe on first to symbolize walking out into the world with the right positive mentality.

At the end of the day:

  • Get undressed first with your left shoe, your left shirt sleeve, and your left pant leg first to symbolize leaving the day where it is — not dragging the day’s events with you as you go to sleep. Leave them on that day and move on.

Going forward, see if you can remember to get dressed in this way and to remember the intentionality that this seemingly inconsequential behavior symbolizes.

Shavua Tov (have a good week).


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A Rapper and a 19th-Century Jewish Text | Kitzur Shulchan Aruch Notes

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Siman/Chapter 3: Differentiating Yourself & Contentment

One of the struggles of this series is finding something in the text of Kitzur Shulchan Aruch that can apply to anyone — Jew and non-Jew alike. Chapter 3 holds one of those more difficult topics, but I believe that anyone can profit from it. 

So, what on earth am I talking about? This chapter discusses not dressing as they do. Who are they? Well, to put it bluntly…well…non-Jews. 

“We are not permitted to follow the ways of the gentiles, nor adopt their styles in dress or in hair style or similar things, as it is said: ‘You shall not follow the ways of the gentile.’”

Before my non-Jewish readers are quick to turn the page and feel “well, this obviously isn’t for me,” I do feel there is something that everyone can apply. 

  • “…our heritage demands of us to be modest and humble, and not be influenced by the haughty.”
  • “You should not dress in extravagant clothing because such a practice brings a person to haughtiness…”

We live in a world where the red carpet has found its way to our magazines, television, and even the devices in our pockets. It’s easy to be caught up in the world of luxury, glamour, and expensive taste. While an escape to this world is fine and dandy for an occasional “wouldn’t that life be grand?” daydream, the rate at which we are inundated with the exterior symbols of success is unparalleled…and for many, crippling. 

These exterior indicators of success can make us feel like inferior second or third class members of society. However, we need to recall one detail about those donning these “haughty” displays: many of them are completely miserable. 

We imagine these successful individuals to have their lives completely together. Donned in the finest clothing, equipped with a fleet of luxury cars, living it up in mansions or even yachts in exotic locations, many of these are also those we later read about in the news checking into rehabilitation facilities for depression, drug abuse, or that we even younger celebrities in the obituary pages. It turns out that these outward images of wealth and success are often but a mirage. 

One such case was the late rapper, Mac Miller. Almost overnight success gave this 20-something musician a net worth in the millions of dollars. What it couldn’t give him was inner peace. 

In the lyrics to his song “Small World”, Miller rapped,
“You never told me being rich was so lonely.
Nobody know me.
Oh well.
Hard to complain from this five-star hotel.”

On September 7, 2018, Miller was found unresponsive in his home by his assistant, who tried to perform CRP. Paramedics pronounced Miller dead at the scene. The cause of death was ruled an accidental overdose — a combination of fentanyl, alcohol, and cocaine. He was buried in his home city of Pittsburgh in a Jewish funeral.

Many idolized Miller for his talent and fame. Meanwhile, he was crying out for help in his own lyrics. 

What the text is telling us is to not forget who we are on the inside. While the rest of the world tries to sell you an image of success, the text tells us,
“…rather you should be distinct, in your clothing and speech and all other endeavors just as you are distinct in your perspectives and concepts.”

Anytime you start to feel inferior to those adorned in fancy clothing or living an extravagantly wealthy lifestyle, remember that these are not indicators of inner peace. The simple pleasures of life — community, family, passion, contentment — are worth more than all of the world’s riches. 

“Who is rich? He who rejoices in his lot.”
– Ben Zoma, Pirkei Avot 4:1

“I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.”
Jim Carrey


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