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Recent Questions:

Optimism and Pessimism

Time Magazine recently ran an article based on the book "The Optimism Bias." The subtitle, which sums up the article, read "Those rose-colored glasses? We may be born with them. Why our brains tilt toward the positive… in spite of all the negative." It outlines how, based upon so many negative life experiences, we should collectively be much more pessimistic about events and their expected outcomes, yet we remain much more positive that we should be based on reality. Although hope and optimism are healthy for us, they are often counterintuitive.

This article postulates that positive thinking is hard-wired into our brains. Optimism was naturally selected during our evolutionary process because without the anticipation of a future reward man would have giving everything up. Even the knowledge of our mortality to should lead us to a "dead end," to despair leading our survival activities to stop because, after all, why is it worth it? They use evidence from MRI scanners showing activity in certain sections of the brain which might indicate those areas are responsible for our positive thoughts and keep us thinking optimistically and happily, when we otherwise logically wouldn't.

Personally, this article, though fascinating, did not make me happy at all. I am a very optimistic person but would be greatly deflated to learn that all my optimism is simply a chemical reaction in a deep section of my brain. Does Judaism have anything to say about this?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

I looked at the article that you mention and, though intrigued by the suggestion, felt much as you did from this theory; to think that my optimism or anyone else's is simply the result of hard-wiring is not very optimistic! I find it very disempowering to think that our optimism is not the result of a conscious effort to be that way, and those who are depressed or negative is simply because of some malady or hormone dysfunction.

According to Jewish thought, optimism and pessimism are included in the larger body of actions and thoughts about which we can and need to exercise Free Choice. In general the concept of free choice applies to things we are obligated to do, i.e. mitzvot, and deeds or thoughts which we are proscribed from performing, i.e. misdeeds. Which mitzvah would obligate one to be optimistic and proscribe us from being pessimistic?

The answer is the mitzvah of bitachon, or "trust" in the Almighty. The concept of trust is predicated upon the core Jewish belief in God's unlimited power, giving Him the ability to affect the results of any given situation. Hence the Talmudic statement, "even if a sharp sword is raised above your head, do not give up hope for Divine intervention."

The notion of bitachon is further based upon the Jewish understanding that God is all-knowing, and is fully cognizant of all our needs down to the most precise detail. Furthermore, He loves us all more than anyone else and, although He's busy with many others, never takes His eye off of any of us for a moment. All this teaches us that whatever happens to us is, ultimately, for the good. If the result of any given situation is not to my liking, I can still rejoice in that outcome because I know it is truly the best thing for me, whether I ever find out why so, or not. To live this way brings about serenity, you're not nervous and worried what will happen, and brings about a life of optimism and joy.

This realization is, in fact, "hard-wired" into our souls, which deep down contain a spark of Godliness and know this well. It is our choice whether we tap into that wellspring of knowledge within ourselves and live with optimism and serenity, or to heap layers of darkness upon our souls and live solely with the realities of the physical world; leaving God out of the picture, and allow pessimism to take over!

Forgotten Blessing

I am proud of the fact that at my advanced age I am learning to recite the blessings over food for the first time. However, probably also due to my age, I occasionally forget to say the blessing until I am already in the middle of eating. Should I make a blessing with a mouthful of food? What is the proper procedure?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

Congratulations on your efforts! One is never too old to take on new practices and to strive closer to God.

In terms of your question, there are a few factors to consider. Ideally, one should make a blessing with an empty mouth. The Talmud (Brachot 51a) derives this from Psalms 71:8: "My mouth will be full of Your praises [God]." When we say a blessing or pray, our mouths should be filled with our praises of God and nothing else.

Thus, when practical, one should spit out the food he is eating, make a blessing, and return it to his mouth. However, this is not feasible for most foods and drink, as most people would not be comfortable returning it to their mouth after spitting it out.

Based on these considerations, here are a few basic rules:

(1) A food which can be comfortably spit out and returned to the mouth - such as chewing gum or a sucking candy - should be removed from the mouth, a blessing recited, and the food returned (Shulchan Aruch 172:2).

(2) Most foods, which cannot be comfortably removed and returned to the mouth, should be moved over to the side of the mouth, a blessing should be recited, and the food should be swallowed (ibid). In other words, it is better to pass up on the preference of blessing with an empty mouth if the alternative is that the food will be wasted entirely.

(3) Liquids present an additional problem because it is very difficult to move them to the side of one's mouth and recite a blessing. If this is feasible, one should do so (Mishna Berura 172:1). If not, spit out the liquid and do not consume it at all (Mishna Berura 172:2).

(4) In an unusual situation where a person has a limited amount of liquid and will not be able to replace what is in his mouth, he may swallow it without reciting a blessing (ibid).

Finally, for an excellent overview of the laws of blessings, check out an online course on the Laws of Blessings at The Aish Academy.

Ashkenazi-Sefardi Pronunciation

I've noticed that Ashkenazi synagogues pronounce some words differently than Sefardi synagogues. What is the halachic status of these two variants? Do Ashkenazim who speak "Israeli" on a daily basis act consistently if they use a different pronunciation only for prayers?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

Today there are two forms of Hebrew pronunciation. One is "Israeli/Sefardi" pronunciation which is characterized by all tavs said as "t" and the kamatz vowel pronounced as "a." The second is "Ashkenazi," typified by the "s" sound of the unpointed tav and the kamatz pronounced as "o." A typical example is whether to say Shabbat or Shabbos.

Every Jew has a tradition/custom of how to act. This includes many aspects of Judaism including dress, text of prayers, and pronunciation. Each Jew has to follow his/her traditions and customs. Indeed, the Talmud says that the Jewish people were redeemed from Egypt because they didn't change clothes, names and language!

In the last century, when spoken Hebrew became revived in Israel as a modern language, Sefardi pronunciation became adopted as the prevailing style for business, conversation, etc. Let's clarify: Your question is not an issue of modern spoken Hebrew. That is defined solely by Israeli street, which uses "Hebraicized" words such as "telephone" and "food processor."

The halachic issue is that some Ashkenazi Jews switched over to this pronunciation for prayers as well. This is very difficult to support. Many authorities maintain that an Ashkenazi who pronounces the name of God (Aleph, Daled, Nun and Yud) in the "Israeli" way has not fulfilled his obligation. This applies when saying blessings, praying, or a public Torah reading. For example, when saying the Shema twice daily, the halacha demands one to pronounce every letter of the Shema perfectly. Switching to Sefardi pronunciation would be problematic in this regard. (Mishnah Berurah 68:4; Shu"t Minchat Yitzhak 3:9)

If you are Ashkenazi and grew up learning only the Sefardi pronunciation, I realize that it is difficult to adjust to the Ashkenazi way when saying prayers. Many have done so successfully, and as an aid you may want to mark a red dot in your Siddur in the places where you need to remember to pronounce correctly.

Let me add that when praying in a synagogue that is different from your own customs, you should follow what the custom of the synagogue in anything that is said aloud. That means you should recite Kedusha, Kaddish and even an aliyah to Torah the same as they do. Regarding the silent Shemoneh Esrei, however, which is not "public," you should pray your own text and pronunciation.