ASK THE RABBI
Question: I am a convert to Judaism and I'm very proud of it. I have always felt totally welcomed by the community and in no way an outsider. But I am deeply bothered by the law that says a convert is not allowed to marry a Kohen. If I am a fully fledged Jew like any other, why am I not good enough to marry into the priestly tribe?
Rachel, Federal Corr Institution, Tallahassee FL
Answer: When the Torah forbids a marriage, it is never because one party is not good enough for the other. It is because the parties are not matched to each other. They are simply not soulmates. In the case of the Kohen and the convert, their soul dynamics clash, their spiritual energies contradict, and so they can't marry.
A convert can marry a king. A convert can marry a prophet. A convert can even marry a rabbi, the highest echelon of Jewish society. So it makes no sense to say that a convert can't marry a Kohen because they are second class citizens.
The holiness of a Kohen is hereditary. If your father is a Kohen, then you are a Kohen. Priesthood is a birthright that is not achieved through a person's effort nor deserved through a person's righteousness. It is an honor that is bestowed at birth.
The holiness of a convert is the exact opposite. It is completely earned. The convert was not born Jewish. He or she chose it. They achieve Jewishness of their own initiative and with their own hard work. They are self-made souls.
So these two souls, the Kohen and the convert, are moving in opposite directions. The Kohen receives his power from above. The convert creates his own soul energy from below. The Kohen has the ability to bring down blessings to others, just as his soul was given to him as a blessing. The convert has the power of innovation, of initiative, of creating holiness from the ground up. For this reason, their souls are not a match.
Both the Kohen and the convert have awesome holiness. It is a great privilege to be gifted with the soul of a Kohen. And yet, the self-made soul of a convert has a depth of experience that inherited holiness cannot compete with. Neither are second class souls.
The Kohen is crowned with a legacy from past generations. A convert creates his or her own legacy for future generations. The Jewish people is richer because of each of them.
Question: Recently a woman came to visit with her child, and it was clear the child was recovering from the measles. As a result, staff closed down the entire camp for two weeks. The men had time to discuss the pro and con about measles. What is the Torah view about vaccinations?
Michael, Otisville Prison Camp, NY
Answer: In a letter from the Rebbe, the Rebbe writes:
I am surprised by your question, since so many individuals from the Land of Israel have asked me about this and I have answered them in the affirmative, since the overwhelming majority of individuals do so here [in the United States] successfully.
Understandably, if there are inoculations that are produced by multiple pharmaceutical companies, you should use the ones whose product has been safely tried and proven.
In the spring of 1956 the Rebbe wrote:
In reply to your letter in which you ask my opinion about the injections that are commonly given to young children:
It is with regard to matters such as these that the axiom "Do not set yourself apart from the community" applies. You should act according to that which is done by [the parents of] the majority of children who are in your children's classes . . .
Even as the polio vaccine effectively eliminated the dreaded disease, there were instances where faulty shots actually brought about illness. In a letter from the winter of 1957, the Rebbe addressed this issue:
. . The event that occurred in the United States was at the beginning of the use of these vaccines, before the [exact] medical compound was definitively established. This is not the case at present, after months of experience with the vaccine.
Therefore, once a vaccine's reliability is firmly established, there is no worry. To the contrary .
Question: Can you explain what are Teffilin?
Daniel, Blackwater CF, Milton FL
Answer: Tefillin are a pair of black leather boxes containing Hebrew parchment scrolls. A set includes two-one for the head and one for the arm. Each consists of three main components: the scrolls, the box and the strap.
All Jewish males over the age of bar mitzvah (13 years old) should perform the mitzvah of tefillin. The Torah commands Jewish men to bind tefillin onto their head and upper arm every weekday, in fulfillment of the verse (Deut. 6:8), "You shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for a reminder between your eyes."
In order for the Teffilin to be kosher according to Jewish law, tefillin must meet thousands of requirements. Think of them as a finely tuned spiritual machine. If one part is out of place, the whole thing won't work.
The scrolls inside the tefillin are inscribed in black ink with a quill (or reed) pen by a specially trained scribe, known as a sofer. The parchment is handmade, and must be from a kosher animal. The scribe concentrates intensely and writes with special Hebrew characters. There are 1594 letters in each of the tefillin boxes. If one letter is extra, missing, or even incorrectly written, the tefillin are invalid. The boxes and straps are also made of leather from a kosher animal.
