They want to touch my feet

Over the years, in professional University life, I am exposed to an interesting Hindu ritual, known in Sanskrit as Upasangrahan. An informal survey of alumni suggests that most Indians don’t know it by name, but they all know what it is. They rarely perform the ritual, and most do not perform it in Australia. I would estimate that in Australia it’s only 1 out of every 100 Indians who have the “guts” or  להבדיל frumkeit to act it out. Here is one nice description:

“Indians prostrate before their parents, elders, teachers and noble souls by touching their feet. The elder in turn blesses us by placing his or her hand on or over our heads. Prostration is done daily, when we meet elders and particularly on important occasions like the beginning of a new task, birthdays, festivals etc. In certain traditional circles, prostration is accompanied by abhivaadana, which serves to introduce one-self, announce one’s family and social stature.

Man stands on his feet. Touching the feet in prostration is a sign of respect for the age, maturity, nobility and divinity that our elders personify. It symbolizes our recognition of their selfless love for us and the sacrifices they have done for our welfare. It is a way of humbly acknowledging the greatness of another. This tradition reflects the strong family ties, which has been one of India’s enduring strengths.
The good wishes (Sankalpa) and blessings (aashirvaada) of elders are highly valued in India. We prostrate to seek them. Good thoughts create positive vibrations. Good wishes springing from a heart full of love, divinity and nobility have a tremendous strength. When we prostrate with humility and respect, we invoke the good wishes and blessings of elders, which flow in the form of positive energy to envelop us. This is why the posture assumed whether it is in the standing or prone position, enables the entire body to receive the energy thus received.
The different forms of showing respect are :

  • Pratuthana: Rising to welcome a person.
  • Namaskaara: Paying homage in the form of namaste
  • Upasangrahan: Touching the feet of elders or teachers.
  • Shaashtaanga: Prostrating fully with the feet, knees, stomach, chest, forehead and arms touching the ground in front of the elder.
  • Pratyabivaadana: Returning a greeting.

Rules are prescribed in our scriptures as to who should prostrate to whom. Wealth, family name, age, moral strength and spiritual knowledge in ascending order of importance qualified men to receive respect. This is why a king though the ruler of the land, would prostrate before a spiritual master. Epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata have many stories highlighting this aspect.”

Upasangrahan: Touching the feet of a revered person

Picture the scene if you will. An Indian (Hindu) student has arrived in Melbourne and enrols in RMIT’s Masters of Computer Science degree. It’s likely I interviewed and selected the student on one of my trips. After discussing various electives that suit the student’s background and ability, the session is over. As the student rises to leave my office, he asks if he can touch my shoes and receive a blessing. The first time it happened, I was taken aback and the process felt unnatural. After gently exhorting the student that there was no need to touch my shoes as I was not to be seen in any way as exceptional, it was easy to sense that the student was deflated. The student associated this ritual as a natural pathway before embarking on their two-year study at RMIT.

Having been born a כהן, conferring ברכות is second nature to me. This time, the נוסח needed to be somewhat more “free form” or avant-garde.

It never occurred to me that this episode might be part of a Hindu ritual. I always assumed that it was simply a sign of respect more akin to a stylised cultural handshake. The ברכה which I give is always a simple one wishing them הצלחה with their studies. Okay, I try to make it sound a bit more meaningful than that 🙂

These days I don’t proffer much enrolment advice; I tend to handle the more difficult cases where more questioning to ascertain the student’s level is required. One such student saw me last week. I had seen him in Bombay two years earlier. He had just landed after his Visa had been approved. It had been a struggle for him to show his finances. He seemed to be on cloud nine and had a dreamy smile etched on his face. We discussed his study plan, had a short chat, and then as he got up, he asked for a blessing. I knew the scene, so I stood up to give him a blessing. He placed his hands on my shoes and I tried to muster some meaningful words. After he left, I wondered if there was any halachic issue involved in what I had just done.

The מגן אברהם in אורח חיים סימן קפט:א writes:

כשיש עכו”ם בבית נוהגין לומר כלנו יחד בני ברית, וכתב הט”ז ביו”ד שאינו נכון דכיון שאומר כולנו יחד הכל בכלל אלא יאמר אותנו בני ברית כולנו יחד, והטעם לפי שאסור לברך עכו”ם דכתי’ לא תחנם

In other words, if there is a non-jew at one’s table during Benching (ברכת המזון) when we reach to the section of הרחמן, how should the הרחמן be phrased? This section of benching is about us blessing all those around the table. To take into account the non-jew, the words “he should bless all of us together, the children of the covenant” is suggested. The Taz writes that this is not an acceptable alternative wording because as soon as we say “all of us” that includes the non-jew and non-jews are not “children of the covenant”. Instead, the Taz suggests, “he should bless all the children of the covenant; all of us” and thereby this would exclude the non-jew from that ברכה!

