Sunday, March 9, 2008

FAQ - Frequently Asked Questions

15 Most
By observant Jews during their first year of Seminary school


How do we know that a child is Jewish when his mother is Jewish?

A teaching in Deut. 7:3 is used by us to show how only a child born from a Jewish mother is to be considered a Jew, though he might have had a gentile father. There, we find the prohibition about taking the Canaanites in marriage, viz., "You shall not consummate marriages with them, nor shall you give your daughter to his son or take his son for your daughter, since he will turn away your son from following me." By looking very closely and diacritically at the wording of the text, it says "...since he (the Canaanite father) will turn away your son (i.e. the child born to your Jewish daughter) from following me." Here, we see that G-d still reckons the child to be Jewish by calling him, "your son" - id est, even though such unions were forbidden. G-d calls him "your son," implying that he is still an Israelite because he was born from a Jewish mother. However, the opposite is not true. The Torah does not say, "...for she (the Canaanite mother) will turn away your son." In this case, the child would no longer be considered your son, but rather a gentile. (Cf. Babylonian Talmud, Yevamos 76a; Numbers Rabba 19:3).

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Why was the man stoned (Num. 15: 32-36) who gathered sticks and firewood on the Sabbath day? Afterall, gathering firewood is not listed as one of the thirty-nine proto-types of forbidden labour in Mishnah Shabbos, chapter 7.

The Law of Moses gives us no set-definition of "work" which would warrant the death penalty for someone who did so, wantonly, on the Sabbath day. If it were wrong for the man to simply gather firewood and kindling for the use in a fire, without actually lighting the fire, by the same token would it be wrong for a mother to gather together her child's play toys on the Sabbath day. Yet, there is no such prohibition. This, then, is not one of the forms of labour which is forbidden to do on the Sabbath. A man can actually carry a sofa on his shoulders and go with it in circles within his own house all Sabbath long without doing anything which would be considered as "work" to be punished thereby. On the other hand, if he willfully takes a needle through his doorway and goes out with it four cubits into the public domain, he becomes culpable thereby to the death penalty. There was nothing tiring or tedious about carrying a needle on the Sabbath day, yet is it punishable by the death sentence.

Without an oral tradition, it would be virtually impossible for someone to know the answer to this question. The Rabbis have taught us that there are ONLY 39 forms of labour, all of which we learn from the tent or tabernacle of testimony that was pitched in the wilderness. Only those types of work that were done to make the tabernacle were the same types of work to be prohibited on the Sabbath day. (Sewing, Dyeing, Writing, Hammering, etc.) One of the works prohibited is to carry anything from one domain to another, or to go with it four cubits in the public domain. So the act with which he was guilty for gathering sticks was not his actual gathering of the sticks, but of his going with them more than four cubits in the public domain! Or else, you can say, he was guilty of lopping off some of the branches from the trees themselves.

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The prohibition of eating milk (milchig) and meat (fleishig) together is learned by the verse: "You shall not seethe a kid goat in its mother's milk." (Exo. 34:26 and Deut. 14:21) Nowhere does it say anything about eating. Rather, it speaks only about seething (cooking). How then do we learn that eating is also prohibited?

The Sages have learned that eating meat and milk products together is forbidden, by an inference from minor to major premise (Heb. "kal ve'chomer"). If it is wrong to merely cook them together, how much more then would it be wrong to eat them together! (Mekhilta on Exodus) In our Talmud, we find the like of many syllogisms from whence we derive new lessons.

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Why are there two Jewish calendars, when G-d clearly commanded the Israelites to observe Nisan as the first month, as it is written: "This month shall be unto you the beginning of months." (Exo. 12:2)

Actually, the observance of both calendar systems is mentioned in the Torah – the lunar month of Nisan and the lunar month of Tishri. The observance of Nisan as the first month is as you quoted, "This month shall be unto you the beginning of months" (Exo. 12:2), while the observance of the lunar month Tishri is another beginning of sorts, as it is written: "Three times thou shalt keep a feast unto me in the year…the feast of unleavened bread (viz., Passover, or what is called Pesach)… the feast of harvest (viz., the feast of weeks, or what is called Shavuos)… and the feast of ingathering (viz., the feast of Tabernacles, or what is called Sukkos) which is at the departing of the year." (Exo. 23:14-16)

"The departing of the year" implies that the year's beginning also starts about there. Indeed, we find in the book of Genesis, when G-d said that the Great Deluge came upon the world in the second month (Gen. 7:11), the reference there was to the second lunar month after Tishri, meaning the month of Heshvan! So do we learn from Josephus in his Antiquities (Book I, ch. III, vs. 3). But when G-d speaks about events that happened to the nation of Israel, he clearly mentions only the number of that lunar month in relation to Nisan, the first of the lunar months. For example: "And in the fourteenth day of the first month is the Passover of the Lo-rd." (Num. 28:16), or, "And in the seventh month, on the first day of the month, etc." (Num. 29:1) So why the difference?

The difference has been explained by our Rabbis in this way. The seventh month, Tishri, is really the beginning of the year when we begin reckoning dates in contracts, or begin numbering sabbatical years or jubilees that have passed. Our counting must start with Tishri, the seventh month. The creation of the world, according to Rabbi Eliezer, also starts with Tishri. Hence: We observe New Year's Day on this month! It is the month referred to in the Torah as "at the departing of the year." (ibid.)