One can fulfill the mitzvah of tefillin anytime during the day-from sunrise to nightfall. A blessing is recited, and it is customary to read the Shema prayer. Traditionally, tefillin are worn during weekday morning prayers.
Tefillin are not worn on Shabbat and major Jewish holidays.
Tefillin is an incredibly powerful mitzvah. The experience of putting on tefillin has changed many people's lives.
Question: Rabbi, can you tell me what are Chasidic teachings?
William, Southport Corr Facility, Pine City NY
Answer: The Chassidic movement (started in earnest by Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov in the 18th century) taught Jews to serve G-d with love and joy rather than fear and trembling, to sing and dance rather than cry and fast. What concerns G-d the most, the Baal Shem Tov would preach, is that you serve Him with your heart. Love G-d, even if you don't always understand His ways; love His Torah, even if you can barely read the words; and most of all, love one another, even if that "other" doesn't measure up to the expectations of G-d and His Torah. And celebrate all of the above.
Chassidim are also known for their meticulousness in the details of Jewish ritual and practice, for extending themselves much further than the strict requirements of halachah, in consonance with the Talmudic dictum, "Who is a chassid? One who goes beyond the letter of the law."
Through Chassidus, a person can change his natural traits to G-dly traits.
Chassidus innovated that even a simple unrefined person can understand G-dliness
Question: When washing for bread, I was told not to talk till I eat the bread or Challah. Why?
Kevin, Federal Corr Institution, Bastrop TX
Answer: Washing one's hands before eating bread is one of the seven rabbinic mitzvahs instituted by the sages (the other six are Hallel, Chanukah, Purim, eruv for Shabbat, lighting Shabbat candles, and saying blessings [e.g. before eating]). After washing our hands, we don't talk until we eat the bread.
The sages of the Talmud find support for washing before bread in the following verse: "You shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am the L-rd, your G-d." They expound, "You shall sanctify yourselves'-this refers to washing before eating. â€˜And be holy'-this refers to washing after eating." Washing before bread is so important, the sages say, that neglecting it can lead to poverty (or worse).
Since the purpose of washing our hands is to purify them before eating bread, we must be careful not to get involved in any distracting activity or discussion between washing and the meal, lest we inadvertently touch something impure (or filthy).
In practice, we are careful to make the Hamotzi blessing as quickly after washing as possible, and also not to speak or engage in any activities between washing and the Hamotzi.
Question: In the last issue of Reaching Out, on the back page under the Just a Thought Column, I read the word "gartel" was used and wonder what is this?
David, Federal Corr Institution
A) Jewish law mandates that the "heart does not see the nakedness" when one recites the Shema and other prayers. This means that the upper body (more specifically the heart) be separated from the lower half, which has a coarser function. In ancient times, when common clothing consisted of a simple, loose robe, it was necessary to tie a belt around one's waist to insure that the nether region was out of view of the heart.
B) We read in Amos, "Prepare yourself toward the L-rd your G-d." Our sages infer from here that one must dress himself up before facing his Maker in prayer. Part of this preparation is to gird oneself with a special belt. Hence the custom of wearing the gartel even though modern clothing ensures that that the "heart does not see the nakedness."
C) The gartel is reminiscent of the belt which the priests would wear during their service in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. It is for this reason that many are particular to wear their gartel at elbow height, just as the priests of old did.
Question: I know that keeping a yartzeit for a departed parent is extremely important. I am going to prison for a few years, what do you suggest I do?
Richard, Chicago IL
You are absolutely right. The observance of a parent's yahrzeit is very significant. Reciting Kaddish and commemorating the day will greatly assist your parents soul in its journey through the spiritual realms.
Because you will go to prison and may not have a minyan there, you can hire someone to say Kaddish as your agent. However, you should make every effort to locate a minyan even in the prison and recite Kaddish. Even Kaddish once the entire day is better then no Kaddish at all.
Although the ideal time to observe the yahrzeit is on the actual date of your parents passing, you should not feel that you have missed the opportunity to honor their memory because of your being in prison. You can make up for it by commemorating the yahrzeit on any other day of the year, as any mitzvah, study of Torah, or recital of Kaddish that is done in the memory of a parent at any time of the year brings their soul immeasurable comfort and pleasure.
Question: In a recent letter you explained that my neshama (soul) has come into this world more then once. If this is the case, can you explain in what body will the soul arrive once Moshiach is revealed, after all, the soul has been in a few bodies?
