One of the ways Jewish tradition was shared in ancient times was through a process known as She’elot u-Teshuvot (Hebrew: שאלות ותשובות “questions and answers”). This process began when a question would be brought to the rabbi. If the rabbi was not able to answer the question he (in those days only men were rabbis) would write down the question and have a messenger carry it to HIS teacher. If the second rabbi was unable to answer the question the process would be repeated and the message sent to HIS teacher. Once the question was answered the response would be returned to the original questioner along the same route. Moreover, the question and the answer would be read by the members of each community along the journey home. In this way, Jewish legal questions and answers spread across Europe. This allowed our dispersed community to be far more unified than we might otherwise have been.
That is not, however, the only time that “the mail” found its way into the Jewish legal process.
Gershom ben Judah, (d. 1040) aka Rabbeinu Gershom, was a leading Jewish scholar a thousand years ago. He is best known for issuing a legal decree known as Takkana de Rabbeinu Gershom. This legal decision had three components.
It prohibited polygamy within the Jewish community.
It prohibited a man divorcing a woman against her will.
Finally, it prohibited reading another person’s private mail.
Each of the three components of Rabbeinu Gershom’s decree are worthy of study but it is the one regarding mail that is particularly compelling at this moment.
On the one hand, the prohibition against reading another person’s mail made privacy a key part of Jewish law over a thousand years ago. That should come as no surprise considering our tradition teaches that each person is created in God’s image and is worthy of love and respect. Both of those are reflected in a commitment to protecting one another’s privacy. In addition, however, the decree reflects the importance of written communication more than a thousand years ago.
The same importance was reflected in the fact that the US Postal Service was established by the US Constitution. In fact, during the Second Continental Congress in 1775 no less a luminary than Benjamin Franklin was appointed the first postmaster general. Then, in 1792, the Postal Service Act established the Post Office Department.
The US Postal Service is much more than an agency that merely delivers the mail. It serves every resident of the United States, even those living in the most rural and isolated of locations. As such, it is one of the key pieces of “connective tissue” that unites our diverse nation.
That “connective tissue” is now under threat. The Postal Service was already under financial stress but, as the pandemic continues, the financial challenges have deepened. In the last few weeks, however, many of us have seen a significant slowdown in the arrival of 1st Class mail. That’s a problem since, as the pandemic continues its spread unabated, the need to vote by mail becomes fundamental to maintaining (some might say saving) our democracy. And, at a time when unemployment numbers are ballooning, the USPS employs over 600,000 Americans. All of that goes away if the current trend continues and the USPS is allowed to run out of money, as it will this October, without intervention.
As one call to action put it:
Losing the USPS — especially during a public health crisis — would be devastating to millions of Americans. Many rely on it to keep in touch with loved ones… to stay up-to-date on the latest news… and to receive their medications without the risk or inconvenience of going to the pharmacy.
In ancient times our tradition relied upon the mail. Our ancestors knew how important it was. This remains true in our own day. But the future of the USPS now depends on us. Before Shabbat enters take a few moments to call our Members of Congress to encourage them to make saving the Postal Service an urgent priority. They want and need to hear from us.
CONGRESSWOMAN PAYNE, JR
A thousand years ago Rabbeinu Gershom set boundaries to safeguard the integrity of the mail. Now it is our turn.
Wishing you a Shabbat of Peace,
Rabbi Daniel Cohen