Nisan, on the other hand, is the lunar month in which we begin reckoning events specifically related to the people of Israel, such as the feasts. If a Jewish holiday falls on a certain month, the month is mentioned by its order only in relation to Nisan. Likewise, a Jewish king and the number of years in which he reigned can only be calculated by starting with the lunar month Nisan. The reference point is Nisan. For this reason, the month is also called by us, "the New Year for Kings." (q.v. Mishnah, Rosh Hashana 1:1) If, for example, a Jewish king came to power in Adar, the twelfth lunar month, but died in Nisan, the first lunar month, we count the period of that king's reign as two years, even though in reality he only reigned two months. It is only with the inauguration of Nisan that we attribute another year to that king's reign.

The way in which this teaching is derived can be shown by diacritically looking at the wording of the text. Israel's mass departure out of Egypt began in the lunar month Nisan. To that great epoch in time, G-d declared: "This month shall be unto you the beginning of months, etc." Meaning, the words, "unto you," are to be read here emphatically. "Unto you," but not unto the nations; "unto you" the month is to be a reference point in time, but not unto the gentiles; "unto you," meaning, in those things concerning you alone, excluding those things which concern both you and the gentiles. In this way, we recognize both calendar systems, Nisan (where it applies to us) and Tishri (where it applies to both us and to them), giving the respect due to both.

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The Torah's way of looking at the Ammonites and Moabites is one of spite, for it cautions the people of Israel not to consummate marriages with the men of this nation, for all generations, and never to seek their good and welfare (Deut. 23: 4-7). This would imply even if they were converts to the Jewish religion. Why is the Torah so strict upon these people, even if it were only for not greeting the people of Israel with bread and water when they came out of Egypt?

Indeed, the reason given for this discrimination was "because they did not greet you with bread and water," that is, when Israel came out of Egypt, as also because of their hiring Balaam to curse the people of Israel.
So, why was the Torah so strict with these people, above others, simply because they had not agreed to sell bread and water to the Jews, etc.? Because they, of all people, should have been the most willing to assist Israel, the descendants of Abraham, seeing that it was Abraham who delivered Lot (the progenitor of the Ammonite and Moabite races) when he was taken captive by the kings of the east, and when those kings reduced Sodom to ruins. They were the people who should have shown the most gratitude to Abraham's descendants. Yet because they faltered in this most basic human character trait, viz., gratitude, they were all the more severely punished by G-d who ostracized them, as it were, from the commonwealth of Israel.

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I have seen people using miniature-sized scales to weigh an olive's bulk of Matzah (unleavened bread) on the night of Passover. What is the halacha concerning an olive's bulk?

An olive's bulk (Heb. "kazayis") is, according to Rabbi Yoseph Karo, the equivalent of 1/2 of an egg's bulk. Rambam holds a different opinion, saying that it is equivalent to 1/3 of an egg's bulk. Both were speaking about medium-sized eggs. (Rabbi Yechiel Epstein Halevi, in his "Arukh Ha-Shulhan," has proven most consummately that eggs have not changed in size over the years, unlike the opinion held by the Chazon-Ish.)

The Rabbis of our Yeshiva have always taught us that when estimating an "olive's bulk," we should only look at a thing's volume, and not its anatomical weight. This is because the volume which would make up an olive's bulk of bread (pressed so as to remove all air pockets) is considerably different in weight than when taking, for example, an olive's bulk from an apple. So, while two different things might have an olive's bulk (volume), their anatomical weights are different.

Eating an olive's bulk of bread is the minimal requirement needed for one to bring himself under the obligation of bentching (i.e. saying the full grace after his meal). Even so, this is only a rabbinic enactment, since from the standpoint of the Torah, one is only obligated to say grace when he has been made satisfied by that meal. If one had eaten less than this, he is exempt from bentching.

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Up until the days of Rav Abhu of Caesarea (around the 3rd Century C.E.), all of Israel practised blowing only three series of three blasts (Teki'ah, Teru'ah and Teki'ah), for a total of nine blasts, made by the Shofar on the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashana). This is the teaching carried in our Mishnah, Rosh Hashana 4:9. Rambam follows-up with a halachic ruling that there are to be a total of 30 blasts made by the Shofar! (Maimonides, Hilchos Shofar 3:3) Some communities practise making 70 blasts, while most communities, following the Shulhan Arukh, will make a total of 101 blasts on Rosh Hashana. What is the cause for all this inconsistency in our teachings?

Indeed, the original practice in Israel was to hear a total of only nine blasts made by the Shofar on Rosh Hashana. This practice was later changed, as you correctly noted, by Rav Abhu, because of doubts that had arisen surrounding the actual performance of this commandment.

