Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet answers readers’ questions in his weekly column, Ask the Rabbi.

Ask the Rabbi

What’s reason for Shtreimels?

Dear Rabbi,

Having recently visited Israel I have a question that, believe it or not, has nothing to do with Israelis or Palestinians. While in Jerusalem I observed men wearing fur on their heads and I wondered what the significance of such an item might be.

Cassandra

Dear Cassandra,

The fur hat you will have observed is called in Yiddish a shtreimel. It is typically worn by Chassidic Jewish men on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays as well as to other festivities such as a wedding.ASK THE RABBI 2

It is usually made of genuine fur from the tails of sable fox and is quite expensive. Today you can also obtain one made from synthetic fur.

There are different theories as to its origin. One tale tells of a particular anti-Semitic leader who issued a decree insisting all male Jews be identified by wearing a tail on their heads during Shabbat. The Jewish community responded by turning the decree into a badge of honour by wearing their fur in the manner in which it was worn by royalty.

As Shabbat is a time of more regal Jewish bearing, they have continued to maintain the custom even today. This, it is said, is also alluded in the Hebrew spelling for Shabbat, which can be an acronym for Shtreimel Bimokom Tefillin – which translates as the shtreimel in the place of phylacteries. As the phylacteries are worn by Jewish men during morning prayer throughout the week as a sign of glory, on Shabbat, when the phylacteries are not worn, the shtreimel enhances the beauty of Shabbat instead.

As a final point of interest, there are any number of furs contained within the shtreimel, whether 13, 18 or 26, all numbers that have significance in Judaism. These shtreimels will also be especially commonplace in Jerusalem. So, did you pick one up as a souvenir?

Is God in charge of democracy?

Dear Rabbi,

What are your thoughts on the election results? Considering how many Israel opponents were booted out of office, could God have anything to do with the outcome?

Kalman

Dear Kalman,

While fundamental to Jewish belief is that everything is by Divine Providence, I do not believe that God somehow changes the ballot papers once they’re inside the box!

Voting is a basic democratic choice, and insofar as God doesn’t impede our free choice I don’t believe He programmes people’s brains to tick a certain box when they step into the ballot box either. I do, however, believe people are sick and tired of all the hate and venom and want to dispel the negativity and concentrate on what is right for our country. As ironic as it is, the results have made Jewish people relieved with so many anti-Israel voices ousted. It is a crying shame when politics becomes about that.

In any event, I envisage Israel condemners Ed Miliband and Russell Brand will be back in that kitchen discussing their future as persona non grata over bacon sandwiches, while Nigel Farage and George Galloway will be contemplating Celebrity Big Brother.

The House of Commons might yet become an anti-Israel free zone after all.

Dial-and-drive rabbi concern

Dear Rabbi,

What is your opinion on the following scenario? A local, Orthodox rabbi has been seen, on more than one occasion driving his car and using a hand-held phone at the same time. Should I call the police, inform the chairman of his synagogue about this flagrant law breaking or write to a local newspaper?

Judith

Dear Judith,

Is this rabbi the only one you ever observed on a phone or do you simply have it in for him – or rabbis in general?

I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you feel it is important for the rabbi to set an example, which is why you are filled with moral rage against him more so than anyone else. The only problem is, why would you then suggest going to the media to shame him publically? Is that really a productive approach or plain mean-spiritedness?

For that matter, why do you feel the need to report him to the police? Are you the morality police who looks to right the wrongs of society? Do you report every offence you observe to the authorities?

The next time you see someone litter are you going to run to the police, the papers or your local MP?

I’m mostly curious about why you didn’t suggest a fourth option of raising the matter directly with the rabbi which, to all intents and purposes, would be the most sensible move. But I don’t think sense comes into it – just malice. This is probably not the answer you were expecting so try not to take offence – however much the truth hurts.