Shimon, Federal Corr Institution, Fort Dix NJ
This question was first raised by R' Chizkiyah in the Zohar: "If all bodies will arise and be awakened from the dust, after the arrival of Moshiach, what will happen to the bodies in which a single neshamah was planted?"
The Zohar quotes an answer given by R' Yosi: "Those bodies that did not merit and did not succeed are viewed as if they do not exist. Just as they were â€˜dry wood' in this world, so will they be at that time. The final body in which the soul was planted, which succeededâ€¦will arise."
It appears from the Zohar that only one body will arise-the one who completed the avodah (full mission) expected of that neshamah, as opposed to all the previous gilgulim, who will not arise. The Mystical codifier known as the Arizal questions this idea. Every Jew is filled with mitzvos, just like a pomegranate is filled with seeds. Why should a body that fulfilled so many mitzvos fail to merit techiyas hameisim (return after Moshiach's arrival)?
The Arizal therefore explains the Zohar a bit differently. Every body that fulfilled mitzvos will certainly arise; the question is only how much of the neshamah it will possess. Those bodies that did not merit will only receive a small portion of the neshamah, while those that did merit will receive more.
How can it be that a body will only possess a part of a neshamah? This is not problematic; even a small portion of the neshamah includes all the other parts and supplies the body with every facet. This is similar to the idea that every neshamah ultimately is sourced in the neshamah of Adam (first man), which subsequently split into numerous neshamos.
This understanding is also evidenced from the fact that many great Rabbi's were gilgulim (e.g., R' Shimon bar Yochai was a spark of Moshe Rabbeinu, and Eliyahu Hanavi shared the neshamah of Pinchas). Obviously, they will all arise at techiyas hameisim when Moshiach is here, each one possessing part of that neshamah.
May we merit to experience all this, immediately!
Question: The Torah commands us to appoint a king. This is not just a general command on the people as a whole, but a personal commandment. How are we, living in America, supposed to appoint a King?
Binyamin, US Penitetiary, Coleman FL
Each Jew must take part in the process of appointing a king. As of today we await the revelation of King Moshiach. Each of us has a personal obligation to accept the kingship of Moshiach upon ourselves, to believe in him and be prepared to follow his directives. This readiness in itself will hasten the revelation of Moshiach. As the Lubavitcher Rebbe says, "We have merited that G-d chose and appointed a human being of free will, with qualities that set him apart from his generationâ€¦ to teach and give advice regarding the service of the Jewish people and all the people of the generation in all matters of Torah and mitzvot and regarding daily life. Each person of the generation has an obligation to accept upon himself to follow the directives and advice of [King Moshiach]."
Accepting the kingship of Moshiach is expressed through the declaration of "Yechi Hamelech," Long Live the King. When King Solomon was anointed, the people announced, "Long live King Solomon," and we will use a similar phrase for Moshiach.
The relationship between the king and the people is manifested in two opposite ways. On the one hand, the king is totally exalted above the people which inspires awe and fear of the king. On the other hand, the relationship between the nation and the king is one of absolute connection. As the Rambam says, the king is the heart of the Jewish people. We are the limbs. Just like the body receives its life-force from the heart, the Jewish nation receives its life from the king.
Not only does the nation receive its life from the king, but the entire existence of the king is dependent on the nation, as is written, "There is no king without a nation." Therefore, the Rebbe continues, when the nation announces yechi hamelech, as was done in connection to King Solomon and King David, his affects not only the existence of the king, but the life of the king as well.
Question: Can you please share with me the Rebbe's opinion regarding homosexuals, is it approved or not? After all, I may have been born this way.
Mark, Taft CI, CA
Here is a letter written by the Rebbe MHM on this subject:
â€¦While all blessings come from HaShem [G-d], a Jew is expected to do what is necessary in the natural order. In the matter of the said problem, you surely know that there are doctors and psychiatrists who treat it, and have been successful in many cases. I know of a number of cases of people who had this problem but eventually overcame it, married and raised a family.
While on this topic, I would like to clear up a misconception that has led some individuals into confusion and wrong conclusions. The misconception stems from the argument that since some individuals are born with this problem, it must be a "natural" thing; hence it cannot be designated as a wrong, or a sin, and there is therefore no need to do anything to change it, or at any rate, it is not a serious problem at all.
That this approach is entirely without foundation can be seen from the fact that the Torah (called Toras Chaim and Toras Emes because it is our true guide in the everyday life) declares that to indulge in it, or even to dwell on it mentally, is a grave transgression of HaShem's commandment. Hence, it is also clear that the problem is controllable, for if it were beyond human control, HaShem would not have made it a sin.