During the first series, Rav Abhu enacted that they blow a [very long] sustained blast (Teki'ah), followed by three [short] lilting blasts (Shevarim), followed by a [long] quavering blast (Teru'ah), and again by a [very long] sustained blast (Teki'ah). This series was to be repeated three times. During the second series, he enacted that they blow one [very long] sustained blast (Teki'ah), followed by three [short] lilting blasts (Shevarim), followed by a [very long] sustained blast (Teki'ah). This series was also to be repeated three times. During the third series, he enacted that they blow a [very long] sustained blast (Teki'ah), followed by a [long] quavering blast (Teru'ah), and again a [very long] sustained blast. Again, this series was to be repeated three times. (The first series has a combination of four interchanging sounds made by the horn, which, when repeated thrice, make for a total of twelve blasts. The second series has a combination of three interchanging sounds, which, when repeated thrice, make for a total of nine blasts. The third and final series has a combination of three interchanging sounds, which, when repeated thrice, make for a total of nine blasts. The sum total is thirty blasts.)

Besides the greater number of blasts made by the horn, the substantial change made by Rav Abhu is in his adding the "short, lilting blasts" (Shevarim), which blasts have the resounding pitch of a person who is crying. This was added because of a doubt originating over the meaning of the word used by Onkelos and Yonathan ben Uziel in their Aramaic translations on Lev. 23:24 and Num. 29:1, where they both translated "a quavering blast" (Teru'ah) as "a wailing sound," (Aramaic: "Yababa"), which happens to be also the same word used in describing the sound made by the mother of Sisera in Judges 5:28, when she moaned the loss of her son. With the ram's horn, it was not known if this word meant short, intermittent lilting blasts, or one long quavering blast, from whence he prescribed that we do both in the first series.

Another doubt, however, arose because of this enactment. It was not known whether or not the addition of "three short lilting blasts" in between the older practice would disqualify the whole. For this reason, we also blow "three short lilting blasts" in a series by itself, and "one long quavering blast" in a series by itself. Each is done separately.

Those who practise making 70 blasts with the ram's horn (Shofar), more notably the Yemenite Jews of the Baladi-rite, do so only because the first thirty blasts are made while the congregation is sitting. These same thirty blasts are repeated when the congregation stands up during the Musaf-Prayer, during which time the emissary of the congregation (Shaliach Tzibbur) leads them in prayer out-loud. Since he fulfills their obligation, the Musaf-Prayer is only said once by them. There is no "chazarah" (repetition of the prayer), and subsequently, there is no need to make an additional thirty blasts at this time. Another ten blasts are made at the end of the prayer, in accordance with a tradition passed down from the days of the Geonim.

Those who practise 101 blasts, follow a teaching that is first mentioned by the "Ba'alei Tosfos" (Rosh Hashana 33b, s.v. שעור) in the name of the Arukh. Thirty blasts are blown while the congregation is sitting. Another thirty blasts are made while standing silently in the Musaf-Prayer. Another thirty blasts are made at the "chazarah" of the Musaf-Prayer. Ten blasts are made at the end of the prayer, according to a tradition left us by the Geonim. These are usually blown while in the midst of saying the "Kadish Tiskabal." Finally, a very long sustained blast is made at the end of all these, concluding the Shul service on Rosh Hashana. At the recess of Yom Kippur, four blasts are made (Mnemonics: TASHRATHTeki'ah, Shevarim, Teru'ah, Teki'ah). Several reasons are given for this practice, one of which is said to have the effect of confusing Satan.

It should be noted, here, that in some Sephardic and Ashkenazi traditions, the quavering blast (Teru'ah) is believed to be a string of many short-lived, broken blasts made by the tongue (e.g. tut-tut-tut-tut, etc.), rather than a long, trembling blast originating from the stomach as practised by the Yemenite and Babylonian Jewish communities. Each community is admonished to persist in the tradition which his fathers received.

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The kashrus of birds requires a Mesora (tradition) in order for it to be considered kosher even with all the kosher characteristics. This follows the decision of the RAMA (Rabbi Moshe Iserlisch) and which only applies to Ashkenazi Jews, since he was the first to suggest that one needs a Mesora (tradition) for eating birds. Is it the same for split-hoof ruminants even the ones for which Jews don't have a Mesora, such as the giraffe, or bison, elk, caribou and reindeer? It would seem that the Chazon Ish (based on his interpretation of hints in certain latter authorities) felt that one also needs a Mesora for ruminants.

Actually, the Talmud (Hullin 63.b) brings down a teaching in the name of Rav Yitzhaq that we require a Mesora before eating birds. The same teaching was taken up by RASHI, as we learn in the Arba'ah Turim of Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher, (Yoreh De'ah, section # 82).

Rabbi Sa'adia Gaon, in his Arabic Translation of the Pentateuch known as "Tifsir," translates the Hebrew word "Zamer" (in Deuteronomy 14:5) as "Giraffe," meaning that it is one of the ruminants that the Torah clearly says can be eaten by Jews! So, why haven't we seen it eaten as Kosher food? I posed this question to Rabbi Yoseph Qafih z"l who said to me simply that this animal was not found in areas settled by Jews. When asked if it were permitted for us to have it ritually slaughtered and eaten, he replied to me with a definite "Yes," saying that as far as a Mesora is concerned, it is sufficient to rely upon the expertise of Rabbi Sa'adia Gaon who said that it was a Kosher animal, and that obviously anyone could see that it had the clear signs of a Kosher animal. In this regard, it is no different from a Yemenite Jew who today eats "Turkey," although this fowl was not native to Yemen or to Asia, but rather native to North-America. Yet, since we rely upon the expertise of others that the bird is Kosher (viz., that it has a crop, a gizzard that can be peeled with one's fingers, and a fourth toe, and it does not pounce upon its prey with its talons), we eat it!
As for "not knowing the place of slaughter," this is a common fallacy. Maimonides writes in his Hilchos Shechita that "the entire neck is valid for ritual slaughter."