Now, I can almost hear you say “hold on, what’s the problem here. Why can’t we bless a non jew at the same time as we are blessing jews. What’s the harm in giving a ברכה to a non jew!” The Magen Avraham quotes the Kol Bo and Mateh Moshe that giving “favour” or חן is part of the biblical prohibition of לא תחנם as mentioned in דברים פרק ז and described in עבודה זרה כ

כִּי יְבִיאֲךָ, ה’ אלקיך, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר-אַתָּה בָא-שָׁמָּה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ; וְנָשַׁל גּוֹיִם-רַבִּים מִפָּנֶיךָ הַחִתִּי וְהַגִּרְגָּשִׁי וְהָאֱמֹרִי וְהַכְּנַעֲנִי וְהַפְּרִזִּי, וְהַחִוִּי וְהַיְבוּסִי–שִׁבְעָה גוֹיִם, רַבִּים וַעֲצוּמִים מִמֶּךָּ.  ב וּנְתָנָם ה’ אלקיך, לְפָנֶיךָ–וְהִכִּיתָם:  הַחֲרֵם תַּחֲרִים אֹתָם, לֹא-תִכְרֹת לָהֶם בְּרִית וְלֹא תְחָנֵּם

When the Lord, your God, brings you into the land to to which you are coming to possess it, He will cast away many nations from before you: the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivvites, and the Jebusites, seven nations more numerous and powerful that you. And the Lord, your God, will deliver them to you, and you shall smite them. You shall utterly destroy them; neither shall you make a covenant with them, nor be gracious to them.

Other sources for this include:  מחזור ויטרי סימן פג וסימן תצו, and ארחות חיים, הל’ ברכת המזון סי’ נז.

The שולחן ערוך הרב who generally follows the Psakim of the מגן אברהם writes this explicitly (ibid)

כשיש נכרי בבית נוהגים לומר ‘כולנו יחד בני ברית’ – להוציא הנכרי מכלל הברכה, שאסור לברך הנכרים שנאמר ‘ולא תחנם’. ויותר נכון לומר ‘בני ברית כולנו יחד’, שלא יהי’ בכלל הברכה אפילו רגע

See also Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 44:18.

Based on the ruling above, it would seem that I should not have blessed the student. Even according to those ראשונים who say that this prohibition only applies to idol worshippers, given that Hindus are arguably idol worshippers, for a Jew to perform a blessing as part of upasangrahan would seem to be forbidden because of ולא תחנם. Tosfos in ‘עבודה זרה כ also adds fuel to the fire by explaining that although there are really three prohibitions that evolve from וְלֹא תְחָנֵּם:

  1. Not to sell land in Israel to a non jew
  2. Not to give gifts to a non jew
  3. Not to be gracious (e.g. to give a blessing)

Only the first one is limited to the שבעת העמים the seven nations mentioned in that Pasuk. The latter two—not giving gifts or being gracious— according to Tosfos apply to all non jews. The בית יוסף in חושן משפט סימן רמט paskens that the only exclusions are a גר תושב—someone who not only keeps the שבע מצוות בני נח but does so because they are commanded to by Hashem! In effect, if we follow the Psak of the Beis Yosef, בפשטות one would be forbidden to give gifts to a non-Jew, and would be forbidden to be gracious through praise, blessings etc. Now, if one lives in the State of Israel, you could perhaps find a way to live your life without ever confronting the latter two איסורים. A Jew who lives in the Diaspora, and who rubs shoulders with fine and upstanding non jews on an almost daily basis, either is doing the wrong thing or needs another Rishon to disagree with the בית יוסף and for their own Posek to decide to pasken like this Rishon against the Beis Yosef. There are other opinions such as the ספר החינוך, מצווה תכו who opine that the last two dinim of לא תחנם only apply to עובדי עבודה זרה which presumably includes Roman Catholics, Buddhists and Hindus.

