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Monday, May 02, 2005

Movie Minhag

OK, so here's a stupid question:

Is it OK to go to the movies during Sefirah?

Sefirah refers to the period of time between the Jewish Holidays of Passover and Shavuot (Pentecost). During this time the Torah commands us to count every day. You can read about it here, amongst many other places. For 33 days during this period, Jews also observe a period of mourning. This is to commemorate the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva (the Rabbi Akiva of "Love thy brother as thyself" fame) who died during this period of time. Here is an excellent article on that.

Mourning includes avoidance of excessive "joy", shaving, and live music. People have different minhagim, or customs, regarding how to interpret this. Such as whether only live music is to be avoided, or also recorded forms. Modern technology has to be squeezed into older traditions.

Which brings me to the question my son asked me. He's very excited about Star Wars: Episode III. I can't imagine why. Everyone knows the series peaked with Episode V and has been mostly downhill since then. But that's a matter for eternal debate amongst the uber-geeks who know of such things. The problem is that according to everyone, the movie comes out during that period of Sefirah when the laws of mourning are in place. So he asked if he could see the movie.

I gave him the answer I was given when I was his age: You don't go to movies during Sefirah. Why not, he wanted to know. Well...er...you see... I don't know exactly. That's what I was told. It's not a concert, although there's music. It's not a party, although there are a lot of people in one room. So why shouldn't he go?

In trying to get an answer, I've come up against the same problem I usually have in these situations. I don't know who to ask. I'm reminded of a friend who asked a big Rabbi whether it was better to take off his Yarmulke when he went to see a rock concert. He was told it was better not to see the rock concert. Most of the answers I find are of the "it's no more forbidden than during the rest of the year" variety, which is an offhand way of saying you're a big heretic if you need to ask this question. And so I feel. And yet, I remember many occasions when I'd bump into a local rabbi at the movies. Granted, movies were different in those days. But we are talking about Star Wars here.

I guess that's the crux of my problem. I suppose if any of "those" rabbis were still around, I would have someone to ask. But it seems that I've missed the bus. The bus which has been carrying the rest of Orthodox Judaism farther to the right, to the point where it's never OK to see a movie. And here I am at the corner, not going anywhere, with my ticket in hand. So for a lot of these issues that actually affect me and my family, I really have no source of guidance. It's like, "If you care about the laws of Sefirah, then you're not the type of person who goes to movies, and if you're the kind of person who goes to movies, then obviously the laws of Sefirah are meaningless to you." So there's no context in which this question makes sense anymore.

I suppose I could do one of several things: I could wait a week or two, and then the laws of mourning are over. That's avoiding the question. Or I could tell him it's OK, since I can't find any good reason to say no. Or I could tell him it's better not to go, since maybe discretion is the better part of valor. Or I could get on the bus and stop watching movies altogether.

Or I could post this stupid question on a blog, and hope for an intelligent response.


PsychoToddler said...

You really need to move to LA and have a big warm fuzzy Modern Orthodox community to hang out in. We all go to movies. Of course, we're all heretics, but in a community of heretics, that's OK. The downside: educating your 6 kids here would cost a number that would need to be represented in scientific notation. And don't even talk to me about home prices.

Rules that I live by when I have a religious question: (1) don't ask anyone, certainly not a Rabbi (2) take the lenient view (3) feign ignorance that there was a question or issue involved and pretend that the lenient position is what you've always done. (I only apply these when there is no ethical principle involved, i.e. when it has nothing to do with how I treat other people.)

Of course, I'm a very bad person, but my rules have served me well.
Doctor Bean | Homepage | 05.02.05 - 3:33 pm | #


Don't ask don't tell. Gotcha.
psychotoddler | Homepage | 05.02.05 - 3:38 pm | #


no. you don't got me.

Don't ask. Do the lenient thing. Tell anyone who wants to know.

If it's a Biblical thing then you just have to do it; no question. (That's why I'm so impressed and feel guilty by your shatnitz post.) But for Rabbinic and traditional issues my thinking is this. Rabbinic decisions are as slow as molasses and usually only serve to codify what is already the community standard. So might as well get as many religious people to do the lenient thing so that in two generations, when Rabbis actually consider the question, it's already a done deal. As for traditions, who knows what anyone's ancestors really did? I'm sure in the 1800s none of my family in Romania went to movies. Ever. I think we're as responsible for starting traditions that allow Orthodox communities to stay vibrant and mentally sane as we are to mindlessly follow what we are told my ancestors did. So pick a tradition you can live with; don't ask anyone; tell the world.

