Project Genesis

Who Wrote Psalms?

Question: Who are the authors of psalms?

Answer: The Talmud (Bava Basra 14b) mentions ten people, in addition to David, who authored Psalms: Adam, Melchizedek, Abraham, Moses, Heiman, Yedusun, Asaf, and the three sons of Korach. Rashi explains that these were (respectively) Psalms 139, 110, 89, 90, 88, 62 and 77, 50ff, and 42ff.

All the Best,
Rabbi Azriel Schrieber

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…)

The Spies and Korach

Question: How much time lapsed between the story of the spies and that of Korach?

Answer: Hi! Very good question. Though there are commentaries (such the Ibn Ezra) who place the story of Korach much earlier chronologically, the Ramban (Nachmanides) says that it’s very important to place the story immediately after the story of the spies. Korach, Dasan and Aviram might have thought of this rebellion much earlier, but they would never have dared to try it. Israel, glorious and standing at Mt. Sinai, grateful to Moshe (Moses) for all that he had done for them, wouldn’t have put up with it for a second. But after that generation was condemned to die in the wilderness, and not to come into Eretz Yisroel at all: then they were depressed, and bitter at heart, and receptive to Korach’s message.

Best wishes,
Michoel Reach

Five Levels of the Soul

Question: What are the five levels of the soul?

Answer: Nefesh is the lowest level, call it the animal level, the level which animates and gives function to the body.

Neshama is the third level, call it the human level. (I’ll get to level number 2 in a minute). Neshama is what allows one to distinguish between good and evil.

The nefesh could be argued not to be a soul at all. It is the most ethereal of all physicality, like a wisp of air disappearing into a small breeze. All animals and all humans have a nefesh, each programmed with the bodily stimuli G-d wanted for the particular individual or species. Only humans have a neshama. If you want to see the difference, watch the animals. Anything both animals and humans do is of the nefesh, for example, eating an
apple. Anything only a human does, is of the neshama. For example, saying a prayer of thanksgiving before and after eating that apple.

The nefesh and neshama are easiest to understand. Between them is Ruach, which one might call an emotion generator.

Chaya is the next emanation and Yechida is the highest level. Understanding these are beyond our grasp but relate to our closest attachments to G-d.

Regards, Eliahu Levenson

Seven-Armed Menorah

Question: When is the seven-armed Menorah used?

Answer: The Menorah that G-d commanded Moses to construct for the Tabernacle had 7 arms. This was used in Temple as well. The menorah that we use to commemorate the Chanukah miracle has 8 arms to commemorate that upon winning back the temple from the Greeks, and relighting the Temple menorah, the oil lasted for 8 days.

Rabbi Aron Yehuda Schwab

Lessons from the Manna

Question: What is the significance of story of the Manna?

Answer: Many commentaries explain that the story of the Manna teaches us about the mechanics of earning a livelihood. Although we must put forth an effort to obtain an income, our livelihood is ultimately a gift from above – like the Manna. This being the case, a person should recognize that putting forth more effort than required will not yield more money.

To this extent we read in the Torah that those Jews who gathered more Manna than their family needed found their extra Manna spoiled in the morning.

It seems to me that the reason that G-d commanded Moses to place a portion of Manna in a flask that would remain in the ark forever, was that G-d desired that the Manna serve as an eternal sign that it is ultimately G-d who provides.

Yochai Robkin

[Reposted from the Archives]

Mass Murder in the Torah

Question: The Torah is filled with stories of the early Jews making war on the various locals as they enter the “promised land”, and killing every man, woman, and child in a given village. In some cases they even killed the animals. In one case Moses himself saw his men returning with some local women and children, and ran out and ordered them killed on the spot, lest they create “impurities” in the Jewish camp. In another case he ordered all locals killed, except young women who “have known no man”. These his men could keep.

How can we reconcile this mass murder ordered by Moses with his status among Jews as a prophet and holy person?? He appears to be a murderer on a grand scale. How can the Torah be filled with murder, rape, adultry, idol worship, conquest, etc., from front to back, and still be considered the “Divine Word of God”. Many of my Christian friends have the same questions, and never get a useful answer from priest or pastor. I believe in the one God, may his name be blessed, but I do have a problem with all this murder, rape, etc. in the Torah.

Answer: First of all, I am unaware of any reference in the Torah to any act of rape, adultery or idol worship that was sanctioned or encouraged by either Moses or the Torah itself. So that leaves killing and conquest. These references do exist and can easily and understandably cause discomfort.

Now, if someone were to consider the Torah to be a fraud which only claimed to be the word of God (see Deut. 31:24), but was really created by human beings, then these brutal acts are indefensible. Which moral human being could possibly order such acts? However, we believe that the Torah is actually a true record of God’s communication with Moses. Based on that assumption, Moses never ordered any violence nor did he initiate any conquest. Everything was God’s will (see Deut. 7:1).

What is morality? You might like to read my essay on subjectivity here, which discusses the inherent difficulties that exist in establishing absolute principles of good and evil from a secular perspective. Without God input, any values we adopt are always subject to debate and change. 500 years ago there weren’t many who questioned the moral right of the Spanish to virtually eradicate native populations in the Americas. Today, standards have changed. Tomorrow they’ll change again…and no one can say in which direction.

