Can Orthodox Jews Watch Fireworks on the Fourth of July?

Boston Pops Also Questionable During Solemn Three Weeks

courtesy of boston pops

By Doni Bloomfield

Published July 03, 2013.
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When, in the course of Jewish events, it becomes necessary for one people to both be Orthodox Jews and patriotic Americans on the Fourth of July, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires a bit of explanation.

About every three years, American Orthodox Jews are faced with a painful dilemma. The Fourth of July, our independence day, coincides with the Three Weeks, a mournful period commemorating the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem. That defeat led to the loss of Jewish independence for about 2,000 years.

This unfortunate coincidence brings with it more than a few mixed emotions.

As Rabbi Yossi Brackman of the Rohr Chabad Center in Chicago asked me: “If someone had just lost a parent, would they go to a fireworks show?”

But, as with most Orthodox commemorations, there’s more than bruised feelings to consider: there are also some major commandments involved. Most relevant for Fourth is the Jewish ban on listening to music during the Three Weeks, as the Religion News Service noted earlier this week.

The ban would appear to prohibit observant Jews from going to the kind of outdoor concerts and fireworks displays that Americans of all faiths flock to on Independence Day.

Not so fast. It turns out that different rabbis have different feelings about the definition of “music.” And therefore, they have different ideas about whether, just as an example, it might be A-OK to attend a fireworks show if the Boston Pops or Bruce Springsteen happen to be playing at it.

The intention of the listener is what matters, says Rabbi Aaron Mehlman of Congregation Ohav Shalom in Manhattan, As usual, things get a little fuzzy in the transition from the law codes to the concert halls.

“If your primary intent is [to see] the fireworks and an old fogey band is playing the Stars and Stripes, that’s probably not an issue.” There are some borderline cases though: “if there’s a hip headlining band, and in the back of your mind that’s why you’re going, that’s more of a problem.”

As for recorded music, Rabbi Mehlman says, that’s perfectly fine. Rabbi Brackman mostly agrees: “I’m not sure if you happen to hear live music you have to run away,” he added.

Other rabbis take a much harsher line.

Technically, “listening to music is forbidden…all year,” writes Rabbi Aryeh Lebowitz of Yeshiva University. And while one can be lenient about music most of the year, “there is strong reason to argue that we should never be lenient during the [T]hree [W]eeks” because of our mourning for the destruction of the temples.

Lebowitz adds that “the overwhelming majority of the [authorities] assume that recorded music has the same status as live music.”

In other words: Don’t play that Pandora God Bless America playlist. Turn off the Hendrix. And forget about Bruce and the Boston Pops, whether or not you’re really going for the fireworks.

Rabbi J. David Bleich, also of Y.U., noted that authorities differ as to whether recorded music was banned, but thought there was good reason to avoid fireworks either way: You could be doing something productive with your time rather than sitting on the roof watching siss, boom and bah.

“It’s bittul Torah [time not spent studying],” he explained.

Lebowitz did mention an important exception to the music ban: singing during a meal in celebration of a joyous occasion may be permitted. Brackman, too, said toasting a recently engaged couple is an exception to the general ban on celebrations — “we don’t want to discourage people getting engaged,” he said.

When asked if we want to discourage life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, Rabbi Brackman, who grew up in London, hedged. He declined to see the analogy between getting engaged to be married and declarations of American independence.

Still, the rabbi conceded he might go to see the fireworks, anyway. After all, it’s the Fourth of July.

Doni Bloomfield, a student at the University of Chicago, is a Forward summer fellow. Contact him at bloomfield@forward.com


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