When do I get excomunicated?
Doctor Bean | Homepage | 05.02.05 - 3:49 pm | #


Our rabbi (who incidentally is now a rabbi at some big shul in LA) told us not to go see movies during Sefirah, because it was a festive large gathering and inappropriate for a mourning period.

But he also said not to go to baseball games during Sefirah for the same reason...
Air Time | 05.02.05 - 3:57 pm | #


If you are supposed to avoid excessive joy and he is so excited about this, then maybe he should wait til after sefira. I go to the movies all year 'round but not during sefira...no one told me not to but it seems like something I ought to give up during sefira. I try to avoid watching movies at home, but I do watch TV.
Essie | 05.02.05 - 3:58 pm | #


There are still Modern Orthodox rabbis around. The one I'm married to says movies are public entertainment, therefore we avoid them during Sefirah. We also do not attend live musical performances, but aren't as strict about recorded music at home. (We are stricter about recorded music during the Three Weeks in the summer). Seeing a movie in a theater is different than watching it at home, in my experience.
tuesdaywishes | 05.02.05 - 4:14 pm | #


What about waiting and going on Yom Ha'atzmaut? I spent a lot of Pesach looking at my neighborhood and wondering how and when it changed to a place where my family just doesn't fit. Where are there real modern orthodox communities in the US that aren't being pushed on all sides by the shift to the right?
Adina | 05.02.05 - 5:25 pm | #


I'm a religious ignoramus, but my take on this is the opposite of my take on Constitution. In Constitution, don't do anything it doesn't say you can. In religion, do whatever you want, unless it explicityly says in the Book that you can't do it. I don't think they had movies back in the desert. Or any other kind of entertainment for that matter. Well, maybe dancing... Nah, it was probably too hot/too dangerous.
Irina | Homepage | 05.02.05 - 5:26 pm | #


I can identify with you fully. I don't yet have children who can ask me these questions - which is fine because I don't even know how to answer my own.

I had a question about starting seder early on Shabbat. Technically no laws of Shabbat would be broken, we would just tell a story. But I too was too chicken to ask for fear that the answer would be "why would you want to hang out with people for whom this is an issue" and I really didn't have an Orthodox source to refer to.

I don't believe that seeing movies is in the right spirit, but you may feel different.

What about asking him how your son will "celebrate/observe" the Sefirah.Challenge him and see what he comes up with. He might surprise you but at least he'll be thinking.
texasmensch | Homepage | 05.02.05 - 6:08 pm | #


Listen, you can also find people
who would say you shouldn't be
going to movies in the first place
If your opinion is that going to movies is no big deal, i.e. you go
all the time..how is it really all
that different from watching TV?
To say you don't care about the
laws if you do go..well do you
shave?Do you listen to music
etc. If not well then you care on
some level..right? It is certainly
better to refrain from going there
is no question ..it shows a cetain
awareness etc. It's a personal
question but you already knew that.
shloimy | Homepage | 05.02.05 - 6:45 pm | #


I don't know what I can say that hasn't been said, but I'll try.

I'm learning that one can be very strict with his/her observance or more lenient and still be considered "observant" or frum or however you want to put it.

I have friends who listen to tapes of music in the car or at home and I have friends who only listen to "sefirah" music (noninstrumental).

If the idea of going to the movies bothers you, then you are leaning towards a less lenient interpretation of what is entertainment or appropriate for this time of year.

I am also disappointed at the timing of the movie opening. I do not go to the movies (at all anymore), but I was going to make the exception to take a friend's daughter to see Star Wars. Now I will have to wait because I just wouldn't feel right about going while counting the omer.