As for the halachic ruling of the Chazon Ish, someone pointed out to me and I will use his words: "this was a big chidush (novelty) and was strongly objected to." He went on to say that he didn't know of any American Rabbanim who accepted it. "Rab Wozner [of Benei Baraq]," he said, "was also less than enthusiastic. What really upset people was his ruling that the zebu, or Indian cow, has no Mesora while the European cow does." So far his words.
This is what we have to say about this subject.

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Are Christians and Buddhists considered Noahide, because they follow laws that are, afterall, the same/similar to the 7 Noahide laws?

The very name "Noahide," or one who has taken upon himself the seven precepts of the sons of Noah, suggests that they cannot be Buddhists in the traditional sense of the word, neither Christians practising a form of Catholicism (with their statues, crucifixes and icons, and other appurtenances associated with "strange worship.") For the seven precepts that G-d has given to Noah and to his posterity after the Great Deluge, as well as Adam, his forbear, are these:

1) To refrain from idolatry and all practices thereof.
2) To refrain from cursing one's G-d.
3) To refrain from murder, which prohibition includes abortions.
4) To refrain from thievery and brigandage.
5) To refrain from fornication and all sinful license.
6) To establish Courts of justice, so that no man takes the law into his own hands.
7) To abstain from eating flesh torn or cut away from animals while they are still alive. (Rather, all animals must first be butchered or shot and their blood allowed to drain off, before they and their limbs can be eaten.)

On the other hand, holding ill-founded beliefs do not necessarily put a man on par with idol worshippers. A case in point is the Mohammedan, though while he holds ill-founded beliefs, he is still not considered an idol-worshipper. The test, in this case, is what you do with those beliefs. Some say Protestant Christians, though definitely mistaken in their beliefs, do not fit under the category of idol-worshippers, per se.

You should know, furthermore, that both Jews and non-Jews are obliged to perform the seven precepts of the sons of Noah, with slight variations. For example: A Jewish woman who makes an abortion upon her unborn foetus, though she has done wrong, goes unpunished by the Courts - unless that infant had first put forth his head from the matrix of the womb. A non-Jew who performs an abortion upon an unborn child is guilty by the act, and is punished by the Court.

A Jewish man who steals, or purloins others, is made to make restitution (pay double), while a non-Jew who steals, or purloins others, is made liable thereby to the death sentence. (For the law prescribes withal that death should be the penalty for any gentile who transgresses but one of these least commandments.)Concerning the establishment of Courts, and unlike the practice used in Israel, it is sufficient that a single judge be the arbitrator in all cases brought before him in non-Jewish courts of law. With Israel, any Court less than three judges is called "an impudent court."

Also in the prohibition "to refrain from fornication and all sinful license," this precept requires an explanatory note:
The most trustworthy of our exponents on Jewish law avers that Legal marriages are not consummated, neither betrothals nor acts of wedlock assumed, between gentile persons who come together for the purpose of mating one with the other. Rather, there is only co-habitation by way of mutual agreement, which thing alone makes them man & wife. For the institution of marriage by way of giving monies for betrothals, or canopies, or writs of marriages, etc. was only given to this nation (i.e. Israel). Yet, with gentiles, all these things are unnecessary. Mutual agreement coupled with physical intercourse (coitus) makes them man & wife. Likewise, to disannul or terminate that agreement of marriage between gentiles, no formal writ of divorce, or any instrument whatsoever, is needed between them. Simply by way of mutual consent or by desertion of one party, the couple is no longer considered man & wife.

One of the fine points arising from this teaching is the case where a Jewish man has connexions with a betrothed Jewish woman after first obtaining her consent, and a non-Jew, likewise, has connexions with a betrothed gentile woman after first obtaining her consent. Though both cases seemingly have the same nature and appearances, they are yet different in outcome. For a Jewish man who has connexions with a betrothed Jewish woman who awaits wedlock with her husband, even though she had given her consent to such connexions, both become liable thereby to the death penalty. Yet, a gentile man who has connexions with a "betrothed" gentile woman (even though she had consented to such connexions) is NOT liable to the death penalty - since betrothals do not hold as valid, legal or binding with non-Jews, and so it is as though she were still single. In this case, the man and that unfaithful woman are judged according to the custom of that place. (see: Tosefta Avodah Zarah 8(9)4 ).

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Does a Beis Din (Rabbinic Court) have the legal jurisdiction under the Torah to cancel, or annul, a person's marriage from the start, simply because that man refuses to divorce his wife?

There are those who would have modern Basei Din annul marriages if he refuses to give a divorce to his wife. There is a Beis Din that actually does this. The Rabbi either makes the witness incompetent, or says that "this groom is crazy and he must have been crazy when he got married and he hid it from us. Therefore, the marriage wasn't valid at all!" Or that it's a "mekach taus." The other thing they do is appoint themselves as agents to divorce the woman. No major posek has agreed with this procedure and they believe that the woman is still a married woman. Chazal only uprooted or undid a marriage in very specific circumstances, but he that refused to give a divorce wasn't one of them. I suspect that they didn't want to undo the sanctity of marriage by nullifying a marriage by decree except in those very few circumstances.

