Last Shabbat, Minnesota was socked with a blizzard that was noteworthy even in a community used to such events. Because it was Shabbat, synagogues would be affected. Was it Shabbat as usual, or did the extreme weather cause the shuls to close their doors in the understanding that their congregants would probably prefer to stay home. Here are two reports from Orthodox Union synagogues in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Report Number One, by Rabbi Chaim Goldberger
What is most surprising about Shabbos in a Minnesota blizzard is just how normal it actually is. So far this year, the storms have begun to hit after dinner Friday night. Erev Shabbat is just about making sure our cars are parked strategically over Shabbos to avoid being blocked into our driveways and parking lots by the snow plows or ticketed for being unable to move off the streets until dark. Shabbos morning is stunningly beautiful, as the fresh snowy blanket (almost 12 inches high this time!) lies undisturbed except for the occasional rabbit or deer tracks. We know how to dress, so the only real question is whether the snow drifts will allow us to open our front doors.
There is a special feeling knowing that neither rain, nor snow, nor blizzard, nor twenty below temperatures (it didn’t get quite that cold last week) will keep our shuls from holding their scheduled minyanim. We often find that more mispallelim (those that pray) come on time — because everyone wants to relive their childhood by walking through the unbroken early snow banks. Fresh snow is actually among the easier winter conditions to walk in. If ice forms as the result of a brief thaw followed by a severe temperature drop, walking becomes much more hazardous.
I do admit to having a start this past Shabbat morning, arriving at shul and discovering someone had gone and shoveled a lovely path to the shul door. I teach that snow is muktzeh (an object prohibited to be handled on Shabbat), and I was not aware of any gentile “angels” who might have done this out of their magnanimous love for the Jewish people. The puzzle was resolved when a fine Ben Torah (a student of Torah), relatively new to the community and unaware of my halachic position, approached me to acknowledge that he had come early and done the act of kindness, based on a p’sak l’heter (rabbinic decree to permit) he had heard from Harav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt”l.
The eruv (community boundary) did not survive our first snowstorm, which actually felled trees due to the heavy moisture content of the white stuff. But our indefatigable eruv committee has cultivated great relationships over the years with the local utilities, and we were good to go by the next Erev Shabbat. This kind of thing is great because it helps us educate our congregants about the importance of calling our Eruv Hot Line before every Shabbos. In fact, the storm did another nice thing. It actually gave us more eruv territory, as the repaired line was built to surround more of Twin Lakes Park than it had in the past!
Rabbis get a day of rest during a blizzard, but only because the pressure is off. Knowing we would be excused if we beg off from our classes and sermons only reinvigorates us to want to give something even more special to those who show their love for Torah by daring the weather beast and coming to learn.
In short, our attitude toward our weather is Gam Zu l’Tovah (it’s all for the good). Indeed, Minnesota Vikings owner Zygi Wilf, well-known supporter of many Orthodox Jewish causes and institutions, has been trying for years to secure local support for a new stadium. He may well benefit from the Metrodome roof collapse, if it ends up turning the tide of political will in his favor. In the meantime, we’ll continue to conduct our minyanim, hold our shiurim (classes), and dream of a warm Ge’ulah Shelemah (complete freedom).
Report Number Two, by Bob Kusnetz
When reciting Kiddush Levana, the monthly blessing of the moon, one is to look at the moon directly, not through a window. That the discomfort or danger of standing outside, praying, at thirty degrees below zero is not discussed in halacha (Jewish law), is proof positive that the Gemara was compiled in a somewhat milder climate. Jews do, however, live in the Northern Plains, Canada, Siberia, and other regions where winter poses unique challenges. Northern Orthodox communities, however, may not always be as hindered as the general populace.
Last Shabbat, Minneapolis had 17 inches of snow, single-digit temperatures, and winds of 25 – 35 miles an hour. For a time, it was so bad the city pulled its plows off the road, and warned people not to drive. While many locals felt stranded, the Orthodox community was largely untouched. Sure, we got as much snow as everyone else, but our cars wouldn’t have been moving, anyway. We donned our boots, parkas, and fleece-lined taliesim, and headed to shul. On weekends like this the attendance is only slightly lighter than usual, as stroller-bound children and some elderly stay home, but those who make it in find a little extra warmth, both temperate and heimish. Our only real concession to the weather was to daven Shabbat Mincha after Kiddush, saving congregants one walk. For Ma’ariv Saturday night, people drove, walked, or, yes, skied to shul.
A few weeks ago, we had a different challenge. We were spared the high winds and bitter cold, but the snow was wet, heavy, and plentiful, taking down branches, and even whole trees. Unfortunately, as branches went down, so did the eruv (community boundary). So what did we do? We did what so many Jews do – learn. (Well, OK, kvetch, and then learn.) Our Rabbi devoted his halacha class to laws of the eruv. No one needed to carry hats or gloves, anyway; we wore everything we brought.
Our coldest weather comes in January and February, when some mornings are double digits below zero. What’s the worst problem walking to shul in that kind of cold? It’s hard to say (or hear) “Shabbat Shalom!” through a face mask, hat, hood, and scarf. Otherwise, it can be a spiritual experience. Moisture moderates temperature. At minus 20 or more, the air is extremely dry, rendering the sky a pure, intense, deep blue. With today’s polluted skies, this is probably the closest we come to realizing what shamayim (heaven) really looks like.
Deep snow, frigid temperatures, whiteouts, biting winds? Nu, it’s just part of Jewish life up north. We prepare for it, we deal with it, we can even enjoy it. Maybe it moves us to daven just a bit more fervently than others. After all, they don’t call them brrr-achot for nothing.
Rabbi Chaim Goldberger leads Kenesseth Israel Congregation, MN.
Bob Kusnetz is a consulting writer, instructional designer, & Communications Director of Congregation Darchei Noam in St. Louis Park, MN.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.