Maybe I could go on a day I forgot to count????
Yetta | Homepage | 05.02.05 - 7:54 pm | #


I have no opinion on movies. Maybe you should
1)Go on a Tuesday afternoon when there is no-one there.
2)Just see really bad movies (not quite as festive).
About the "bus." Never, ever get on the bus! It takes you far away from eternal truth and; if you stay on the bus long enough, you end up right back where you started.
ball-and-chain | Homepage | 05.02.05 - 9:38 pm | #



If you can't find a Rabbi who can understand you and you can rely on, then at least in this case learn through the sources yourself and see what you think. Again we are not talking about a Torah prohibition, merely a question how to extend a relatively recent rabbinic tradition. Be as honest and self-critical as you can when you study the background and sources and make your mind up. Even better, study them with your son.

The Rabbi's Kid | Homepage | 05.03.05 - 2:49 am | #


Excellent comments from all of you. I think if you read through this entire thread of comments, you'll find all angles covered.

I'm not into excessive chumrahs personally. More is less in my book. But I would like to know what the bona fide halacha is and how modern technology, like movies and cds relate to it.

The truth is that I'm bothered by the fact that deep down I don't think I really care. I'd like to be as liberal as possible, because I want to see the movie too. Not badly enough that I want to "sneak around" and do it on the sly. I can certainly wait until after Lag Beomer.

But I think that my point of view has been so marginalized by the community around me that I'm not even sure at this point what my point of view is. Months ago I blogged that I'm finding myself defined by what I don't do--black hat, payes, throwing out the TV--and that it's giving me a very negative taste of Orthodoxy as a result. I need that beacon to lock on to and it's gone.

That Rabbi in the movie theater moved to Baltimore. My MO brother-in-law is in Toronto. I can't ask these people who surround me for advice anymore. We're spiritually not in the same neighborhood it seems. To the point where something that is a legitimate issue for me--movies during sefirah--isn't an issue for them, since they never see movies.

And yet, I bet to some of you, I seem very right wing.

It's a weird feeling.
psychotoddler | Homepage | 05.03.05 - 10:25 am | #


I hate to make it sound simplistic, but there are laws and then there are laws. There are laws which, we as good citizens should ALWAYS keep - not murder other citizens, pay our taxes on time, etc. Then there's jaywalking, for which we could get find, but which most people do anyway. I don't know which one the law above is classified as, but it sounds more like the jaywalking type to me. I mean, anything governing personal discretion and feeling, should be left to individual decision. Personally, I don't think going to the movie is being excessively joyful. Movie is entertainment, but it's not like a wedding or anything. Besides there are all kinds of movies, with all kinds of effects. Likewise our individual reactions to stimuli defer. What one may find to be a thing of joy another might just yawn at. Then there are people who are generally more phlegmatic/less excitable than others, so I don't think the same standard would apply to them if they were to keep that law.
Irina | Homepage | 05.03.05 - 12:13 pm | #


Particularly with this movie, Irina, it may turn out to be a very sad occasion.

The real problem is knowing exactly where to draw the line. Once you start drawing lines, that is.

Remember that those things which you consider to be absolute, murder for example, weren't so clear cut before our ancestors made it so.
psychotoddler | Homepage | 05.03.05 - 1:34 pm | #


PT, I just got back last night, and hadnt really read the blogs over the last 10 days I've been gone. I Wrote thios post today http://life-of-rubin.blogspot.co...h- question.html and then came here and saw your had touched on the same subject. My thoughts on your issue are at that post. PS - I did not make the connection Star Wars was coming out over sefirah .. sigh ... better to wait anyway, less lines and rush, and we all know the ending to this one anyway.
Chaim | Homepage | 05.03.05 - 4:00 pm | #


my opinion, is that if you would go to a movie while you were G-d forbid in Aveilut for your parents/sibling, i would go during sefirah. If not, then don't go.
Kiki | Homepage | 05.03.05 - 7:22 pm | #


Go on Lag B'omer.
Jack | Homepage | 05.03.05 - 11:09 pm | #


I agree with the ADDeRabbi who said to learn the sources with the kid. For what it is worth(FWIW in Steve Brizel language), the shulchan aruch and Mishna Brurah(I looked it up last night, dont be impressed) state specifically it is all minhag, although obviously not all minhag is equal. They concentrate on the no marriages and no hair cutting, and the MB states that those that get hair cuts are fined. Apropos of the weddings, the MB recommends limiting festive meals with singing and dancing to only those that are neccessary(such as brises). Obviously, at the turn of the century, the only music was live.