Yes, you are right. There are very limited guidelines in the Talmud when this is permitted to be done, if ever. No man should lightly assay to annul a marriage, retrospectively, simply because a man does not give a divorce to his wife.
Although we do find a statement in the Talmud that says:
כל דמקדש אדעתא דרבנן מקדש ואפקעינהו רבנן לקידושין מיניה
(Translated)"Anyone who sanctifies [a woman in marriage], does so with the approbation of the Rabbis, and [therefore] the Rabbis can annul his marriage [retrospectively]."
(Ketubos 3a)

Even so, the Gemara (ibid.) gives the reason why, specifically, this statement was made, and it has nothing to do with ordinary marriages! Rather, the statement refers to where the Rabbis had first made an enactment for the public's good in order to prevent "mamzerim" (bastards) from multiplying in Israel. For example: A man gave his wife a divorce on the condition that it would be effective after twelve months if he did not return home from his journey. Meanwhile, the man changes his mind while abroad, and decides to return home within the allotted time of twelve months so as to render null and void the divorce which he gave to his wife. For some reason beyond his control, the man becomes "held-up," and is compelled to come home after the year had expired. When he eventually makes his way back home, he cannot make use of the alibi, "Well, I was compelled to come back late, but never really wanted to divorce my wife." In this case, the man's wife is divorced, and his alibi of "constraint" or "compulsion" does not hold-up as valid in a Jewish Court of law. This enactment made by Rabbis has the more popular phrase of:
אין אונס בגיטין
("There is no alibi of constraint when it concerns divorces.")

The reasons for this enactment are clear, namely, to prevent a situation whereby the man's wife would think that she is no longer wanted, and so, runs off and gets married to another. Had the man's alibi stood-up in court (since from the standpoint of the Law itself, "constraint" is a valid excuse for canceling a bill of divorce), his wife would have still been married to him, and the children born from her second marriage would have all been "mamzerim" (bastards).

Alternately, the Rabbis wanted to prevent a situation whereby the woman would await her husband, thinking that he still loves her (but that he has been constrained), and therefore would refuse to marry any other in hopes for his return. In this case, she would be doing a great disservice to herself.

Wherefore, as a preventive measure, the Rabbis have "annulled" that man's marriage, seeing that the subject of "mamzerim" (bastards) should not be treated lightly. The Rabbis have ruled in effect that his bill of divorce was legal from the moment twelve months had expired (in accordance with his stipulation). Still, the Rabbis NEVER meant to say by their enactment that the couple's marriage from the start was nullified. Saying so would be rendering injustice to the text in our most revered Gemara!

However, where there was a union that, under the Law of Moses, was not a valid marriage to begin with (such as when a Jewish woman was married to a gentile man, or vice-versa), in such cases the Beis Din can easily say to the couple their marriage is cancelled retrospectively. The sanctity of marriage never held up from the start.

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What are the major differences between Sephardim and Ashkenazim when it comes to the mitzvah of tzitzis (i.e. the tassels worn on the four corners of our talis)?

If you are referring to the manner in which we tie the knots on our tassels (Tzitzis), the Sephardim have several practices. Rav Yitzhak, the son of Rav Ovadia Yosef, has written in his "Yilkut Yosef" 11:9 about the more popular custom practised today by the Sephardim. (Paraphrased)"The custom of some Sephardic communities was to follow a practice started by Kabbalists of the last 500 years, to wit, to make a square knot, followed by seven windings which are not overlapping; again to make a square knot, followed by eight windings which are not overlapping; again to make a square knot, followed by eleven windings (not overlapping); and finally, again to make a square knot, followed by thirteen windings (not overlapping), which last are also concluded by tying a square knot."
Moroccan Jews have of late followed a practice of making windings like the above, but with a slight difference in number of windings, viz., ten, five, six and five, in honour of the numerical value of each letter in G-d's name.

It should be noted that these windings are not repeated over themselves (overlapping), unlike the custom with the Yemenite Jews who practice "overlapping" when making their windings.

As for the Yemenite Jews and their custom, Dr. Aaron Gimani wrote: "Many Yemenite Jews are accustomed to make tzitzis with seven 'joints' (Heb. chuliyos) not separated by any knots. After the cords have been inserted into the hole at the corner of the tallis, a double knot is made. The longest cord is wound three times around the other cords, and this is the first joint. A small space is left and the cord is wound around another three times, and this constitutes the second joint; and the process continues until the tzitzis displays seven joints without any intervening knots."
These seven "joints" are said to be reminiscent of the seven firmaments.The practice of Ashkenaz follows more closely the Sephardic customs, and they will tie five knots (Heb. kesharim) to their Tzitzis, intervened by four joints (Heb. chuliyos) made after the manner and teaching of the Kabbalists, that is, joints with windings of 7, 8, 11 & 13. Again, the practice of having both, knots and joints is in accordance with a teaching in "Shitah Mekubetzes" (Tractate Menachos) who viewed the knots and joints as being two independent things and, therefore, required. The most trustworthy of our Yemenite traditions avers, however, that the "joints" and "knots" are actually one and the same thing, and therefore, only the "joints" (Heb. chuliyos) appear with them on their tassels, besides the first "knot" (Heb. kesher) that binds the actual threads together closest to the cloth of the Tallis.
Let each man follow his own custom.
Lastly, the hole into which the threads of the Tzitzis are inserted is only one hole to each corner, according to the Yemenites and Sephardim. The Chassidische Rebbes have a custom to make two holes on each corner of the Tallis for the insertion of the threads making-up the Tzitzis.

