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Ask the Aish Rabbi a Question

Recent Questions:

What to Use for Besamim (Spices)?

Whenever I go to a religious home for havdalah, I notice that they use whole cloves for the blessing on the spices (besamim). Is there some special significance to this, or can any spice be used?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

As far as I know, there is no special sanctity to whole cloves. The purpose of the besamim is to cheer us up from the loss of our “extra souls” (neshama yetaira) which depart at the conclusion of Shabbat (Rashbam to Talmud Pesachim 102b). Just about any naturally-occurring aromatic object may be used for this.

I suspect that cloves became customary because they retain their aroma for a long time and they were readily available in areas such as northern Europe. Today we take for granted the wide availability of an array of exotic spices which were no doubt virtually unknown to our ancestors in Europe.

There are a few rules to keep in mind in terms of what to use for besamim:

(a) It is best not to use manmade substances for the besamim, as some are of the opinion that a blessing should not be recited on them (V’Zos HaBracha 19:4).

(b) Spices which are not used to produce a good smell but are placed to remove bad odors – such as air fresheners put up in bathrooms – should not be used for besamim. According to many opinions, one does not recite a blessing on them (Shulachan Aruch 217:2 with Bi'ur Halacha). (Most such substances are manmade anyway.)

(c) It is proper to set aside spices especially for besamim (Mishnah Berurah 297:9). And it’s a good idea to keep them in a closed container so they retain their scent.

(d) Some have the custom to take hadasim (myrtle) leaves left from the lulav for the besamim. Since they were used for one mitzvah, they should be taken for another. However, one should be careful that they haven’t dried out to the extent that they no longer give off a good odor (Shulchan Aruch & Rema 297:4).

(e) The Sages instituted slightly different blessings for different types of plants – such as aromatic grasses, wood or fruit. It is best to take standard spices for havdalah to avoid this situation. Even if one does take say, cinnamon bark, he still recites the standard blessing – borei minei besamim – since the Sages wanted to avoid confusion (Mishnah Berurah 297:1).

Hole in the Sheet

I heard that observant Jews have relations through a hole in a bed sheet. I tried finding the source, but was unsuccessful. Is this true?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

The story goes that two tourists were walking through Mea She’arim, an Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem. As they were looking at all the children playing in the street and the merchants selling their wares, the tourists looked up at a laundry line and saw a sheet with a hole in the middle. One asked his friend if he knew what it was. Taking his best guess, the friend said it must be a special sheet that married couples uses for relations.

The first guy noticed strings tied to each corner of the sheet. "And what are those strings on the four corners?" he asked.

"To tie to the four bed posts," his friend replied.

I'm not sure if this story is true, but whatever the case, the "sheet" they saw was a "Tallit Katan," the 4-cornered garment that religious men wear. This garment has "Tzitzit" fringes tied on each corner, and a hole in the middle to slip over one's head (like a poncho).

As far as how a Jewish man and woman are supposed to have relations, the Code of Jewish Law (OC 240) proscribes that during relations, both the man and woman must be completely unclothed. This is because the Torah wants the husband and wife to be as intimate as possible, without any separation between them.

The moral of this story: Hire a tour guide!

Ketubah: 200 Zuz

I see that my marriage ketubah says it is worth 200 zuz. What is the equivalent of 200 zuz in American dollars?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

Let's see: In the Passover Haggadah we sing about "the goat my father bought for two zuzim." So I guess your ketubah is worth the equivalent of 100 baby goats.

But seriously: The rabbinic sources say that a Zuz [Dinar] is the equivalent of 3.5078250 grams of pure silver. This was established at the time of the Second Temple Era and is practiced today.

According to that figure, 200 zuz comes out to 701.565 grams of pure silver. This is equivalent to 24.7466 ounces of pure silver. At $30 US per ounce of silver, the total value of 200 zuz is approximately $750.

There is nothing that prevents the husband from increasing the sum specified in the Ketubah to beyond that demanded by the strict letter of the law.

(sources: Bechoros 5, with Tosfos; Baba Basra 90a, with Tosfos; Maimonides - Laws of Shekalim; Igros Moshe - EH Part 1:101; Sefer Mesoras HaShekel)