The fact that the problem may largely be congenital does not alter the situation. Every day children are born with particular natures and innate tendencies or drives, some of them good and some of them bad. This is why human beings have to be trained and educated, so as to develop and strengthen the positive characteristics and eliminate the bad ones. The Creator endowed human beings with the capacity to improve, indeed even to change, their "natural" (i.e. innate) traits. A case in point is kleptomania. It is generally recognized that kleptomania is a very compulsive drive. But no one will suggests that because it is probably inborn and extremely difficult to resist, the kleptomaniac should be told that it is okay for him to steal, or that there is nothing he can, or should, do about it, and so on. Similarly in the case of one who is born with a drive to destroy things or with a quarrelsome or aggressive nature, with a propensity to cheat or lie, or any other innate trait that is considered reprehensible. No normal society would declare that since one was born that way, one should be allowed to go through life according to his natural desires and tendencies. Such an attitude will help neither the individual, nor the society. On the contrary, everything should be, and is, done to help individuals to overcome their neurological problems, whatever they may be.
Needless to say, the person who is afflicted with this or other neurological problems, may well ask, "Why has HaShem created such a compulsive drive, which is in direct contradiction to His moral Code? Why has He afflicted me, who desires to comply fully with His commandments?"
No human being can answer such questions, which only HaShem, the Creator, can answer. One observation that can be suggested in relation to the question, "Why me?" If an individual experiences a particularly difficult, or trying, situation, it may be assumed that HaShem has given him extraordinary powers to overcome the extraordinary difficulty. The individual concerned is probably unaware of his real inner strength; the trial may therefore be designed for the sole purpose of bringing out in the individual his hidden strength, which, after overcoming his problem, can be added henceforth to the arsenal of his revealed capacities, in order to utilize both for infinitely greater achievements for the benefit of himself, and others.
Maimonides, the "Guide of the Perplexed" of his generation and of all subsequent generations, who was also acclaimed as the greatest physician of his times, declares in a well known passage in his famous Code, Mishneh Torah (Yad Hachazaka): "Every person has the option (power), if he so desires, to direct himself to do only good and be a Tzaddik, or, if he chooses, to fellow the bad road and be a Rasha. Do not ever think that a person is predestined from birth to be a Tzaddik or Rasha. Nor is there any inner compulsion to make a choice, but one has the capacity to choose the right behavior, and it is entirely a matter of one's own will and determination" (Free translation from Hil. Teshuva, ch. 5. See it there at length).
A final remark from the scientific viewpoint.
To say that the human mind and neural system are unimaginably intricate, is to say the obvious. Only the Creator knows His handiwork. But the Creator has endowed the human mind with wonderful qualities to probe the mysteries of nature, to research and experiment and steadily gain more knowledge about himself and his physical and mental capacities. Considerable progress has been made by scientists in their studies of the brain cells and hormones. It is now clear that a wide range of human emotions and sensations can be stimulated artificially with the aid of electronic and biochemical techniques. It is now generally agreed that most, if not all, neurological disorders, including deviant sexual behavior, probably proceed from chemical (hormone) deficiencies or irregularities during the period of youth. Some neurological disorders are already being treated successfully in certain areas involving the neural system" and it is to be hoped that the range will expand and eventually include the whole spectrum of neurological disorders, both of individuals and of nations.
In the meantime, we can only put our trust in HaShem, and strengthen our adherence to the Torah and Mitzvoth, of which it is written, "â€˜They are our life and the length of our days."
Question: I am not a religious person. In fact, I never went to a synagogue except for a few hours on Yom Kippur. But upon arriving in prison, attending Jewish services on Friday evenings, I see that Jews make Kiddush on Grape Juice. Isn't wine addictive? Does the Jewish religion encourage to become alcoholics? Can you please explain?
Michael, Federal Corr Institution, Sheridan OR
Each of us has a body and a soul. Our body is usually only interested in the material pleasures that this world has to offer - a good meal, an entertaining show, comfort and gratification. The soul has higher aspirations - it seeks true love, meaning, inspiration and a connection to what's holy.
As long as the body continues to chase the mundane, the soul is trapped. Judaism teaches not to suppress the body but to refine it. Don't fast all day - but only eat foods that are spiritually pure. Don't be celibate - but save sexuality for marriage. Work with the body, not against it. Kiddush consists of only a cup.
