Shovavim and Naughty boys!

February 14, 2012

As a teacher I always preferred the naughty boys (within reason) to the goody goodies! There’s no accounting for taste as they say. I like a challenge. And of course am slightly mad!

One of my early talmidim became a rabbi. He was almost born a zaddik and aged 11 couldn’t get enough Torah knowledge. Although in the top set he was head and shoulders above the others and I had to set him extra work and try to teach him separately. Not easy in a class of 35 with little resources. He was a lovely boy if somewhat serious for his age.
He became a rabbi. No surprise there!

Some years later, I was teaching in a yeshiva in London. I had just finished my 4 hour morning session of Talmud and was waiting to daven mincha. I became aware of somebody standing in front of me. I looked up to see a tall young man wearing an ill-fitting black suit, white shirt, thin black tie and a black pork-pie hat. The clothes didn’t seem to fit or sit comfortably but the face was very familiar.

“Rabbi Wise, how nice to see you, how are you?”

“I know you, don’t I? But, I’m sorry, you’ll have to remind me of your name, and where and when”

He did and as I suspected, in a yeshiva, dressed like that waiting for mincha was the last place on earth I ever expected to meet him! I hoped that he hadn’t suffered a bereavement.

What are you doing with yourself now, I asked.
You are never going to believe me, came back the reply.
Try me, I parried?
I’m a…. I’m a …..
What? What? Tell me already!
I’m a rabbi!
I let out a loud scream and brought the entire yeshiva to a standstill!
You! A rabbi! Never!
I told you that you wouldn’t believe me.

So the boy with the drainpipe trousers, black suede shoes and Mohican haircut, who had turned avoiding mitzvot into an art-form was now a rabbi working in kiruv (Jewish outreach). Talk about poacher turned gamekeeper! One never knows!
‎ הזורעים בדמעה ברינה יקצורו

These weeks used to be known as “Shovavim TaT ” based on the first letters of the sidrot (weekly Torah reading).

The initial letters of the sidrot Shemot, Va’era, Bo, Beshallach, Yitro,  Mishpatim spell Shovavim.
Terumah and Tetzaveh spell Tat. Though nowadays I’ve noticed just shovavim without the tat more and more.

The custom is relatively late, first brought by the Levush (685:1) who writes that there is a custom in some places in a leap year (a year with two adars) to fast on the Thursdays of the sedras of shovavim tat. The reason is that the year is longer, and more than 6 months passes between the fasts of behab (Monday, Thursday, Monday) which are kept by some after pesach and sukkot. Therefore they fast 8 Thursdays which corresponds to the Mondays and Thursdays of four weeks of the extra month.

Another reason written is that the rabbis noticed that there were more miscarriages in leap (literally pregnant) years and organised these fasts to atone and avoid these miscarriages.
They start on the sedra “shemot” which mentions that ” the Bnai Yisroel were fruitful and multiplied….”
So now they pray that they should be fruitful and multiply and not miscarry.

The Sheloh Hakadosh (Shemot page 32) writes further: that in a leap year one needs to repent more than in an ordinary year. If the size of the moon had not been decreased then the sun and the moon would have worked together in harmony and it would not have been necessary to intercalate the year. Since a leap year is caused by this celestial argument between the sun and the moon, the fasts are organised to prevent the argument spilling over into the earthly plane.
The rabbis fixed this time as these parshiyot contain the ideas of teshuva, tefilla and zedaka and Talmud Torah.

He continues: another reason is that we have a tradition that in a leap year sickness increases, specifically childhood illnesses (perhaps because of the longer winter? MHW) and therefore they organised these fasts.

In the Shulchan Arukh, the Magen Avraham (at the end of  685) writes about these fasts on which the Pri Megodim in Eishel Avraham writes that in an ordinary year we fast shovavim and in a leap year shovavim tat. However the Shaarei Teshuva (seif koton beis) brings that in an ordinary year we don’t keep these fasts.

Shovavim also means naughty boys. And based on the verse Shuvu bonim shovavim (Jeremiah 3:14) – return naughty (backsliding) children – it is also a time to repent.

Nowadays most people haven’t even heard of shovavim tat let alone keep it. Nevertheless, perhaps we should take a moment, mid-winter, to thank God for the progress in medicine, especially in the area of childhood diseases, some of which have been eradicated as well as thanking Him that we weren’t born in a previous age!

Maybe we could direct some of our charity to medical research and the many charitable organisations that help the sick and wounded in Israel and abroad.

Keep warm and well

“A guten winter”

Rabbi Meir Wise

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