What is the take home message? You gots to figure out for yourself what you want your minhag to be, whether you want to follow the community in their chumra, or follow what you used to do, or what your family did, or what you think is the right shvil hazahav(the golden mean path, navigating between the rocks on both sides). Personally, I go to movies during sefirah, but eliminate the live music shows(not that I go to very many). When dealing with kids, I think the main issue is consistancy and justifiability. In other words, I would not make an exception to an otherwise movie free sefirah for a specific movie, becuase then you are giving the message that the movie is more important than the hanhaga of sefira. Also, I think it is important to be able to show kids, especially the older ones, that what you do has a basis, and is not a decision of whim or convenience. Finally, there is the issue of dealing with the community to the right that is all around you. My first reaction is that you should do what you think is right, and ignore the what people think. Of course, that is easier for me to say, because here in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. Keep the faith brother, your faith.
dilbert | Homepage | 05.04.05 - 10:10 am | #


I think dilbert should be my new beacon.
psychotoddler | Homepage | 05.04.05 - 11:58 am | #


I reckon that movies are very different from music and other sephirah bans. Things that are festive and joyous - music being such a thing are not allowed.
We want to demonstrate our mourning. Music represents joy, dancing etc. So is banned.

Movies on the other hand are just forms of recreation. Do we ban recreational sport? Playing a game of monopoly? Going bowling? (ignoring the music in the movie, which is really pretty subsiduary).
So assuming you allow movies for yourself generally, I don't think it's all too bad for the sefirah.
I don't think that's what the rabbis had in mind in their sephirah restrictions.

(Maybe 60 years ago, when going to the movies was a whole cultural and joyous activity, it would be different, but now it's pretty much just popping in to watch a flick...)
Izzy | 05.05.05 - 9:51 am | #


Well, what about very unfestive music such as Mozart's "Requiem"?
Irina | Homepage | 05.05.05 - 10:45 am | #


Indeed, some people permit listening to classical and such music in private (for relaxation purposes). (I believe Rabbi Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg holds so for one)
Izzy | 05.05.05 - 11:12 am | #


Well, what about very unfestive music such as Mozart's "Requiem"?

Requiem being part of christian lithurgy would be problematic all year and not just during sefirah.
JoeCool | 05.06.05 - 5:50 am | #


Oh come on, that's just being narrow-minded. Great music is supposed to transcend religious differences. That's why it's classic!
Irina | Homepage | 05.06.05 - 9:56 am | #



I am not being narrow minded, but the simple fact is that anyone who actually observes the sefirah mourning customs is highly unlikely to listen to christian religious music. Such a person may listen to other classical or secular music, but a catholic mass would be off limits. This is not a judgement on the quality of the musical composition or the talent of the performers.
JoeCool | 05.06.05 - 6:31 pm | #



Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus
Dominus, Deus Sabaoth.
Pleni sunt coeli et terra gloria tua.
Hosanna in excelsis.

Holy, Holy, Holy
Lord, G-d of hosts.
Heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.

Ring a bell? It's straight out of our liturgy.

Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh
Hashem tzeva'ot.
M'lo khol ha-aretz k'vodo.

Most of the Requiem is not specifically Christian, though some of it certainly is. You're being narrow minded. Or, frankly, you belong to the segment of Orthodoxy that makes me consider becoming Presbyterian. If you think the Almighty doesn't want me to listen to the Requiem, you just haven't heard it.
Doctor Bean | Homepage | 05.06.05 - 8:54 pm | #


(I'm not saying anything about whether or not it's OK to listen to Requiem during sefira, just about listening to Christian music in general.)
Doctor Bean | Homepage | 05.06.05 - 8:56 pm | #


I don't know about no fancy music, but whenever songs containing the J-word come on the radio, I tend to change the station. The Doobie Brothers have one called "Jesus is Just Alright".
psychotoddler | Homepage | 05.07.05 - 10:49 pm | #



Feel free to broaden my mind. Please quote any orthodox authority (from any segment of Orthodoxy) that permits listening to a catholic mass.

The mere fact that their lithurgy quotes from Isaiah does not make it more apropriate.