The path of refinement is a challenging one, but it is possible.
Wine or Grape Juice has a unique property that demonstrates the fact that we need not afflict our bodies in order to tap in to our souls. Wine represents what Judaism is all about: the fusing of the holy and the mundane, the spiritual and physical, the body and soul.
Question: Being in prison has given me a tremendous opportunity to learn so much about our religion. I religiously attend all services and Jewish instruction classes and read numerous books many of which Reaching Out has provided to me and others. I try to do as many mitzvahs as I possibly can, always learning more and more. But before my return, I am now ashamed to say that I have sinned even on the most holiest day of Yom Kippur. Does this mean that I have lost my Jewish soul forever?
Keith, Federal Corr Low, Butner NC
We are connected to G-d and we achieve the connection with G-d through our observance of the mitzvot, the divine commandments (indeed, the word mitzvah also means "connection"). The mitzvot embody the will of G-d; by fulfilling the mitzvot, we make the divine will the substance and aim of our lives. Our souls and bodies become vehicles of the supernal will.
But what happens when a Jew violates the divine will, G-d forbid, he uncovers an even deeper dimension of his bond with G-d. The connection created by the mitzvah is exactly that-a connection created between two separate entities. Taken on its own, this connection does not point to any intrinsic bond between the two. In fact, it implies that the natural state of the observer of the mitzvah is one of separateness and distinction-a state which is overcome by the act of the mitzvah, which bridges the gulf between the mortal and the divine. But when a Jew transgresses a divine command, a more innate bond with G-d comes to light. His inner equilibrium is disturbed; his soul finds no peace and is driven to compensate for its ravaged identity by profane spiritual quests, material excesses, or both. His transgressions highlight the fact that there is nothing more unnatural than a Jew estranged from his G-d.
Teshuvah [Return] is a soul's experience of the agony of disconnection and its channeling of this agony to drive its return to G-d. Thus, our sages have said that through teshuvah, "sins are transformed into merits," since the sin itself becomes the impetus for connection with G-d. Indeed, the baal teshuvah (penitent or "returnee") attains a level of relationship with G-d on which "even the perfectly righteous cannot stand." His sins have provoked-and his teshuvah has actualized-a dimension of his soul's connection to G-d which a perfectly righteous life never touches.
For it is the process of teshuvah ("return") from sin that yields the greatest "profits" of the endeavor of life. There is no greater love than the love experienced from afar, and no greater passion than the quest to return to a forsaken home and an alienated self. When a soul's bond to G-d is stretched to the breaking point, the force with which it rebounds to its Source is greater than anything that can be generated by the soul that never leaves the divine orbit. And when a soul wanders off to the most alien corners of life, and exploits the very negativity and evil of its environment as the impetus to return to G-d, it redeems those parts of G-d's creation that lie beyond the pale of a righteous life.
This is G-d's "fearsome plot" upon the children of man: to create man with free choice, knowing man will fail. After all, G-d didn't create robots, but created human beings with an inclination to do evil, so that when he succumbs to it, he should rebound with a greater love for G-d, and with a greater harvest of transformed and redeemed resources, than is generated by a life lived in conformity with the divine will.
Surely, however, it cannot be said that G-d wanted that man should sin: a sin, by definition, is an act that G-d does not want done.
Thus, the baal teshuvah, relates to G-d Himself. He accesses a divine potential that, by Torah's standards, is inaccessible. Because his relationship with G-d is on a level that precedes and supersedes the divine will-a level on which one "still does not know which of them He desires"-there are no "bound" elements, nothing to inhibit the actualization of the divine potential in any of G-d's creations. So when the baal teshuvah sublimates his negative deeds and experiences to fuel his yearning and passion for good, he brings to light the sparks of G-dliness they hold.
Whatever took place before you returned, before you started the tshuva process is no longer relevant today. In fact, the sins have transformed into merits," since the sin itself becomes the impetus for connection with G-d.
Question: How is it that our generation will be worthy of Moshiach? How are we any greater than past generations?
Mendel, Federal Corr Institution, Fort Dix NJ
This question provides its own answer. Only from ultimate concealment can one arrive at ultimate revelation. Light, for example, is at its most resplendent when it shines forth from dim obscurity. In the same way, it is the initial distance from the light of G-dliness that empowers teshuvah to transform darkness into light - since, for the penitent, "his sins become like virtues." Our generation's very distance from G-dliness inspires in us the sublime, inner power of the soul. (The righteous individual, by contrast, repels evil, rather than transforming it into good.)