It seems that a way to navigate the parameters of this difficult situation may be the interesting and somewhat controversial opinion of the מאירי on ‘דף כ in עבודה זרה. It’s worth quoting the Meiri in full:

כבר ידעת כמה החמירה תורה להרחיק עובדי האלילים מארצנו ומגבולנו ומבינותינו ובכמה מקומוח האריכה להזהירנו להתרחק ממעשיהם מכאן אמרו לא החנם, לא תתן להם חן, ר’ל לשבח ענינם ומעשיהם ואפילו יופי צורתם ותבניתם, וכן דרשו מכאן שלא נתן להם חנייה בקרקע, כדי שלא להתמיד ישיבתם בינותינו, וכן דרשו ממנו שלא ליתן להם מתנת חנם, שלא לגזלה למי שאנו חייבים לה ביותר כגון נר תושב והוא בן נח הגמור לקיים שבע מצות כמו שאמרה תורה לגר אשר בשעריך תתננה ואכלה או מכור לנכרי, ומכל מקום פרשו בתוספתא דוקא לגוי שאין מכירו או שהיה עובר ממקום למקום אבל אם היה שכנו או חברו מותר שהוא כמוכרן לו, כל שהוא מן האומות הגדורות בדרכי הדתות ושמודות באלהות אין ספק שאף בשאין מכירו מותר וראוי, וכבר אמרו שולח אדם ירך לנכרי

In simple terms the Meiri is saying that the reason we can’t give them gifts is because this is tantamount to stealing the gift from the Ger Toshav who is the one who is meant to get such gifts. In other words, instead of giving to the Ger Toshav, as the Torah commands us, we choose to give to סתם a non jew (who is not a בן נח/גר תושב) and this is not correct according to the Meiri’s understanding of the prohibition of לא תחנם. This is a  controversial view because the מאירי brings no source for this insight, and to the best of my knowledge there isn’t another ראשון who shares this explanation. Meiri amplifies his view by further stating that even if the non jew is not a גר תושב but he is someone you know, as opposed to סתם a gentile, then you may also give them gifts. Why? Because it’s not a gift when you know the person. Normally, when you give something to someone whom you know then that person will reciprocate as time goes by. This is especially true in business relationships. Since they reciprocate, the (other)  גר תושב doesn’t really miss out on anything because your financial situation has stayed neutral during this episode with סתם a gentile.

The מאירי continues and says that if we are wanting to praise a gentile, then it’s how we praise, that is the נוסח that we employ is the key to whether it is permitted or forbidden. If we see nature and praise the nature by showing nature’s connection to God , this is the desired approach and the particular blessings which חז’ל provided for us to use, do employ words which link back to God. In practical terms, if one was at a music concert and was overawed by the jazz piano of Keith Jarrett, then as long as one praised Jarrett and sought to link his ability as a blessing from Hashem, then this would seem to be permitted. However, to somehow imply that Jarrett alone, without any connection to The Creator had some Darwinian ability to play jazz piano, would be questionable according to הלכה. Poskim raise questions about the מאירי and his source (a Tosefta) and it would seem that nobody has the נוסח that the מאירי had. Others question the מאירי based on a ירושלמי but I’ll not get into that.

An interesting question was posted to Rav Waldenberg ז’ל, the previous Posek for שערי צדק hospital and one of the great Poskim of the previous generation, whose Tshuvos are always beautifully constructed. In 16:47 Rav Waldenberg was asked how the Rambam could praise Aristotle in the way that he did and at the same time rule that one is forbidden to praise a gentile! Rav Waldenberg finds a number of ways to permit praising, including the one we mentioned above: limiting the prohibition to those who are idol worshippers; having it only apply when you say it and like the person, and more.

I’m left with considerable feelings going both ways on this issue and I’d probably need to spend two solid weeks studying it in some detail in the hope that I can understand the various views with a deeper clarity. Even then, at the end of the day, I think it’s not a straightforward  issue, and I’ll look to ask a renowned posek (e.g. Rav Hershel Schachter) whether I am indeed allowed to give a bracha assuming a wording נוסח along the lines of:

“May God, the only God, the King of the World, shine His countenance as you recognise Him and thereby grant you continued success in your studies, health and life.”

As always, I value your contribution.

Author: pitputim

I'm a computer science professor in Melbourne, Australia although my views have naught​ to do with my employer. I skylark as the band leader/singer for the Schnapps Band. My high schooling was in Chabad and I continued at Yeshivat Kerem B'Yavneh in Israel.

3 thoughts on “They want to touch my feet”

  1. How do you understand the longstanding practice of offering the “HiHu” in many Australian and British shuls? Is it merely darkhei shalom?

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  2. You mean the “He who giveth salvation unto kings and unto princes” aka הוי מתפלל לשלמה של מלכות?

    I think that’s about ensuring that there is a society one can actually live in. At the same time, it’s interesting that more Charedi shules don’t have such a תפילה. Also, it’s worth noting that the non-jew isn’t there are the time of the blessing. This may be significant, I don’t know. Finally, I am told that the first Lubavitcher Rebbe had a תפילה in his siddur which he used to say for שלומה של מלכות but you wouldn’t find that now.

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