Monday, July 23, 2012

Defining Terms

I went with a friend to a lecture/discussion about the rules of the nine days.  Those in attendance were from a truly wide number of shuls/observance groups.  This year there were some differences in what was being said about what is permitted and what isn't, according to various rabbanim.

For one thing, those rabbis present all seemed to finally agree that the prohibition on wearing freshly laundered clothing does NOT include underwear, undershirts and socks--a decided change from last year. They also specifically mentioned that for very young children laundry may be done if they have nothing clean to wear. 

Then there was the discussion on wearing freshly laundered clothing during the nine days.  At first each rabbi said it was not permitted unless one had put on those clothes before the nine days so they wouldn't qualify as freshly laundered.  Okay, I teach English and yes, I tend to want my definitions as exact as possible.  I also know that certain words have more than one definition, so I want it to be clear as to which definition is meant when a word is used.  I raised my hand and asked if I could please have an exact definition for what "freshly laundered" is.

At first they looked at me as if I were some kind of alien being.  One member of the panel asked which particular word I didn't understand.  I answered  "freshly."  And that's where the fun began.  Two people immediately answered that "freshly laundered" meant not having been worn after laundering.  I responded that that was incorrect according to the definition of the terms.  "Freshly laundered" has nothing to do with whether or not clothing was worn but does have to do with the time period when the laundry was done.  Freshly has the meaning, in English usage, of having happened in the immediate time before today, of having happened recently.  Its opposite would be something that was laundered in the past--note: this does not mean dirty or already having been worn but refers strictly to the timeline of the laundering. Some were not happy to do so, but they begrudgingly agreed that "freshly" would apply to the time period that something was laundered in.

So the next question was what precisely was considered as "recently"?  Would laundry that was done yesterday be considered as done recently?  All agreed that it would be.  The next question asked, what about laundry that was done 1 week ago?  Was that recently?  A few were scratching their heads and said no, but most agreed that that, too, would be recently.  Then I stretched back in time and asked if laundry done 2, 3, or 4 or more weeks ago would be considered as recently done.  Now there was not a consensus.  Most finally agreed that anything washed that far back would not be considered as something cleaned recently.  So I said that if I took out a blouse that had last been washed 2-3 weeks ago and put it on today, I would not be putting on freshly laundered clothing and could therefore wear it without having tried it on before the 9 days.  Should have seen the looks on some of the panel's faces, but given the definition of "recently" they agreed that clothing laundered 3 weeks ago would not be considered as freshly laundered.

On of the rabbis on the panel decided to change things and said that what was meant was that "clean" clothing could not be donned during the nine days.  I pointed out that the opposite of "clean" was dirty, so was he saying that only dirty clothing could be put on?  His argument to me was that "dirty" is not the only opposite meaning of clean.  Really?  At that point I decided to shut up.

Frankly, the members of the audience were quite happy with my questions, and the rabbanim were not quite that happy.  But yes, this was a matter of definition of terms.

My female readers out there, do you own more than 6 skirts that you wear during the summer?  Might that number be more in the 12+ range?  Do you own at least the same number of tops, if not more?  I'm no clothes horse, but I counted the skirts I can wear during the summer (keeping mind that I don't throw out any clothing bought in  many previous years), both for Shabbos and for weekday wear, and I counted 20.  According to that number I've got a lot of skirts (and the tops to go with them) that would not qualify for freshly laundered even if not worn.  They've been hanging in the closet or on a shelf in the closet for quite some time.

So, it would seem that some of the prohibitions for the nine days hinge on terms and terminology that is not correct, or is not exact, or that can be defined in more than one way.    And oh that it were only this particular issue where a lack of proper word usage causes problems. 


JS said...

Your series of questions (and the rabbi's replies) perfectly illustrate for me why this is all a bunch of baloney and completely beside the point of what we're "supposed" to be thinking and feeling during this time period. The idea of feeling genuine loss and mourning has morphed into increasingly annoying and nit picky minutiae over what is and isn't allowed - and, worse, how we can get around the prohibitions while remaining in the halachic guidelines.

In my previous community there was emailed guidelines and shiurim on how one should wear his/her underwear for a short while prior to the 9 days or on Shabbat so that it's not freshly laundered with people asking questions about how long is long enough and whether the underwear should be neatly folded after or "crumpled" when put back in the drawer.

Apparently this is 21st century mourning over the temple. I can't imagine this somehow pleases a Divine Being. But, what do I know?

I choose to at least be honest with myself and recognize it's hard for me to connect with the loss of something I never knew and that seems completely foreign to me and that wearing non-freshly laundered underwear or clothing doesn't change that one iota. I'll be keeping to my normal laundry schedule and not pretending that some charade puts me more in the mood.

alpidarkomama said...

This is by far one of my favorite posts!!!!!! :) I was laughing aloud the whole time. OH, that they all had had teachers like you. :)

Mark said...

JS - or on Shabbat

Wouldn't that be considered "preparing" something on shabbat for after shabbat?

... another nitpick ... :-)

Anonymous said...

Halacha isn't codified in English!
The language of the Shulchan Aruch is: "assurim .. l'chabes ... v'chn hamechubsim mikodem bein lilbosh... asur"
That would translate into "those that were already washed." Don't get overly pedantic over the words "freshly laundered", the words to analyze are "hamechubasim mikodem", and we're told that once we wear something for a while, it loses its status as an already laundered garment.

definition said...

defining things are not easy :)

ProfK said...


