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There is a custom amongst Jews that in the period after the holiday season of Tishrei, and after Pesach as well, that is popularly called "behab." This word is the Hebrew acronym for the days of the week - bet, hay, bet - Monday, Thursday, Monday. On the first series of the days of Monday, Thursday, Monday falling in that order in the months of Cheshvan (after Succot) and Iyar (after Pesach), special penitential prayers (selichot) are recited in the synagogue. For many centuries, Jews observed these days as fast days as well. However, over the past two centuries, the custom of fasting has declined, though it has not completely disappeared. Among the reasons given for the observance of "behab" is one that says that during the joyous holidays of Succot and Pesach one is likely to have been guilty of excesses in behavior, eating, dress and the pursuit of pleasure. As such, we now atone for this flight of excess by fasting (in previous times) and by the recitation of special penitential prayers. These prayers emphasize the great Jewish view of moderation in all areas of living and decry the unwarranted show of pompous excesses in behavior and public appearance. The prayers stress the true fragility of our existence, both personal and national, and beseech God to overlook our temporary lapses into excess and largess. In effect, "behab" is the attempt to regain our normal equilibrium after such joyous holidays of feasting and leisure and pleasurable activities. "Behab" serves to help us slide back into our normal life and work patterns with a sense of reality and some contrition.

But the lessons of "behab" should not be limited to the two times that these days appear on the Jewish calendar. The discipline to avoid excess is central to Jewish belief. Maimonides posits the great rule of always remaining within the boundaries of the golden mean. One should not be a miser nor a spendthrift, a glutton or a habitual faster. The only excesses that Maimonides allows are those of humility and the avoidance of anger at all costs. But otherwise, Judaism frowns upon excess, ostentation and extremism in behavior and outlook. King Solomon taught us in Proverbs that the ways of Torah are always those of pleasantness and moderation. The Council of Four Lands (Congress Poland, Galicia, Volyhn, Lesser Poland and sometimes Lithuania as well), the autonomous Jewish "government" of the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Eastern Europe, issued bans against excessive display of wealth by Jews in those countries. Fur coats for women and expensive jewelry were not to be displayed or worn publicly. Housing was to be reasonable and not overdone. In general, moderation in behavior and appearance was to be stressed. The reasons given for these decrees were two-fold: Not to raise the jealousy and enmity of the non-Jewish peasants of those areas who were still living in serfdom and squalor and to maintain the Jewish spiritual and religious tradition of moderation and the avoidance of excess. We have no record as to whether these decrees were actually observed or enforced. But their mere presence in the record books of the Council is itself noteworthy and in line with traditional Jewish values.

With the blessed advent of prosperity and even affluence in much of the Jewish world today, the standards to measure excess and the definition of moderate living have certainly undergone a major change than those of the generations of our ancestors in Eastern Europe or the mellahs of the Near East. Rabbi Yisrael of Salant, the founder of the nineteenth century Mussar ethical movement in Lithuania, commented that luxuries are eventually transformed into necessities. Nevertheless, excess can still be recognized for what it is even in today's more affluent and comfortable society. "Behab" therefore still has an important lesson to teach us. Many times in life, less is truly more. Judaism does not encourage or preach poverty as a positive way of life. Yet the Talmud teaches us that "poverty is becoming to Israel." Poverty here means the avoidance of excess and the living of a life of balance, moderation and goodness to others. In our stressful world, the conviction that moderation in our lives is the best spiritual choice that we can make for ourselves can help us to live a more serene and fulfilling life.

Berel Wein

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