JoeCool | 05.08.05 - 1:22 am | #


Just to add another twist to the original conversation (and sorry, psychotoddler, if I add a whole new dimension of dilemma for you), but who's to say that what we feel individually has any bearing on determining our minhag? A lot of commenters on this post have suggested that the way to determine whether movies should be allowed for a particular person during sefirah is to examine whether they make that people feel particularly joyful or celebratory. Intuitively, this makes perfect sense to me...which is why something that's always rubbed me wrong is the practice of not eating meat during the Nine Days. Why? I usually prefer dairy. That means that I'm excited when whatever restaurants or cafeterias I might be patronizing turn their entire menus to pareve or dairy, inventing creative dishes that they might not otherwise come up with or serve very often. I enjoy not having to change the kitchen over to meat utensils for an entire week. What does that mean for my relationship with the spirit of the minhag (or is it halacha in this case?)? And how or why does one disregard personal preferences in favor of traditional definitions of "joyful" and "mourning" behavior in one case but not another?
Alisha | Homepage | 05.08.05 - 1:07 pm | #


JoeCool: You're probably right. I'm probably wrong. My initial impulse after reading your comment was to email my rabbi with your question, but I have too much respect for his authority to pose a question when I am unwilling to alter my behavior. That is, if I found that I should not be listening to Requiem, I would take that much more as a statement about Orthodoxy than as a statement about the Requiem and I would certainly continue to listen to it. (This is why I almost never pose questions to my Rabbi.)

You're not narrow minded. I retract that and I appologize. You're Orthodox, and you've helped me realize that there's no place for me in Orthodoxy except as a tag-along-pretender or as an open rebel. I suspect much of our synagogue is of a similar stripe. I wonder what my wife thinks.

Psychotoddler: Why do you switch the station at the mention of Jesus? Does hearing the word make you Christian? Perhaps it's simply a Rabbinic instruction that (like many other instructions) I don't know about.

By the way, do any of y'all have any close Christian friends?
Doctor Bean | Homepage | 05.08.05 - 2:56 pm | #


Bean: Good question. I think there is a halachic prohibition against participating in christian prayer, and when I hear that type of music I feel like I've walked into a revival or something. More likely it's something that's been ingrained into me on a subconscious level that makes me feel uncomfortable when people keep throwing J words around.

Years ago, my in-laws took me and my wife to a dinner theater production of singing in the rain. Of course we didn't eat, and there are certainly some kol isha issues that I will conveniently gloss over. But I enjoyed myself until the end of the show, when the owner of theater walked to the center (it was in the "round") and thanked us all for coming in the theme of "our lord, Jesus Christ". I felt distinctly uncomfortable, as if all eyes were suddenly staring at my yarmulke and thinking "you Jews don't belong here."

I'm sure he didn't mean anything sinister by what he said, and probably didn't even know we were there, but that's how we felt.

Alisha: Good question too. I guess that's the problem with trying to regulate emotion. It doesn't always work.

And what if you don't have any minhag? My parents weren't frum and my ancestors died in the Holocaust. So do I just make it up or pick one I like?
psychotoddler | Homepage | 05.08.05 - 5:44 pm | #


I'm positive I never participate in Christian prayer when I listen to Christian music or hear people talk about Jesus. I can be sure of that because I hardly ever participate in Jewish prayer. :-D
Doctor Bean | Homepage | 05.08.05 - 6:25 pm | #


I have close Christian friends, which has never been a problem for me in any respect, and won't be now as I'm becoming more observant. I don't see how listening to Christian music will make me less Jewish or less faithful to my own morals. Just as I don't see how interacting with my Christian friends will reflect badly on my own religion. Or going to a Catholic college, for that matter. Or even learning about Christianity. I think one is capable of discussing those issues while doing what one should do in order to be a good Jew. Listening to the Requiem will not prevent someone from going to the synagogue, keeping a kosher home, celebrating the holidays, or marrying according to Jewish rituals.
Irina | Homepage | 05.09.05 - 9:25 am | #


I don't necessarily see a problem with having christian friends or even listening to cristian music (that is non-lithurgical in nature). I draw a line at christian lithurgy. The same would apply to christian schools (catholic or otherwise). If such a school requires participation in religious services, I would consider it off-limit.