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I am a Cohen. My frum neighbour who has a farm has approached unto me about the Mitvah of "Bechoros," or "firstborn animals of his flock." He is intent on performing this commandment according to the halacha. What should he do? Can I receive a firstborn goat from his flock after a blemish has befallen the animal?

Although the Torah (Num. 18:17-18) has awarded the priests of Aaron's lineage with the firstborn male of all sheep, goats, etc., and these animals were originally slaughtered by them to be eaten in a state of ritual purity, today this biblical injunction cannot be performed by them because of the general state of uncleanness suffered by all the people. Moreover, we have learned by way of an oral tradition that the owner of such animals (firstborn males of sheep, goats or cows) cannot derive any benefit from the animals until those animals suffer a blemish in their bodies. This blemish is also contingent upon it being incapable of healing itself, and only then – if ever – may he slaughter such animals and make use of their flesh, and all appurtenances thereof. If the owner were liberal, he would give the firstborn male sheep or goat or calf to a descendant of Aaron the priest (Cohen), and he, too, will wait until that animal incurred a permanent blemish, before his slaughtering it and making use of its flesh. Yet, so long as the animal has not been marred with a blemish, it is forbidden even to make use of a single hair from that animal. It can only be let out to pasture, without the possibility of ever deriving any benefit from it at all.

To bypass and circumvent this problem, it is suggested that the Jewish owner of the flock enter into a co-ownership agreement with a non-Jew, regarding his flock, or herd of cattle. This co-ownership cancels all obligations in the Law of Moses concerning the firstborn males of his flock. (The reason being that a non-Jew, who has a mutual investment in the flock, is not obligated to perform our laws.) Even so, when a Jew comes into co-ownership with a non-Jewish person, he must sell him "a part" of the ewe, or nanny-goat, or cow which has never yet had issue, as well "a part" of the lambs or kids or calves which are to be born from the same. Our Rabbis have taught us, moreover, that this "sale of parts of the animal" cannot be effective until the Jew sells his co-partner a part of the animal wherein the animal's life depends (i.e. the wind-pipe and the esophagus, as an example). This suffices to cancel the obligation in the Torah concerning firstborn males. If these precautions and measures are taken, your frum neighbour may indeed take his firstborn males of the flock, and have them slaughtered forthwith, without fearing any obligation to keep the animal until it suffers a blemish.

Since there was co-ownership with a non-Jew, you should honour the terms of the agreement by giving the wind-pipe and esophagus to the non-Jew.

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In the "Ethics of the Fathers," we find the following statement by Rabbi Akiva:
"All things are foreseen [by G-d], yet the choice is given [unto man], and the world is judged by [its] good..." (Pirke Avos 3:19)

Elsewhere, we find a similar statement by Rabbi Hanina:
"All is committed into the hands of heaven, except one's fear of heaven." (Niddah 16b)

These two statements typify the view of mainstream Judaism, passed down unto us by the Sages, viz., that it is mostly fate that determines what a man shall be in this life, what things befall him, etc. etc. Fate governs all things in our lives - all things, that is, except whether or not that man shall be righteous or wicked. This determination has been left up to him alone, with perhaps "fate" assisting him along the way. Indeed, we find with Pharaoh, when he had hardened his heart again and again, and refused to let the people of Israel leave his country, G-d eventually made his heart even stiffer, so that he had no choice but to resist the pleas made by Moses.

Perhaps you can help me with this one. If the "choice is given unto man," what purpose would G-d have had in purposely and willingly making it impossible for Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, to submit in giving leave to his subjects, and that he had no choice in the end but to resist? I call your attention to Exodus 10:1, where it says that "G-d hardened his heart" in order to put the signs and wonders in the land of Egypt. Whatever the reason might be, we still see G-d meddling with man's choice in such a way as to make that man wicked.

The "Midrash Ha-Gadol" (Section Bo) says that G-d prevented Pharaoh from ever attaining to penitence, in order to be avenged of him over what he already refused to do for Israel. In like manner, the Midrash Rabba (Section Bo) brings down two conflicting opinions: one by Rabbi Yochanan, the other by Rabbi Shimon, the son of Lakish. Rabbi Yochanan says that where G-d says he had hardened the heart of Pharaoh (Exo. 10:1), he gave occassion thereby for the sectarians to say that he (Pharaoh) did not have the ability to make repentance. (Implied by Rabbi Yochanan that he still had the ability to make repentance). Rabbi Shimon, the son of Lakish, says that G-d warns a man once, twice, even three times, and if the man still persists in his ways without repenting, G-d will lock his heart so that he will not be able to make repentance thereafter, in order that G-d might be avenged of him.
Maimonides, in his Code of Jewish Law (Hilchos Teshuva, chpts. 5 & 6) rules in accordance with Rabbi Shimon, the son of Lakish. There, he writes:

"The choice is given to every man. If he desires to incline himself after a good manner, and to be righteous, the option is his. Yet, if he desires to incline himself after a bad manner, and to be wicked, the option is his. ... Let it not come to your mind what the ignorant ones of the nations do say, as well as most uncultured persons of Israel, that the Most Holy, blessed be He, decrees upon men from the beginning of their existence to be either righteous or wicked. This is not so, rather, every man has the ability to be as righteous as Moses our Rabbi, or as wicked as Jeroboam; either wise or foolish; either compassionate or cruel; either a miser or liberal, as also any of the other traits. No one compels him, nor decrees upon him, neither draws him to one of the two divergent ways except him, by himself and of his own accord inclines to where he lists. This is what Jeremiah said: 'From the Most High there does not come forth both bad and good...' There are many verses in the Torah and in the prophets which seem to contradict this principle, and many people stumble in them, by which they also imagine that G-d decrees upon a man to do wickedly... Wherefore, it is written in the Torah, 'And I shall harden the heart of Pharaoh,' seeing that he sinned initially of his own accord and did evil unto Israel who dwelled in his land... it became fitting to prevent him from attaining to penitence, until [G-d] could be avenged of him. Therefore, the Most Holy, blessed be He (i.e. G-d), hardened his heart..."

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The fact that polygamy was a common practice among godly people in ancient times suggests to me that polygamy was approved by G-d. Yet I know of no Jewish people in the West who engage in polygamy. Even in Israel, the practice is not the norm. In fact, the only Jews I know who continue to practice polygamy to this day are the Yemenites. Why did other Jews stop practising polygamy? Why don't the vast majority of Jewish people today engage in this practice? If there is a ruling one way or the other, I would expect all serious religious Jews to follow it. Perhaps you can shed some light on this for me.

That the practice of polygamy is an accepted Jewish practice, as it is today among the Arabs, there is no doubt. Even those who oppose the practice today, agree that our forefathers practised it, and there is nothing in the Law of Moses which condemns it. (Compare: Deut. 21:15, "If a man should have two wives, etc." And I Sam. 1:1,2 about Elkanah and his two wives, Peninnah and Hannah.) There are also many references about its practice in our Mishnah (compiled circa 189 C.E.), namely, in Tractate Yevamos 1:1, Yevamos 1:2, Yevamos 1:4, etc. The issue of having two wives, or "co-wives" as it is often called, was very plainly an accepted practice, but by no means was it ever widespread. Most men preferred marrying one wife, and only a few men in any one community could ever handle the responsibilities of marrying two or three wives. Therefore, Maimonides writes in his Code of Jewish Law (Hilchos Ishus 14:3): "A man can marry several women, even one-hundred, whether all at once, or one after the other, and his wife is not able to withhold it. However, this is on the condition that he is able to provide food & clothing for each, and to perform his marital duty on each wife as it is fitting." Maran, however, says the ordinary layman was permitted to take no more than four wives. (see: Shulhan Arukh, Even Ha'ezer 76:7)

In Yemen, where the practice is well-known and accepted by all, most Jewish men chose to marry a single woman, whereas perhaps one man in every twenty would take an additional wife over his first wife. In my conversations with Moroccan Jews here, in Israel, all have said to me with one accord that they, too, saw the practice of polygamy observed by Jews in Morocco, but then again it was always an exceptional case, since most Jews preferred marrying a single woman. The Jewish law allows, in particular, a Jewish man to take an additional wife over his first wife in the event that he lived with his first wife for ten years and she could not bring him any children. But this is not the sole rule, for many Jews who have co-wives also have children from both wives. I, myself, have counted ten Yemenite Jewish men in the city of Rehovoth who are married to two or more wives. Yet, almost in all cases there is jealousy between the co-wives, each vying for the love and respect of their husband. The common factor between all of these Yemenite Jews who are married to two or more co-wives is that they came up to this country from Yemen with their co-wives, since the secular law of the State today does not sanction such marriages when they are made within the country proper, and anyone marrying co-wives within the land of Israel is liable to a maximum prison sentence of five years! However, the State will recognize marriages of this kind when they are officiated outside of the territorial domain of the State of Israel, and that person, prior to moving to Israel with his co-wives, had never before lived in Israel. (Thus is it stated in the Israeli Penal Code Book.) Note: The secular laws of the State prohibit polygamy among Jews, but permit polygamy among Arabs living within the State. The reason for this is because the secular law, in this particular matter, received the full backing and support of the religious Jews of Europe at the founding of the State in 1948. Primarily, it was they who controlled the Rabbinic Courts of the newly founded State, while they accepted and adhered to Rabbeinu Gershom's edicts wherein he prohibited polygamy amongst religious Jews. The Sephardic Jews have never accepted this prohibition. (Rabbeinu Gershom lived a little more than a thousand years ago in Europe, was a devout Jew, and one who made many new enactments for his generation, among which was the prohibition of marrying co-wives, and which prohibition was meant to be binding only for a thousand-year period. Although this period has since expired, the Ashkenazi Jews keep to their old traditions, and nowhere do they permit among themselves polygamy.) The Ashkenazi Jews, as said, adhered to his edicts, which explains why in the West no Jewish people engage in polygamy – for most Jews in the West (America and Europe) are derived from Ashkenazi stock. The State of Israel enforced the edicts of Rabbeinu Gershom, forcing this order upon all Jews living within the land of Israel. Yet, recognizing the differences between Sephardic and Ashkenazi customs in this matter, it permitted Sephardic Jews to return to their ancient homeland, accompanied by their co-wives. Today, a new generation of Israelis rarely sees this practice of polygamy because of the restrictions over this practice imposed by the State. Finally, you reasoned that if there was a ruling one way or the other, you would expect all serious religious Jews to follow it. Not so, my friend! For although the Ashkenazi Jews will detest the practice of polygamy, and the Sephardic Jews accept it, this is in keeping with what our Rabbis taught us in the Talmud, that if in one city or in one country the Jews have taken upon themselves a certain restrictive practice, this does not obligate all cities and all countries to bind themselves by that same restrictive practice. Rather, only that city or that country which took upon itself certain stringencies is bound to observe that rule. All of Europe restricted themselves. The Jews of the Levant, on the other hand, did not. This is the gist of the matter.