Jews (and others) who believe in a personal God who created this world and is its true master, will consider His definition of justice to be absolute. Even if we can’t understand it, if God wills that one nation should conquer another then it isn’t just His right, it is intrinsically moral.

I hope this is helpful.

With my best regards,
Rabbi Boruch Clinton

How Could the Generation of Moses Sin?

Question: In the book of Exodus great miracles were performed against Egypt, and when the nation of Israel was in the wilderness again God did great miracles, ie…manna…Why did the nation of Israel keep falling back on sinful ways, ie..the golden calf? One would think that after seeing such great miracles one would definitely believe. Did they keep forgetting about God? It just doesn’t seem possible.

Answer: Many feel, “If only G-d would show himself to me, I wouldn’t have any more problems of faith.” Nothing could be farther from the truth. Most of what we do is because of what we want, not because of what we believe. Part of a person is always trying to distract him from what is truly important. Anyone who has ever tried to diet knows how hard it can be to put knowledge into practice.

In terms of knowledge, the generation of the desert was the greatest there ever was. They saw; they knew!—All of our knowledge about the Torah is derived only from their testimony. Still, they were very human, and subject to human frailties. We should understand that the Jews in the desert were not all saints. Our Sages teach that many of our people died in Egypt during the plague of darkness. They had sunk so far into the immorality of Egypt that they were completely beyond hope and spiritual growth. The ones who did leave were not beyond hope. Still, lots of them must have been very close to the line. They still had potential, but were sunk deep in depravity. If they had stayed in Egypt any longer, it would have been too late! These people may have seen very clearly the need for growth, but they had yet a long way to go.

All that being said, the Jews in the wilderness did not do as badly as a cursory reading might indicate. Some of their tests were very difficult – three days without finding water, no food source, forty days with their leader gone, etc. And not all of them sinned by any means. At the sin of the golden calf, those who worshiped the calf were guilty of a capital crime. Still, the Torah testifies that only 3000 were executed (Exodus Chap. 32) out of 600,000 men. In another place (Numbers Chap. 11) the Torah says that the Jews were punished because the “Asafsuf” (loosely translated as “riff-raff”) were complaining. One of my favorite examples is in Joshua 7(11). G-d explains why Israel has lost their first (and only) battle under Joshua: “Israel has sinned, and violated the covenant that they made with me; they have taken from what was consecrated, and stolen, and lied, and packed it all away…” Terrible! But read a little further, and we find out that one Jew alone sinned. All of Israel was blamed. G-d is not being unfair; he loves us, and wants us to achieve what he knows we’re capable of. He holds us to an very high standard throughout the Torah.

Best wishes,
Michoel Reach

[Reposted from the Archives]

What is Manna?

Question: What is manna? Is it spiritual food? A metaphor for HaShem (G-d), the provider? Is it physical sustenance? If so, were its characteristics the same for every man, woman, child, animal? In texture? Taste? Quantity?

Answer: Before we get to the more famous sources, it’s important to recognize that clear verses in the Torah address your question. See Numbers 11:7-8 that the manna was like “gad (coriander) seed” and tasted like “dough kneaded in oil”. As for its texture, it could be “ground”, “pounded” or “cooked”, if that tells you anything. It also gave the appearance of a “b’dolach”, a brilliant gem.

The only problem is, when we look back to Exodus 16:31, there manna’s taste is described as “dough fried in honey”. Earlier, the verse also describes it as “lechem/bread”, which has a different taste still. The Talmud (Yoma 75b) recognizes this triple teaser and explains that the manna tasted differently depending on the age and needs of its eater. Rebbe Yossi bar Rebbe Channina explains that it tasted like bread to young adults, dough kneaded in oil for the elderly, and dough fried in honey for children.

Earlier (Yoma 75a), the Talmud mentions the idea of the manna having many tastes, comparing it to mothers’ milk which also has many tastes. Rashi explains this as referring to how a mother’s milk may taste like the food she just ate (besides its usual milky taste). From here I would presume that the manna had a regular taste, as described by the verses in the Torah, but a person could also detect other tastes in it, depending on their interests and appreciation.

I assume this may be similar to wine connoisseurs who focus on appreciating many different subtleties in a simple glass of fermented grape juice. If we focus on appreciating the kindness of Hashem, there is no end to the wonder we may encounter. (To quote a Yiddish adage: if we’d only focus on thanking G-d for the good, we wouldn’t have time to complain about the bad / Ven me zol Got danken far guts, volt nit zein kain tseit tsu baklogen zich oif shlechts.)


As far as sources to look into this more, the main discussion of manna in the Talmud is found in Yoma 75a-b, though it begins discussing manna a little before that and continues a little later. A debate between Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Yismael is recorded there over whether manna is identical to the sustenance of angels or just an extraordinary human food. This may relate to your question of whether it was physical or not.

The bottom line is that the manna certainly was a miraculous food, thus it is difficult to come up with an absolutely clear picture of it for ourselves, since miracles are difficult for us to comprehend. On the other hand, we are meant to learn from the manna to appreciate the hidden miracles inherent in the ‘ordinary food’ that we eat today—what a Divine gift it is that the sun shines constantly in the sky, a seed grows up from the ground, a calf from a single cell—and us from all of that.

All the Best,

Shlomo Shulman
Maimonides Society at Yale, CT

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