Project Genesis


Understanding Idol Worship

Question: What was so attractive about idol worship that our ancestors occasionally engaged in it? From the descriptions of it, child sacrifice, etc. it seems reprehensible. Without a Temple today we are faithful to G-D so why in those days when there was a Temple were our ancestors so attracted to idol worship?

Many Jews are going to India and China for Hinduism and Buddhism to get what they describe as a “spiritual high”. Is this same as idolatry?

Answer: The Rambam (Maimonides) at the beginning of his Laws of Idolatry describes how the concept of worshipping stars and other creations evolved from the reasonable assertion that G-d directs his influence on this world by way of stars. It was felt that some recognition should be offered to these intermediaries and, over time, the realization that these intermediaries were nothing but passive conduits (maybe like electrical power lines) was lost. Idolatry, then, in its “purist” form was an erroneous reaction to the wonders and power of G-d’s world.Some commentators felt that this form of worship actually produced positive results (albeit in open rebellion against G-d’s will). Rambam sharply disagreed.

Interestingly, Rabbi E.E. Dessler wrote (in a rather involved essay whose subject goes beyond the scope of this letter) that the human impulse to worship idols comes from the same “place” as the aspiration for prophecy. A generation whose sensitivity to holiness is great enough to merit prophets among them is also far more prone to slipping into idolatry. It is for this reason that the loss of prophecy (some 2300 years ago) coincided directly with the reduction in our burning desire for idolatry.

There is no question that many of the practices observed by Buddhists and Hindus (and other groups besides) are idolatrous and therefore forbidden by our Torah. The sadly misguided Israelis and others who journey to the east for such experiences are indeed following in the footsteps of Biblical-age idolaters.

With regards,
Rabbi Boruch Clinton

Grace After Meals - Birchat Hamazon

Question: What is the commandment for saying a blessing after a meal? What is the reason for reciting this blessing? Is it absolutely necessary to say the blessings in the form in which they are written after a meal? If I don’t feel the meaning within these blessings can I say my own words of praise to G-d?

Answer: The Torah obligates us to recognize that G-d is the source of all blessing after we feel satisfied from our food, as it’s written: “You shall eat and be satisfied and bless Hashem your G-d” (Deuteronomy 8:10, Tractate Berachos 48b). According to the Talmud, this would be when we eat a full meal – defined as a meal with bread. Over time, the Jewish people developed a formalized text for how to do this, called the “Birchat HaMazon.” G-d gives us good things so that we can come to appreciate Him, and therefore realize that we are obligated to follow His commandments. The blessings after (and before) all other foods or drinks are obligated by Rabbinical decree (see the sixth chapter of Tractate Berachos).

It is normal and healthy for a person growing in Jewish observance to take on new practices slowly, in stages. Thus, a person just beginning to learn about the importance of blessings may feel inspired to begin saying these blessings in his or her own words. Eventually, as one grows in learning, he or she will begin to appreciate the unique wisdom behind the wording of our sages in these blessings. Ideally, it helps to have a competent Torah mentor to aid in facilitating this growth process.

Question: Where did the Birchat Hamazon (Grace After Meals) originate? Is it a specific commandment of our Heavenly Father or instead is it a man-defined means/tradition meant to fulfill the instructions of God in Deuteronomy 8 not to forget Who has provided all of our provision?

Answer: You are correct that the source for the Grace after Meals is Deuteronomy 8:10. The actual text is ascribed to various leaders of the Jewish People. According to the Talmud, Moses wrote the first blessing in gratitude for the manna. Joshua wrote the second upon the conquest of the land of Israel. Solomon wrote the third upon the building of the Temple and the last blessing was written by the Sages of the time when the dead of Beitar (killed by the Romans) were brought to burial.

Best Regards,

Rabbi Azriel Schreiber

Brief Summary of Jewish History

Filed under: Jewish History

Question: How did Judaism start?

Answer: The following is a brief overview of the history of Judaism:

ABRAHAM: FATHER OF MONOTHEISM:

Abraham was born in 1812 BCE in the city of Ur in Ancient Mesopotamia. According to Jewish tradition, he spent the first 40 years of his life questioning the polytheistic ideas of the surrounding culture, eventually coming to the conclusion that all of existence comes from a single source – a primal infinite Being that we call God. Once he was confident in the truth of his theory, he began to publicize his ideas through writing, teaching and public debates, and eventually built a movement of tens of thousands of people committed to a belief in one Creator and the philosophical principles which are an outgrowth of that belief. G-d then appears to Abraham for the first time and tells him that his biological descendants will eventually grow into a nation which will live by the philosophical principles that he had developed and will be given the Land of Canaan as a national homeland (Genesis 12:1).

FROM FAMILY TO NATION: 500 years:

THE WOMB OF EGYPT AND THE COVENANT AT MOUNT SINAI

Abraham passes on his philosophical system to his son, Isaac, who in turn passes it on to his son Jacob (also called Israel – see Genesis 35:10), who then hands it over to his twelve sons (the families founded by these twelve individuals eventually grew into the twelve tribes of Israel). A famine occurs in the Land of Canaan in 1522 BCE, forcing Israel and his 70 member family down to Egypt (Genesis 46:8), where after 210 years (94 of them as slaves), they grow into a People of approximately 3 million, retaining their separate philosophical, cultural and linguistic identity as Hebrews. They are led out of Egypt by Moses the Prophet in 1312 BCE, and about 50 days later, find themselves awestruck at the foot of Mt Sinai, where God reveals Himself to the Nation as a whole, and proclaims the 10 Commandments. God seals a covenant with the Israelites, whereby they commit themselves (and their descendants) to follow the path of life which God will reveal for them (a path that would incorporate the philosophical system developed by Abraham). Moses then ascends Mt Sinai alone, and God teaches him all the details of that path. The enormous body of legal and moral principles revealed to Moses form the content of what is called “TORAH” – the term incorporating the Five Books of Moses as well as the Oral tradition found in the Mishna and Talmud (36 volumes).

A NATIONAL HOMELAND: 1200 YEARS

In 1272 BCE, after 40 years of traveling in the Sinai Desert, the Israelite Army, led by Joshua, conquers the Land of Canaan and inaugurates a period of over 1200 years of National experience in the Land of Israel, focused around the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem which existed for approximately 800 of those years (combining the 1st and 2nd Temple periods).

EXILE AND RETURN:

In 70 CE the Roman army destroys the Second Temple (the first was destroyed by the Babylonians about 500 years earlier) and from this point onwards, the majority of Jews live in various communities outside the Land of Israel. For the next 1900 years, the Jews in exile pray 3 times daily to be able to return to their homeland and in 1948 the dream is realized with a majority vote in the United Nations to allow the re-establishment of a Jewish State in the Land of Israel.

Fishing for Sport

Question: Since fishing for food is permitted is fishing for sport permitted? When a fisherman goes fishing he can not determine if his catch is going to be kosher or not. Is he permitted to fish for sport (ie the fish is used for trophy purposes) if the fish is kosher? What if the fish is non-kosher? What if the fish can not be eaten because of safety reasons?

Answer: Thank you for your interesting question. It is forbidden by our Torah to cause unnecessary suffering to any animals or fish (Kosher or non-Kosher) based on the verses in Shemos/Exodus 23:5, and in Devarim/Deuteronomy 24:4. However, it is permitted to use them for constructive purposes, such as for eating or medical research, as long as no unnecessary suffering is caused to them. Regarding fishing and hunting for sport, although theoretically it might be argued that this is causing suffering for a “constructive purpose”, i.e. recreation for the human, the Nodeh BiYehuda (a great Halachic authority of the 18th century) writes that a Jew should not engage in these activities for purely recreational purposes, as it is a very cruel thing to do, and inappropriate for a Jew to engage in. However, if the purpose of the fishing is to eat or sell the fish, the fact that some of the fish are not Kosher or not safe to be eaten is not a reason to refrain from this.

Take care,
Rabbi Aaron Tendler

Proof of an Oral Torah

Filed under: G-d and Torah

Question: I know that there is the torah, the written one, but where does it say anything about the Oral Torah?

Answer: There is actually at least one clear reference to the Oral Law in the Written Torah:

“When the Lord your G-d will widen your borders as He promised you [i.e., bring you into Israel] and you will say ‘I will eat meat’ for you will desire to eat meat; according to all the desires of your soul, eat meat. When you will become distant from the place that the Lord your G-d will choose to place His name [i.e., Jerusalem and the Temple] and you will slaughter from your cattle and from your flock (that which G-d has given you) as I commanded you…”Deut. 12; 20, 21

Rashi comments:
“’As I commanded you:’ This teaches us that there is a (detailed) command concerning slaughter – how to slaughter – and these are the laws of slaughter that were taught to Moshe from Sinai (i.e., from G-d).”

So G-d, somewhere, transmitted detailed laws of ritual slaughter. I invite you to search the Written Torah from its beginning until its end and challenge you to find one single detail: there’s no mention of what type of tool to use (knife, hammer, poison…) nor where on the animal to make a wound (throat, back of the neck, major arteries…) nor who should do it, nor when or where it should be done. Yet all of these details are necessary for the proper observance of this command. We’re left with two possibilities. Either the author of the Torah was a bit scatter-brained and left out some details (intending, no doubt, to get back to it later), in which case, the Torah’s divinity – or even its coherence – becomes an impossibility. Or that the Author was in full control of His material and included these and countless other details in “footnotes.” If there’s one “footnote” there could easily be more…especially since there are so many passages in the Torah that are so unclear by themselves.

The Oral Law was largely committed to a partially written form nearly 2,000 years ago. The Mishnah, Talmud and many other works are the record of this law.

I hope this helps.

With my best regards,
Rabbi Boruch Clinton

Centrality of Tanach

Question: As a teacher, how do I give my students an idea of how people of the Jewish faith perceive scripture? Is such a thing possible? What are the central texts for Judaism? I would very much like to impart to my students a sense of the feeling Jews have for the Tanach (Scripture)..

Answer: It’s a bit hard within the scope of one letter, to sum up the central (not to mention, heavily debated) pillars of the Jewish relationship with Tanach. Let me first of all explain that there is no uniformity of belief among Jews or even Jewish scholars. Plaut, for instance, stands at the very extreme liberal edge of modern Jewish life and expresses a more poetic than legal or Divine appreciation of the Bible. I, being an Orthodox rabbi, can only claim to represent orthodoxy. Take that as a disclaimer.

Having set the scene, I’ll answer your question with two observations. It’s not the whole story, nor would another rabbi necessarily do it the same way, but they might be a starting point.

First, the written Torah (especially the Five Books) was given with an oral twin and is incomplete by itself. To clarify:

“When the Lord your God will widen your borders as He promised you [i.e., bring you into Israel] and you will say ‘I will eat meat’ for you will desire to eat meat; according to all the desires of your soul, eat meat. When you will become distant from the place that the Lord your God will choose to place His name [i.e., Jerusalem and the Temple] and you will slaughter from your cattle and from your flock (that which God has given you) as I commanded you…” Deut. 12; 20, 21

Rashi: “’As I commanded you:’ This teaches us that there is a (detailed) command concerning slaughter – how to slaughter – and these are the laws of slaughter that were taught to Moshe from Sinai (i.e., from God).”

So God, somewhere, transmitted detailed laws of ritual slaughter. I invite you to search the Written Torah from its beginning until its end and challenge you to find one single detail: there’s no mention of what type of tool to use (knife, hammer, poison…) nor where on the animal to make a wound (throat, back of the neck, major arteries…) nor who should do it, nor when or where it should be done. Yet all of these details are necessary for the proper observance of this command. (more…)

To Annul a Vow

Filed under: Miscellaneous

Question: Generally speaking , what kind of vow cannot be annulled?

