Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Jewish Snowball Fights

I'm giving a shiur this Friday morning, January 1, on "Snowball Fights in Jewish Law and Thought."

The shiur will begin with a segment on why it's good to be hit by snowballs [rolling in snow as a penance], followed by a discussion of why it may not be good to hit someone with a snowball [practical jokes].

We'll wrap it up by talking about this as a situation in which rigid halachah [tort law] recognizes the flexibility of human nature [the joy of a snowball fight].

Here is the source sheet; I expect to upload the shiur audio to our website, too. [Update: The shiur is here.]

Receiving is Great
1. R’ Yehudah haChasid, Sefer Chasidim 167
If a man who lived with a married woman comes to ask how to repent… For those people for whom repentance is effective… he should repent with a method that matches lashes or kareit.
This is his repentance: If it is during the winter, when ice develop in the river, then if he wishes he may break the ice and sit in the water up to his mouth or nostrils, just as he spoke with her regarding the sin until they completed it.
And so he should do continually, whenever there is ice… And if his body continues to be heated for sin, he should chill himself…

2. R’ Aharon ben Yaakov haKohen, Kol Bo 66
He should endure all of the punishments which are compared to death. He should sit in ice and snow daily…

3. Mishnah, Mikvaot 7:1
The following materials add to a mikvah, and do not disqualify it: Snow, hail, frost, ice, salt and liquefied clay.
R’ Akiva said: R’ Yishmael once argued against me, saying that snow does not count for a mikvah, but the people of Medva testified in his name that he once told them to bring snow and create a mikvah that way, from scratch.

4. Yeshayah 1:18
If your sins will be like red wool, they will become white like snow.

Giving is Problematic
5. Schramm, When fun snowballs into anger, Washington Post 12-23-09
You may be familiar with The Great Snowball Incident of 2009. The Post put the story on its front page, and it appeared on CNN, Fox and other major media outlets. This mostly friendly gathering at the corner of 14th and U streets NW began harmlessly enough. But things got ugly when the combatants pelted the personal vehicle of a D.C. police detective.
The officer got out of his car, displayed his firearm and started threatening arrests. Someone, not knowing the man was a police officer, called 911. The uniformed officers who responded recognized the detective and took his side in trying to control the crowd, which by then had started chanting: "You don't bring a gun to a snowball fight." Meanwhile, the snowballs kept flying.
Standing toward the back of the crowd, with the survival instincts of an armadillo, I decided the time had come to depart. But right at that moment, the detective apparently got hit by another snowball, and he decided I was the one who threw it (I wasn't). Videos of what followed are widely available on the Internet. That guy in the drab, olive coat and fuzzy wool cap being dragged through the crowd by the detective, shouting, "I didn't throw that snowball"? Yeah, that's me. At my finest.

6. Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Chovel UMazik 5:1
One may not wound himself or any other person. This is not only a prohibition against “wounding;” anyone who hits…in a manner of Victory [alternate edition: Humiliation] violates a prohibition.

7. Talmud, Bava Metzia 61b
Why did the Torah write “Lo Tignovu” [as the laws prohibiting theft could be deduced from related prohibitions]? It is as we’ve learned, “You shall not steal in order to irritate, you shall not steal in order to pay the kefel fine.”

8. Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Geneivah 1:2
Biblically, one may not steal any amount. One may not steal in the manner of playing, or with intent to return it, or with intent to pay. All of these are prohibited, lest one accustom himself to such conduct.

Simchah Pranks
9. Mishnah, Succah 4:7
Immediately, the children would remove their lulavim and eat their etrogim.

10. Rashi to Succah 45a מיד, ואוכלין
The adults would remove the lulavim of the children from their hands on the seventh, and eat the etrogim of the children. There was no theft and no issue of peaceful conduct, for they did this in simchah.

