Project Genesis

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

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

The Shabbos Queen

Filed under: The Sabbath

Question: Can you please elaborate and explain the concept of referring to Shabbat as “Shabbat the Queen”?

Answer: There are several things hinted to in this that we refer to Shabbos as a Queen.

One idea, which may be the basic reason, is that Shabbos is a day which reminds us that the world was created and continues to be run by Hashem (G-d). Hashem is the king of the world. the one who rules over it and its nature. Shabbos is a time when we stop our regular routine, when we stop our pursuit of financial gain and spend time with Hashem. Hence Shabbos is referred to as the Queen. The queen is the companion of the King. The Queen’s royalty reminds one of the power of the King, who grants the splendor and status to the queen.  The Shabbos Queen, Shabbos Hamalkah, is the companion who comes by to remind us of the Melucha (kingdom) of Hashem.

Thank You,
Rabbi Eli Biegeleisen
Director, Oorah Staten Island

Hallel on Purim

Filed under: Purim

Question: I noticed that Hallel was not recited on Purim (or was I sleeping when it was recited?) Any particular reason for this? Thanks.

Answer: Even if you were sleeping, you would not have missed Hallel. You can pat yourself on the back because you asked the Talmuds question. Check out Megilla 14a where the Talmud offers a few answers to this. One answer is that the megilla reading serves as the song of G-ds praise in lieu of Hallel. Another answer cited is that on Passover the redemption had a lasting effect. We are no longer a nation of slaves, only to G-d, and that calls for a Hallel. However, in the miracle of Purim, although we were saved, we still are subjugated in a sense to Ahasuerues, meaning we are still in exile.

Keep on asking good questions! May we see the ultimate redemption soon and sing the greatest Hallel ever.

All the best,
Shlomo Soroka

Pinkie Pointing and Splitting the Sea

Filed under: Torah Scrolls

Question: Why does everyone hold up their pinkie and point it toward the Torah during the part of the service when the Torah scroll is held up for all to see?

Answer: There is no law recorded in Shulchan Aruch (Jewish Code of Law) that mandates pointing with any finger towards the Torah when it is raised up before the congregation. The Shulchan Aruch only states that it is a Mitzva for all men and women to see the written text of the Torah, to bow, and to say, “This is the Torah that Moshe placed before the Children of Israel.” The prevalent custom is to continue with another verse, “by G-d’s command, through Moshe”. One is only to make this statement upon seeing the actual words on the parchment, preferably seeing the words and being able to read them from where he’s standing. (I use my Bushnell binoculars…just kidding).

The finger pointing is not based on any passage in the Talmud, nor is it to be found in earlier Talmudic commentaries or the classic commentaries on the Shulchan Aruch. (There is a Midrash which mentions a similar custom.)

I did find one contemporary authority that suggests that every time the Torah mentions the word “Zeh” or “Zos” (“this”) it means a vivid perception that one can point to with his finger and declare with conviction. When the Jews witnessed the miracles of the splitting of the sea, and the open revelation of G-d’s power, they declared “Zeh Kayli” (“this is my G-d”), and Rashi explains that they were exposed to such miraculous wonders and lofty levels of prophesy that they were able to point” at G-d and declare “This is my G-d.” Similarly, one of the 13 Principles of Faith necessary for one to be true to the dictates of the Torah is to believe that the transmission of the Torah from Moshe till today is the very same Torah without any mutations or inaccuracies. When the Torah scroll is lifted up for all to see what is written inside, we declare with conviction, “This is the Torah that Moshe placed before the Jews”. We point with a clarity and conviction that these are the very same words and letters, surviving thousands of years without any mistakes or different versions.

So why the pinky? (Or is it pinkie? Check out my other column, “Ask the English professor”.) Congratulations! You stumped the rabbi. I have some theories, but nothing I can prove. It’s been one thing I just can’t put my finger on. I’ll have to let it slip through my…never mind.

Best Wishes,
Rabbi Shlomo Soroka
Director of Learning and Education
Saint Louis Kollel,

Ethical Wills

Question: What are some examples of Ethical Wills (See here and here) in the Bible and in the Talmud?

Answer: Ethical wills have a long history in Jewish tradition. The Bible and Talmud are replete with example of ethical wills. The fist recorded ethical will in the Bible appears in Genesis (chapter 49). On his deathbed, our forefather Jacob addressed each of his sons, bestowing a blessing on each. However, his blessings were not merely good wishes, but also contained the mission and destiny of each individual son, based upon each son’s specific talents and skills. In fact, our Sages teach that Jacob was the first person in history to get sick before he died. Until that time, a person would remain in good health right up until the time he died. Jacob prayed to G-d that people should become sick before they died so that a person would have an opportunity to offer his children an ethical will.