YMMV, but Judaism requires exclusivity. Participation in any non jewish religious activity would be a violation of the spirit and the letter of jewish law:

You shall not have the g-ds of others in My presence. You shall not make for yourself a graven image or any likeness which is in the heavens above, which is on the earth below, or which is in the water beneath the earth. You shall neither prostrate yourself before them nor worship them, for I, the L-rd, your G-d, am a jealous G-d, Who visits the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons, upon the third and the fourth generation of those who hate Me, and performs loving kindness to thousands [of generations], to those who love Me and to those who keep My commandments.
JoeCool | 05.09.05 - 2:02 pm | #


So does that mean y=you're not allowed to look at Christian art either? How about Greek & Roman Stutues? Buddhist?
Irina | Homepage | 05.10.05 - 12:28 pm | #


I draw the line at listening to non-jewish lithurgy and entering non-jewish places of worship. I have no problem visiting museums or looking at art books. Others may feel differently.
JoeCool | 05.10.05 - 4:32 pm | #


There are a wide variety of opinions on this matter(as there are on many things). I agree with PT that listening to songs with the word Jesus in them make me uncomfortable. (the one that comes to mind is "look down upon me Jesus" from the song that the chorus is "I've seen summer and I've seen rain or something like that).

I think that going to an art museum and looking at art is fine, even if some of it is religious-I guess the differentiation is you are going for the art, not the religion. I would stay away from requim, Haydn's Halleluia, and other specifically religious music.

btw, I attended a Christian school for two years and when they had prayer and bowed their heads, I specifically did not bow my head(got me into trouble periodically. ).

I guess if I was asked to give a prayer it would have been "shefoch chamatcha al hagoyim asher lo yidaucha.."
dilbert | Homepage | 05.11.05 - 3:22 pm | #


That's funny you should mention James Taylor, dilbert. I sometimes play that song on guitar and when the line comes up I hum it. Beautiful song otherwise. I think it's specifically christianity that evokes this discomfort in me. If it were a hindu song or shinto or i guess even muslim (in arabic) it wouldn't affect me. I guess I associate christianity and the j-word in particular with either persecution or proselytising and that's what offends me about it.
psychotoddler | Homepage | 05.11.05 - 3:49 pm | #



Haydn hadn't written any work titled Halleluia. You probably mean Handel's Messiah. While Messiah has an obvious christian theme, it is not lithurgical, and was meant to be performed in a concert hall, not church. That also brings another question. Handel's some other oratorios are titled: Israel in Egypt, Judas Maccabaeus, Samson, and Solomon. Religious, yes, but not overtly christian. And what about instrumental lithurgical music (obviously no j-word)?


if it's only the j-word that bothers you, would you be ok if a song was sung in a language you don't understand? And why would a hindu religious music be ok? That's about as close as someone can come to actual idol worship today.
JoeCool | 05.11.05 - 5:42 pm | #


I'm not commenting on religious prohibitions. I'm commenting on whether it makes me uncomfortable. I like George Harrison's My Sweet Lord even though he starts crooning Hare Krishna halfway through. I don't sing along at that part, but I don't change the station like I do when Norman Greenbaum starts singing how he has a friend in Jesus.
psychotoddler | Homepage | 05.11.05 - 5:46 pm | #


Is that similar to Yisroel Balin dreaming of a white x-mas?
JoeCool | 05.11.05 - 6:21 pm | #


You are correct, wrong H composer. I agree with Chabad that music can be uplifted and transformed, so I am fine with instrumental music, as long as it is not intimately associated with worship of other religions. So that means no adon olam to jingle bells, but the vast majority of orchestral stuff is fine.
dilbert | Homepage | 05.13.05 - 10:40 am | #


Or to quote William Congreve: Music has charms to soothe a savage breast
JoeCool | 05.13.05 - 12:33 pm | #


Or to quote Bugs Bunny: Music charms the savage beast
psychotoddler | Homepage | 05.13.05 - 12:44 pm | #

Anonymous said...

hi everyone, i just came across your blog and thought i would comment! Just wanted to say to psychotoddler that as a Christian I am sorry to hear you associate Christians and Jesus with persecution :(

It is the fault of previous generations and churches that you feel like this but it's such a shame as Jesus Himself is just the opposite- He is loving and accepting of everyone, He tells us not to judge others and He befriended sinners when He was walking the earth. This is the Jesus we need to reflect as Christians and I pray that we start doing that.

God bless xxx