11. Midrash, Vayyikra Rabbah 37:2
Once, on Hoshana Rabbah, his wife gave him ten coins and told him to purchase something for his children. When he went to the market he encountered tzedakah collectors, who said, “Here comes a person of mitzvot!” They asked him, “Please give your portion in a mitzvah, for we are purchasing the wedding needs of an orphan girl.” He gave those ten coins to them, and was then embarrassed to go home.
The man went to shul, where he saw the etrogim that the children ruined on Hoshana Rabbah, regarding which we learned, “Immediately, the children would remove their lulavim and eat their etrogim.” He took the etrogim from them and filled a sack and went to sea until he arrived at the land of a certain king... [He went on to heal that king of a stomach ailment with these etrogim, and he was rewarded with great wealth.]

12. Mishnah, Gittin 5:8
Taking that which a minor has found is prohibited as theft, because of the need for peaceful conduct.

Applications of this leniency
13. R’ Yisrael Isserlein, Terumat haDeshen, Psakim 210
Certainly, in this case [of apparently intentional harm, during hakafot] we would need greater evidence that there was intent to harm, for without intent to harm he would be exempt – even though the harm was a result of his actions – since it occurred during the time of joy in pursuit of a mitzvah…

14. Rama, Choshen Mishpat 378:9
Young man who ride out to greet a groom and bride and harm each other’s property in a manner of joy and laughter, or who do so in other joyous circumstances, are exempt from liability because that is the practice.

15. R’ Yechiel Michel Epstein, Aruch haShulchan Choshen Mishpat 378:21
Where they normally play at times of joy, having people run and ride horses as they would in earlier times, as when they had young men ride on horses to greet a groom, and they would run and damage each other's property in a manner of joy and laughter, and so in other matters of joy like Simchat Torah and Purim, if this is the practice then they are exempt.
Still, if the court decides that they should make a fence and hold a vandal liable, they are so empowered, for many corruptions emerge from this conduct.

16. Rama, Orach Chaim 696:8
People who grab from each other in a manner of joy do not violate “Do not steal.” This is the practice, but only so long as one does not do anything violating municipal edicts.

17. R’ Yechiel Michel Epstein, Aruch haShulchan Orach Chaim 696:12
One who harmed must pay, for today, due to our great sins, all joy is dimmed and we are not on this level.

How does this leniency work?
18. Talmud, Bava Kama 93a
If someone says, “Hit me” or “Wound me” on condition that the assailant will be exempt from liability, he is exempt.

19. Shoel uMeishiv IV 3:108, cited in Sdei Chemed ד:קסג ובעיקר
When Rashi says that forgiveness does not work regarding onah, because it is a matter of physical pain, that is specifically where the husband requests the condition and she is appeased and she forgives it. The same is true whenever someone requests of a person that he forgive something, and he is appeased. Then we say that he did not forgive with a full heart, but only relented to his friend’s appeal.
However, if the forgiver was the one who initiated it, then even in a matter of physical pain it is obvious that he forgave with a full heart. Who asked him to forgive, if he is not speaking out of the desire of his heart?

20. R’ Yisrael Isserlein, Terumat haDeshen, Psakim 210
However, I see, and my heart tells me, that that this matter requires a great fence. If, Gd-forbid, one would ambush another in this place, the mitzvah of circumnavigating the bimah would be lost out of fear of harm from one’s enemy. Further, the sin of one who would harm another at this time would be greater than in another place and at another time, for he mocks the holiness of the synagogue and he performs this mitzvah with a transgression. Further, he does it while the Torah is upon the bimah…

21. Rama, Choshen Mishpat 378:9
Still, if it would appear to the court that they should create a fence against this, they are so empowered.


  1. You might explore at some point the notions of chasidei ashkenaz on how to repent (ice, lashes...) and whether it was related to trends in the outside world.
    Joel Rich

  2. Wouldn't enjoying getting hit by snowballs counteract any selfflagellatory atonement one would get from it? ;-)

  3. Joel-
    I do hope to discuss some of that in the shiur, but not much, really. Depends on the crowd.

    Not necessarily, no.

    R' Mordechai-
    Not much snow around right now, only way below zero (Celsius) temps.