In a similar vein, we find in Deuteronomy (chapters 33-34), Moses offers blessings to each tribe before his death. Again, Moses tailored each tribe’s blessing to each individual tribe, offering instructions so that each tribe could fulfill its own destiny.

To cite another example in the Bible, the Book of Kings I (chapter 2) records David’s last words to his son Solomon, his successor. Immediately before his death, David provides Solomon with the instructions needed for a successful reign.

The Talmud as well contains many references to ethical wills; we will suffice with one such example. The Talmud in Tractate Sanhedrin (68a) records the conversation between Rabbi Eliezer, one of the greatest scholars of the Talmud, and his students immediately before the demise of Rabbi Eliezer. Rabbi Eliezer bemoans the fact that his students did not take advantage of the opportunities they had to learn from him and warns them of the future which may befall them. The students are shaken by his chastisement but accept it to heart. Certainly, Rabbi Eliezer’s intention is to provide constructive criticism to his students so they may grow from his teachings even after his death.

These are but a few of the many examples of ethical wills contained in the Bible and the Talmud. A reading of the medieval Jewish literature makes it clear that it was very common practice to leave a ethical will well after Talmudic times. The ethical will has served as the final act of a parent to guide his offspring in the ways of G-d.

Be well,
Rabbi Yoel Spotts

Why didn’t Joseph tell his father Jacob that he was alive?

Question: Joseph was first consul to Pharoh for many years. Why did he not search to find his father or at least send others to see if his father and siblings were still alive? Thank you.

Answer: Hi! Excellent question. Joseph says the answer in the Torah, though I expect we will find it uncomfortable: Genesis 41(51) “He named his first-born Menashe, for ‘G-d has made me forget my suffering and my father’s house.’ ” (I am translating according to the Aramaic Targum Onkelos.) Joseph had been deeply hurt by what his brothers had done to him, and really found it hard to contemplate dealing with them again. I imagine that he thought his father had gotten over it and had suffered enough, and it was best to leave well enough alone. Note that when he next saw his brothers, his first reaction was (42(7)) “Joseph saw his brothers and recognized them, and behaved as a stranger to them…” This is before he remembered his dreams (verse 9).

Fortunately, G-d wasn’t going to leave things like that. He brought the brothers back to him, the brothers help things by doing teshuvah, and Yoseph and his brothers go through a difficult but ultimately loving reconciliation.

Best wishes,
Michoel Reach

Question: Thank you very much for your answer to my question re Jacob and Joseph. My reaction as a father, grandfather and great grandfather is I cannot believe that a father ever gets over the loss of a child. Joseph is a father and I cannot believe that his father would be over his loss. 

Answer: Well, you are right – the Torah says that Yaakov never did get over it (Genesis 37(35)). It’s said that is especially hard when there is no clear evidence of death – no closure.

Best wishes,
Michoel Reach

Jacob’s Relationship with Menashe and Ephraim

Question: After Jacob lives in Egypt for 17 years and is near death we read that Joseph brings Menashe and Efraim to him. Why did Joseph wait until then to bring then to meet their grandfather? There is no other mention in the Torah that they met before this.

Answer: It is true that Gn48-01 says that “...they told Joseph that his father was sick …and he took his two sons with him….” But that doesn’t mean it was the first time they visited him.

Already Rashi, a premier commentary on the Bible states “...there are those who say that Ephraim used to frequently visit his grandfather Jacob who taught him Jewish Law…when Jacob got sick it was Ephraim who told Joseph how serious it was.”

Furthermore Rashi comments on Gn42-23 that Menasheh was Joseph’s interpreter.

These Rashi’s are not derived from Scriptural hints but are based on reasonable real-world assumptions. If Joseph was vice president it makes sense that he should appoint someone trusted to be a translator, his son. It is also reasonable that he chose Menasheh, the eldest son, to be the interpreter.

We find in Gn49 that Jacob “knew” the two grandchildren quite well and expected Ephraim, the youngest to surpass, Menasheh the oldest. A reasonable explanation of why Jacob knew Ephraim so well is because he spent quality time with him (Menasheh did not go because he was tied up with his government job).

There of course is a moral lesson here. Menasheh the oldest was awarded the government job of translator. But Ephraim the youngest who spent regular time with his grandfather obtained the greater blessing because he was closer, by virtue of his extra learning, to Jewish law.

Russell Jay Hendel;

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