“Rabbi, we received a letter from a Jewish inmate who’s worried that his blanket contains both wool and linen. What on Earth is he talking about?”
As a pulpit rabbi in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, most of my appointments involve shul matters. However, one of my scheduled meetings is completely different.
On the last Tuesday of each month I take part in a Pennsylvania Department of Corrections meeting. Our committee reviews the religious petitions filed by the state’s diverse prison population. My role is to help the group better understand the requests from inmates identifying as Jews.
As I see it, I accomplish several important goals at these meetings: sometimes I’m able to assist remorseful Jewish inmates; I try to help others better understand Judaism; and lastly, I can build bridges with leaders of other faith communities.
The usual committee meeting includes the group leader, a Protestant minister, an Islamic imam, me, the rabbi, a Wiccan priestess (to represent all pagan groups), a Native American spiritual leader, a prison security officer, a food services manager, a legal expert and a Corrections Department administrator.
Although my role is to help everyone better understand the requests related to Judaism, at a recent meeting I was able to provide a great deal of help with a Rastafarian-related request.
Toward the end of the meeting, the committee was taken aback by a request from a Rastafarian inmate. Until that point, the requests from Rastafarian inmates had always been limited to the following three matters:
1. Requests for a “hair length exemption” to allow for the growth of dreadlocks—generally granted for inmates who have shown sincere commitment to their Rastafarian faith.
2. Requests for a “no animal products diet” (i.e., vegetarian)—generally granted for inmates who have shown sincere commitment to their Rastafarian faith.
3. Requests to wear a large knit hat (aka a “crown”) over one’s dreadlocks—always denied, as an inmate can stow all sorts of contraband under there.
At that day’s meeting, however, a Rastafarian-related request had come in which no one had ever dealt with before. An inmate requested a diet free from all traces of vinegar, as he claimed consumption of vinegar was a violation of the Rastafarian faith.
The group was stumped. No one had been aware that consuming vinegar was a violation of the Rastafarian faith. Furthermore, if this was a genuine problem, how could the Department of Corrections realistically accommodate this faith-based dietary concern? In addition, since Pennsylvania’s Rastafarian inmate population is so small, the state had not yet developed a relationship with a knowledgeable Rastafarian spiritual leader whom they could consult. How was the committee supposed to deal with this request?
I found this situation fascinating. While reading the inmate’s request more carefully, I noticed that he mentioned the Biblical Nazirite vows a few times. I asked the committee’s chair if he knew anything more about this. He informed me that Rastafarians do indeed see themselves as being bound by Biblical Nazarite vows—in fact, that is why Rastafarians do not cut their hair.
That being the case, I told the group I could explain what the vinegar issue was, and how it could easily be solved. In describing the Nazir’s restrictions, the Torah states (Bamidbar 6:3): He shall abstain from wine and aged wine, and he shall drink no vinegar of wine, or vinegar of aged wine . . .
I explained that the Torah only imposes three prohibitions on the Nazir:
1. Having his or her hair cut
2. Coming into contact with the dead
3. Consuming grapes or anything derived from grapes
The Torah lists vinegar produced from wine as an example of consuming something derived from grapes. I suggested that this inmate did not fully understand this. He probably thought that the Torah prohibits a Nazir from consuming any and all types of vinegar, and that is just not the case. A Nazir would have no problem consuming vinegar derived from a source other than wine or grapes.
I recommended that the Department of Corrections verify that the vinegar used by its Food Service Department is not a product of wine or grapes. This would solve the matter. (I was informed the next day that all of the vinegar purchased by Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections is, in fact, apple based.)
The group was incredibly satisfied and relieved by my solution. One of the committee members even exclaimed how thrilled he was to have me on board; after all, who would have guessed that a rabbi was also knowledgeable about the Rastafarian faith?
Truth be told, I know very little about the tenets of the Rastafarian faith. However, each day I study mishnayos with the minyan at Kesher Israel Congregation between Minchah and Maariv. It just so happened that we were in the middle of Tractate Nazir when this incident occurred.
I left that day’s meeting happy to have been helpful and armed with a great story to share at shul that evening—after first studying another mishnah or two in Tractate Nazir with the minyan, of course.
Rabbi Akiva Males is the rabbi of Kesher Israel Congregation in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.