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A question arose in our Beis Midrash, and we were indecisive as to the answer. Since "the saving of life takes precedence over all the commandments in the Torah" (except, of course, killing another in order to preserve one's own life, or committing an act of fornication in order to preserve one's life, or worshipping an idol in order to save one's life). What would be the lesser of the two evils if a person found himself in a situation where he was going to die of starvation unless he ate of either a pig, or a human corpse? Should he eat the pig, or the human corpse? Which is the lesser of the two evils?

I would appreciate any input or answers that you might have on this subject.

Both, the Torah and the book of Aicha (Lamentations), refer to an evil "unspeakable", as it were, namely: to eat the flesh of one's own dead children because of a famine that would plague the nation if they would not observe G-d's commandments! The Torah and Aicha wanted to give us an unusually extreme example of spiritual depravity and decadence - which not even the eating of a pig could have sufficed in conveying the same!

Many Rabbis have debated the issue of whether or not eating a pig would be the lesser of the two evils (pig vs. a human corpse). Rabbi Yehiel Epstein Halevi in his "Arukh Ha-Shulhan" has discussed this issue (q.v. Hilchos Behema veChaya Tehorah, section 79: 8-12), where the matter is undecided by him. So, too, Rabbi Eliyau Aberjel (Av Beis Din at the court in Beersheva) has written about this subject in his six volume work known as "Divros Eliyahu," Vol. 2, and where he concludes that eating human flesh is the lesser of the two evils.

Rambam (Maimonides) has written about this issue in his Mishne Torah (Hilchos Maachalos Assuros, 2:3), saying:
"Man, even though it was said about him, 'And man became a living soul,' is not included in the general category of those animals having hooves, therefore, [eating his flesh] is not a prohibitive command. He who eats from the flesh of a man, or his suet, whether it were a living man or a dead man, is not flagellated [on that account]. But it is, [nevertheless], a prohibition derived by way of a Positive command. For, behold, the Scripture names seven kinds of beasts, and has said concerning them: 'These are the beasts that you may eat, [etc.]' Lo! All [creatures], other than these, you may not eat. Now any prohibitive command that was derived by way of a general Positive command, makes it a Positive command."
According to Rambam, one is forbidden to eat human flesh, but if he did so wantonly, he would not be flagellated by the court. On the other hand, a Jewish man who ate pork would be flagellated by the court. So does this make the eating of human flesh the lesser of the two evils? I would think not. Proof of which is this:

We find that in the general rules and lessons passed down unto us by the Sages, besides the rule לאו הבא מכלל עשה - עשה, we also find the rule: עשה ולא תעשה, עשה. Translated: "When confronted with both a Positive Command and Negative Command [that seem to contradict each other], do the Positive command!" For example: There is a Positive command to circumcise a boy child on the eighth day after his birth. There is Negative command not to profane the Sabbath (which would include the prohibition of cutting away the prepuce, since he causes a wound that bleeds). So what would one do if the circumcision fell on the Sabbath day? He proceeds to do the Positive command, to circumcise the boy! The Positive command overrides the Negative command.
Even so, the early Rabbis have come along and "cancelled" that very same general rule passed down unto us by the Sages of עשה ולא תעשה, עשה when, in certain circumstances, the implementation of that rule would tend to defy human nature and conduct. For example: There is a Positive command to take in marriage one's deceased brother's widow when they have left no issue, or what is called in Hebrew "yibum." (Deut. 25:5-10) There is a Negative command not to be married to two sisters at the same time. (Lev. 18:18) So what would one do if two brothers were married to two sisters, and one brother died without leaving an issue (neither sons, nor daughters)? Do we say here that the Positive command to take one's brother's widow overrides the Negative command of not taking in marriage two sisters? No. On the contrary. The Rabbis (at the beginning of Tractate Yevamos) have made this an exception to the general rule, and have cancelled the commandment that would otherwise have a person act in accordance with that Positive Command. A man who was married to the sister of his deceased brother's widow, cannot perform the act of "Yibum" on his sister-in-law.

It is the same with eating the flesh from a human corpse. If given the choice between eating it or swine's flesh, let him choose the pork (particularly, if it were properly cooked) as the lesser of the two evils - in spite of the general rule that says:
לאו הבא מכלל עשה, עשה
Otherwise, the disgust and decadence would simply be too great!
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Those who may have any comments about any of the issues herein addressed may contact me at: