The Concept of Beit Yosef
In 2010, I was a recipient of UJA Federation of New York’s Professional Education Network Scholarship (PENS) offered to Jewish graduate students interested in a variety of fields, including rabbinic ordination. It is a two year scholarship and in the second year I had the opportunity along with several other rabbinical students from various seminaries, to study with Rabbi Michael Paley, UJA Federation’s Scholar-in-residence. It was Rabbi Paley who suggested that I take on this project.
One requirement of the scholarship was to complete an essay describing a problem in the Jewish community and then create a solution. As the ex-wife of a man who suffered from alcoholism and later passed away from the disease, I knew addiction was a silent problem afflicting our community. Rabbi Paley told me how several years ago he had been working with an intern at UJA on creating an East Coast version of a facility out in California – essentially a Jewish rehab with a community synagogue inside of it-- a place called Beit T’Shuvah, House of Return. But not long after they began their work, the intern left his position at UJA and moved to Israel, at which point the project was put on hold.
After providing me with this background Rabbi Paley proposed that this project-- this East Coast Beit T’Shuvah could be something I might want to take on. Suffice to say I didn’t exactly jump at the chance. Taking on such a huge project was certainly not one of the solutions I had offered in my application essay, which leaned more towards less conspicuous solutions like speaking about substance abuse in the community from the pulpit or sponsoring a JACS meeting in my synagogue.
But, I knew Rabbi Paley was on to something and I understood whether or not I might take on this project, I could at the very least begin by taking one step forward. And the step forward that kept coming to my mind was choosing this topic for my rabbinical school senior thesis.
I selected the name Beit Yosef for several reasons. First, the word “Beit”-- house of—provides a link to Beit T’Shuvah, the facility I modeled in my thesis. Second, Yosef was my ex-husband Joe Wackerman’s Hebrew name. Joe and I spent many years together and whatever difficulties his disease brought into our lives in the end he changed my life for the better. As an expression of my deep gratitude and love I embark on this project to honor Joe and provide hope and help for others struggling with this devastating disease.
But, while the words Beit and Yosef have their individual meanings, I would not have merged them as a title had I not been familiar with a Jewish code of law called The Beit Yosef. Compiled by Josef Caro as a predecessor to his more famous code of law the Shulchan Arukh, the Beit Yosef is today still an indispensable guide for anyone wanting to follow the development of any individual law of the Talmud1. So, having chosen the moniker Beit Yosef in a slightly random manner, a year later as I was writing a research paper on wine in the Bible, it became obvious that there was nothing random about the choosing of this name.
One of the more famous statements in the Talmud has to do with drinking on Purim:
Raba said: It is the duty of a man to mellow himself with wine on Purim until he cannot tell
the difference between ‘cursed be Haman’ and ‘blessed be Mordechai.’ (BT Meg. 7b)
For the most part the rabbis tended to agree with this statement. While they may have in general been wary of excessive drinking, on Purim they made an exception-- but not Josef Caro. Caro argued in the Beit Yosef that there is never any occasion even the joyous holiday of Purim, when drinking to excess is acceptable.
It’s written in Orhat Hayim “one is obligated to mellow himself with wine,” but not to become inebriated. This is totally prohibited. There is no greater sin than this. It causes sexual immorality and the spilling of blood and other sins besides these. One should just drink a little more than one is used to. (BY Orah Hayim Siman Tirtzah)
While Josef Caro was not the first rabbi to view drinking on Purim in a negative light, he was the rabbi who mainstreamed this notion and so changed the course of how rabbis from then on viewed this Talmudic statement. The link between Joe Wackerman, the Beit Yosef, and a “Jewish” drug and alcohol treatment center couldn’t be more obvious.
 Encyclopedia Judaica, s.v., 2nd ed. Caro, Joseph ben Ephraim, p. 490.
 From a conversation with my teacher, Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky.