Project Genesis

Counting People and King David

Question: In Chronicles 21:1-17 David conducts a census (against the will of G-d) G-d gives David three choices and sends a plague that kills 70,000 Israelites. Did G-d sentence the 70,000 to die because David failed? If counting was prohibited, who counted the 70,000 dead?

Answer: King David himself argued the same point in verse 17, “And David said to God, Was it not I who commanded the people to be counted? It is I who have sinned and done very wickedly; but as for these sheep, what have they done? Let your hand, I pray you, O Lord my God, be against me, and against my father’s house; but let not the plague be upon your people.”

The prohibition against counting the Jewish People is described in Exodus 30:12: “When you take the count of the Children of Israel to determine their numbers, each man shall give an atonement pledge for his soul to G-d, when you count them. Thus there will be no plague among them when you count them.” G-d warns that the natural result of counting them will be a plague, unless they give the atonement pledge of a half-shekel. This prohibition is only for counting those who are alive. So the question is – How can G-d bring a plague when the people are counted if they are not guilty of the death penalty?

Rabbi Bachya ben Asher (14th century, Spain) answers this with the following: When we associate with the goals of the community and assist their cause, G-d judges us as essential to the community. This increases the likelihood that G-d will keep us alive. If we are judged as individuals, without considering our value to the community, our personal shortcomings are brought to light. When we are counted, each person is his own number – each left to his own merits. Such scrutiny is likely to produce horrific results. If there are sins that are severe enough to deserve the death penalty, it will be meted out. As Ecclesiastes 7:20 testifies, “For there is not a just man upon earth, that does good, and does not sin.” You’ve probably heard people say, “We’ve all made mistakes at some point in our lives.” It is everyone’s wish that no one focus on those mistakes.

Best Wishes,
Rabbi Mordechai Dixler

Ten Commandments

Filed under: Shavuos, G-d and Torah

Question:  I understand that it has been determined that there are 613 commandments in the Old Testament. What I am curious about is about the 10 commandments that almost everyone knows about. Are they essentially subject headers that the other commandments would be filed under? Could they be considered, i.e. the 613 other commandments, sub-points of the 10?

Answer: You are quite correct. The 10 Commandments are really 10 categories.

What isn’t Shavuos Always a Sunday?

Question: According to the Torah (Lev. 23:15), the Omer offering is brought on “the day after the Sabbath”, and we then count seven weeks and celebrate Shavuos. Why doesn’t Shavuos always fall on a Sunday?

Answer: “The Sabbath” in Lev.23:15 means “The holiday”, i.e. the first day of Passover. The omer offering was brought on the second day of Passover, i.e. on the 16th of Nisan, which does not always fall on the same day of the week, and Shavuos falls seven weeks later. Holidays are called “Sabbaths” because most work is forbidden on holidays; e.g., see Lev.23:7 about the prohibition of work on the first day of Passover. The weekly Sabbath is called a “Sabbath of Sabbaths” because even more types of work are forbidden; see Lev.23:3.

Shavuos in Context

Filed under: Shavuos

Question: I know that the holiday of Shavuos is coming up soon.  What does that word mean in English? What does the holiday commemorate? What season of the year does it come in?

Answer: The word Shavuos means “weeks.” It is called that because it is celebrated after counting seven weeks from the Passover holiday. The Jews were slaves when they were taken out of Egypt on Passover.  The seven weeks following are seen as a time when they grew from their lowly status, to that of noble servants of the King of all Kings. Shavuos was the culmination of this process—the day upon which the Jews accepted the Torah (i.e. the laws detailing their service as dictated by the Master of the World).

The holiday takes place at the beginning of the summer, the time of the ripening of the fruits planted in the spring. This season is symbolic of the ripening of the Jewish people from a lowly seed (when they left Egypt as slaves), to a noble fruit (when they accepted the Torah at Mount Sinai). In fact, the Torah also calls this holiday the Day of the First Fruits (Numbers 28:26). When the Holy Temple was standing in Jerusalem, Jews would bring the first fruits of their crops to the Temple with a procession of great fanfare, and offer them to their Creator as a statement of gratitude for their personal and national prosperity. The bringing of these fruits started on Shavuos.

Best Regards,
Rabbi Mordechai Dixler

Simchas Torah vs. Shavuot

Filed under: Shavuos, Sukkos

Question: Why isn’t Simchas Torah celebrated right after Shavuot?

Answer: I guess the reason Shavuos and Simchas Torah are far apart in time is that they are so different from one another. Shavuos is the culmination of Pesach. Rav Shamshon Rafael Hirsch writes that after we were redeemed physically, we were redeemed spiritually as well. G-d chose us as His people, and forged the relationship between us, known as the Torah.

Simchas Torah is the end of a different process. On Sukkos, also called the “Ingathering” of produce in the Torah, we have received the greatest physical wealth of the year. We come to Jerusalmen to thank Hashem (G-d) for it. But that kind of physical wealth requires a spiritual component as well. It begins on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur with judgment and forgiveness. On Sukkos and Simchas Torah, we are fully reconciled and close to him again. We are filled with the joy of living a life of Torah together with Hashem. As Rav Hirsch explains again, these are not celebrations of redemption, but of Hashem’s ongoing sustenance.

Best wishes,
Michoel Reach


Talis for Women, Kitniyos, Diversity and Contradictions

Question:  I have become confused by what I see as contradictions in Jewish law. I’ve read some comments in the Talmud about women wearing a tallit (I do, personally as does my mother, though sometimes I wonder if I should). Some allow it, some do not. Why isn’t this matter more clear?

Also, Sephardic customs and Ashkenazic customs regarding what can be eaten for Passover. Did G-d give them separate oral traditions? The Sephardim and Ashkenazim also disagree about other things (the Sephardic headscarf vs. the Ashkenazic wig for example.) I could think of other things, but this question is already to long.

Answer: Please feel free to ask as many of this type of question as you like. There’s no better way to learn!

Let me see if I can help with these.

I must confess that I an unaware of any Talmudic source that addresses the specific acceptability of a woman wearing a tallit. The general custom among Orthodox women not to wear them is built on the principle that the Torah does not require women to perform this particular mitzva. While the option to wear a tallit is always available, Orthodox women don’t usually seem eager to adopt it. I suppose there could be a stimulating debate over whether it is useful and elevating for a woman to wear a tallit. That, I imagine, would involve carefully analyzing the various motivations and goals a person might have and asking the critical question: “What’s in it for God?”

Regarding local customs: I believe these qualify as “features” rather than “problems” in Judaism. We are taught that God was fully aware of the complexity and variety of human personalities and created for us a Torah that permits full expression of a wide range of styles of Divine service. There were, as you know, twelve tribes making up the Jewish people and each of them clearly had its own strengths and styles. As a result, each was instructed by Yakov (Genesis 49), and them Moshe (Deut. 33), in the particular path through which they’d find the greatest success.

Similarly, while the legal conclusions of the Talmud are equally binding on all Jews, there is great respect for the role of those local practices that don’t conflict with the Talmud. For complex (and somewhat obscure) reasons, ashkenazim prohibited the consumption of kitniyot on Passover while sefardim did not. As you pointed out, they also differ on matters like head coverings. Judaism has plenty of room for such diversity and both positions are absolutely acceptable.

But of course, any familiarity with Jewish law will reveal many fundamental debates over right and wrong. Why, if our Torah was given to us by God, should that be so?

Any complex body of law that is to be interpreted and observed by large populations over many centuries is bound to produce debate. Intelligent and independent people aren’t likely to always see things eye-to-eye. In fact, This is something for which the Torah itself prepared by creating mechanisms for resolving such debates (either through the rulings of a high court – the Sanhedrin – or through the authority of regional batei din in post-Sanhedrin eras).

And when the system is used in good faith and fidelity to the Torah, it works quite smoothly.

I hope these thoughts will be useful for you.

With my regards,
Rabbi Boruch Clinton
Ottawa, Canada

Minutiae of Mitzvos

Question: I have a friend who wants to know why we have to keep the Mitzvos in their minute details. Can you please give me a detailed reply that I can share with her. Also, can you refer me to any articles on your website that will elaborate on this question?

Answer: Here’s how you might frame your reply.

First of all, you really have to look at each Mitzva separately, because each of the many details that the Torah associates with a Mitzva is an element that’s critical to its understanding, and therefore, to the impact it can have on us. If Mitzvos were just vague and broad generalizations (give charity, don’t kill, etc), then they would have very little impact on our way of thinking and our moral sensitivity.

It’s the details that have the power capture our attention and force us to, in fact, consider why we’re doing it just this way.

For an illustration of how this might work, you might like to see my essay on Mezuza here:

There might be no more comprehensive and practical description of the ultimate purpose of all the details of our Mitzvos than in the work of Rabbi S.R. Hirsch, and his Nineteen Letters is an excellent starting point – especially letters ten through fourteen.

With my best regards,

Rabbi Boruch Clinton

Concern for Someone Else’s Sin

Question: Could you extrapolate, perhaps offer some references to explore, the issue of the sin committed unwittingly. I am thinking about for example when you know someone is not taking care of themselves and you do not say or do anything to help – an act of omission of rather than commission. Any thoughts?

Answer: The main verse that comes to mind is: Do not stand on your neighbor’s blood (Leviticus 19:16), which means not to be passive when your neighbor requires active critical assistance. The Talmud understands this verse to refer to many different kinds of help (see, for instance, Sanhedrin 73a). It sounds like your concern about someone not taking care of his or herself would fall into this category, if you are able to intervene and you don’t.

Of course, every situation must be judged individually and you must know your own limitations. Sometimes it’s more damaging to butt in—then it’s better to back off. But if you think you can help, but it will just be uncomfortable or inconvenient for you (but still in a way you can tolerate), then it’s time to step up to the plate.

All the Best,

Shlomo Shulman
Maimonides Society at Yale, CT

Fear Blinds

Question: Is there a source in the Torah that expounds on the idea that “Fear can blind a person. So much so that the person can’t think and his clarity is gone”- or is that a bogus theory?

Answer: While the Talmud does speak of different types of fear that can have different effects on a person, I think it is very reasonable to assume that most fear – especially fear that leads to panic – will weaken a person’s ability to reason.

The clearest Torah source for this that I could think of off-hand is in Lev. 26:36:

And to those of you left over I will send fear into their hearts in the lands of their enemies, and the sound of a blown leaf will cause them to flee, as from the sword will they flee and they will fall (despite there being) no pursuer.

Lev. 26:16 and Deut. 28:28-9 and 28:34 seem relevant too. Now, how to fight back and reclaim ones clarity of mind despite fear (or how to attack the fear itself) is, of course, a much bigger topic…

I hope this helps,
Rabbi Boruch Clinton

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