I'll stick by my point. Check any of the translated into English listings of what not to do during the nine days and they all say either freshly laundered, or in some cases clean. So "Mikodem" is the word they should have translated correctly? The translation of "mikodem" is not "already." The basic meaning is "before." And "before" is used to show a position on a scale of time.

So what does before mean? Now we have a bit of a problem. Before can mean a general "previously" or "in the past." It also means "immediately preceding." And yes, it is used both ways in our religious texts. So, which meaning of "mikodem" was intended--immediately before or having happened in the further back past? The sentence you quote gives no clue as to which meaning was intended, which meaning we should deduce. And that puts us right back into the "freshly" camp.

Anonymous said...

Maybe they'd have an easier time defining the terms if the guys were the ones in charge of doing the laundry. Just a thought.

leahle said...

Wouldn't the simple solution have been to just say that any clothing that has been washed and has not been worn since it was washed is not allowed? That gets you out of the problem of when it was washed.

The Rebbetzin's Husband said...

Without commenting on anything else here, I feel that a post which challenges imprecise English and improper grammar ought to be carefully checked for errors like "it's" and "concensus"...

ProfK said...

Thank you Rabbi T for catching those editing errors--they have been corrected. I don't claim to be perfect.

I would point out, however, that when large numbers of rabbanim and authority groups use a term incorrectly or unclearly or don't translate correctly/precisely, they are far more likely to have a deliterious effect on those reading the term than when someone comes to a personal blog. Unlike Humpty Dumpty in Carrol's work, who proclaimed that "a word means what I want it to mean when I use it," ALL of the rest of us need to abide by generally accepted usage/definition rules. Either you are writing in English or you are not. Yinglish is NOT a language but is a jargon, and as such it should not be used when addressing the general public.

Anonymous said...

which meaning of "mikodem"... Generally, it would refer to before the time in question - here R"Ch Nissan.
But you're right - these are lots of great questions - what counts as washed, what counts as fresh, what counts as wearing. Luckily, we have commentaries on the Shulchan Aruch and Sheilos V'Tshuvos for the past several hundred years that discuss and quantify these terms in more detail.

Rubin said...

When something you say gets question after question from the listener then it's one of two things. Either your words aren't clear enough or the listener doesn't understand the basic ideas. In this case I think the words aren't clear and that is what is causing all the question asking.

I think Leah above got it right when she offered 'any clothing that has been washed and has not been worn since it was washed is not allowed.' That's clear and should raise no questions.

Anonymous said...

I just hope God is as pedantic as you are or you're wasting an awful lot of time and energy.

miriamp said...

My kids much prefer the "throw it on the floor and stomp on it with bare feet" method of assuring items are not "freshly laundered." Which doesn't fit Leah's definition above.

We don't have time for the try everything on games here. But we don't do laundry during the nine days. I'm actually trying to figure out whether I need to wash the baby laundry because some people seem to say, of course you can do laundry for children under three and some at least imply they have to be "out" of clothing first. But if I wait until they are truly out, they'll sit naked until the wash is done if a diaper leaks or a meal makes a big mess and that last outfit becomes unwearable. or they might run out on erev Shabbos too late to do laundry and have nothing to wear for three days.

Jake said...

You think the Prof was being pedantic last Anonymous? No, she was being like the gemorah, which can go on and on for many a blat arguing about the meaning or definition of a word or concept. If the gemorah can do it why should you call it being pedantic if the Prof does it?

Anonymous said...

I'm reminded of how often we see kitniyot translated as legumes in the Pesach literature. Only a fraction of kitniyot are legumes if the definition here is accurate:

Ruth said...

Didn't comment earlier because something was bothering me about the post. Finally figured it out.

This may be talking about how to define freshly laundered but it's an example of a far bigger problem we Jews have. The right, the middle and the left are always arguing with each other about some point of Judaism. But are they always really arguing about the same point? Lots of times they may be using the same word or words but they aren't defining them the same way, they aren't really arguing about the exact same thing. But that doesn't stop them from arguing anyway.

And sometimes the argument comes because they can't agree on a definition, because they can't see that more than one definition is possible. Just take a look at how many different definitions there are for frum and frumkeit. No real agreement as to what that means but that doesn't stop people from arguing about it anyway. But how can you have a discussion or an argument or a debate when one group is discussing apples and the other group is discussing alligators?

Anonymous said...

You think the Prof was being pedantic last Anonymous? No, she was being like the gemorah, which can go on and on for many a blat arguing about the meaning or definition of a word or concept. If the gemorah can do it why should you call it being pedantic if the Prof does it?

Because she was arguing about the meaning of an English word that some Rabbi used in a speech. If she did it on the words of the Shulchan Aruch themselves, she'd be in excellent company (and should familiarize herself with the commentaries who ask, and answer, the same questions before complaining about ambiguity

abbas rantings said...


"I feel that a post which challenges imprecise English and improper grammar ought to be carefully checked for errors like "it's" and "concensus"."

i'm pretty sure you meant to type "that" rather than "which," right? ;)

Anonymous said...

I have 2 skirts.