Answer: In Judaism, if a Jew makes a vow not understanding something about the vow he was making, AND, if he did understand he would never have made that vow, then, in general, it would be possible for such a vow to be annulled. That is the simple question to a not-so-simple subject.

Regards, Eliahu Levenson

Infanticide and Divine Justice

Question: Please forgive me if my question is impudent; I certainly do not mean to be disrespectful. My question is this: When Korach and his cohort got swallowed up by the earth (Numbers 16:31-33), did that include babies who were not involved in the rebellion? If so, why were they punished? (I have had a similar question about the death of the first-born (Exodus 12:29-30)—as a father, it has bothered me enormously to think of children dying…)

Answer: Thank you for your question. Please do not apologize for it; the question is not disrespectful at all. On the contrary, anyone who takes Torah seriously has to deal with difficult questions and not “brush them under the rug”, as they say. I only want to add a caveat: If my answers are not satisfying, keep struggling with the issue yourself and be patient. In the course of time, you will find a better understanding than mine. Very often, it takes me years to get things straight.

I want to expand the scope of your question. Whether or not children died in the story of Korach, children were certainly killed in other places in the Torah. For instance, there is a commandment to destroy the nation of Amalek—men, women, and children (see Samuel I 15:3). The nation of Midyan was similarly destroyed, with only baby girls, and not boys, being saved (see Nachmanides on Numbers 31:6). So too, the Jews were bidden, “Don’t leave a soul alive” (Deuteronomy 20:16), with regard to the inhabitants of the land of Canaan. This is all in addition to the death of the first-born in Egypt. None of these children and babies sinned.

Furthermore, we believe that God rules the entire world and everything in it. Our health and illness are in His hands, as well as our lives and deaths. When my three-month-old daughter Shulamis died, may she rest in peace, she obviously had had no chance to sin when God took her life. I don’t think that I see a difference in terms of judging God’s actions, so to speak, whether someone dies because a person is ordered to kill him, or if that person dies because God takes away his life directly.

It could be that I have expanded the question far enough so that we can now see how to deal with it correctly. We live in an imperfect world, full of a lot of joy—but also a lot of pain and sadness. This is actually our fault and not God’s, for the world He originally gave to Man lacked all the sadness. But, that is how the world has been ever since the sin of First Man, and it will remain so until it is finally perfected in the end.

People die. Children die. They die for a great number of reasons, some having to do with their circumstances, and some having to do with God’s larger purposes in this world. Generally, we don’t know one reason from another. We have no reason to complain; even when it hurts, we know that God is always acting only for our benefit—individually and collectively. He has absolutely no other goal in this world than to bring it back to the perfection it could have had originally, to give us all the kindness we can accept. And He keeps track. Whatever we deserve and can’t get now, he will give to us at another place and time, in a different way.   (more…)

What did Pinchas Do?

Question: The beginning of the Torah Portion of Pinchas begins with a reference to a great deed that Pinchas did. What great deed did he perform?

Answer: Pinchas, the son of Elazar, the son of Aharon HaKohain, appeased My anger against the Bnai Yisroel by taking My revenge amidst them, and so I didn’t have to destroy them with My vengeance.” (Bamidbar 25:11)

The portion of Balak ends with the daughters of Moav enticing the young Jewish men to sin. This quickly led to idol worship, and many Jewish men served the idol of Baal Peor.

At the height of the debacle, Zimri, one of the heads of tribe of Shimon, took a Moabite princess and brought her into the encampment of the Jews, making a public spectacle of the act. Because he was a leader of the Jewish people, this was a grave threat to the survival of the nation. A plague broke out, and thousands of Jews died.

Pinchas saw what was happening and ran to Moshe for advice. Moshe directed him to take action. At the risk of his life and against all odds, Pinchas walked into the mob and miraculously killed both Zimri and the Moabite woman. No sooner did their dead bodies hit the floor than the plague stopped. It was a clear and obvious sign that Pinchas had acted correctly. By acting with courage and alacrity, he saved the Jews from destruction.

All the Best,
Rabbi Meir Goldberg


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