Furthermore, goodness and holiness are eternal. Hence, when a Jew fulfills a mitzvah, "in the upper spheres this union [between the soul and G-d] is eternal."
Evil, by contrast, has no true existence; it is no more than a concealment of the Divine light. Hence, when the blemish of the sin is cleansed, such as when the person repents, the evil ceases to exist.
Since good is eternal, all the accumulated good of all the past generations still exists. This is why now, specifically, we will soon be privileged to witness the coming of Moshiach, even though superficial appearances might indicate that "the generation seems unworthy."
We see how many impurities are coming to the surface now: evil is being exposed in order for people to banish it, do teshuvah and change the world. So, what may appear negative is actually part of the process to usher in the redemption, to perfect and fix the world. Each of us must look within our souls to correct things that need correcting and to make ourselves, our families and our surroundings ready for redemption.
Question: My husband was just sentenced to five years in prison. Can he ask for Kosher food or for other religious rights?
N.S. New Orleans LA
The US Constitution allows for religious rights and freedom even in prison. One goes to prison and loses the freedom to be a free person, but never loses his/her religious rights. Prisons across America serve kosher food, provide religious services, and one can put on Teffilin and pray, etc.
From a Jewish perspective, just because a person committed a grievous sin for which he is being punished doesn't mean that we, as a society, have a right to force him to commit other transgressions. On the contrary, since this person has fallen so low, it is doubly important for him to be able to rehabilitate himself. Reconnecting to his Jewish faith can only help in this curative process.
Question: Can you explain what is the Oral Law?
Beryl, Pondville CC, Norfolk MA
The Torah has two parts:
- The Written Law ("Torah Shebichsav"), which is composed of the twenty-four books of the Tanach
- The Oral Law ("Torah Sheba'al Peh").
G-d told Moses that he will give him "the Torah and the commandments." Why did G-d add the word "commandments?" Are there any commandments which are not included in the Torah? This verse (amongst others) is a clear inference to the existence of the Oral Torah.
Originally the Oral Law was not transcribed. Instead it was transmitted from father to son and from teacher to disciple (thus the name "Oral" Law). Approximately 1800 years ago, Rabbi Judah the Prince concluded that because of all the travails of Exile, the Oral Law would be forgotten if it would not be recorded on paper. He, therefore, assembled the leading scholars of his generation and compiled the Mishnah, a (shorthanded) written collection of all the oral teachings that preceded him. Since then, the Oral Law has ceased to be "oral" and as time passed more and more of the previously oral tradition was recorded.
The Oral Law consists of three components:
1. Laws Given to Moses at Sinai (Halachah L'Moshe M'Sinai):
When Moses went up to heaven to receive the Torah, G-d gave him the Written Torah together with many instructions. These instructions are called "Halachah L'Moshe M'Sinai" -the Law that was given to Moses on Sinai. Maimonides writes that it is impossible for there to be an argument or disagreement concerning a Halachah L'Moshe M'Sinai, for the Jews who heard the instructions from Moses implemented them into their daily lives and passed it on to their children, who passed it on to their children, etc.
Some examples of Halachah L'Moshe M'Sinai are: tefillin straps must be black, a sukkah must have at least two and a half walls, and all the different Halachic measurements and sizes.
2. The Thirteen Principles of Torah Exegesis (Shlosh Esreh Middos ShehaTorah Nidreshes Bahem):
When G-d gave the Written Law to Moses he also instructed him how one is to study and understand the Torah. Every word and letter in the Torah is exact, and many laws can be extrapolated from an extra (or missing) word or letter, or a particular sequence which the Torah chooses to use. The thirteen principles which are the keys to uncovering the secrets of the Torah are called the "Shlosh Esreh Middot ShehaTorah Nidreshet Bahem."
For instance: One of the rules is: "Anything that was included in a general statement, but was removed from the general statement in order to teach something, was not removed to teach only about itself, but to apply its teaching to the entire generality."
An example for the usage of this rule is: In Exodus 35:3 the Torah says "You shall not light fire in any of your dwellings on the Shabbat day." Now, kindling a fire was already included in the general statement that prohibits work on Shabbat (Exodus 20:10). It was removed from the general rule and stated independently in this verse to teach us that it is a distinct form of work and, as such, carries a distinct penalty. Moreover, this lesson applies to each of the 39 categories of work included in the general statement. Thus, there isn't a broad category called "work," rather each type of work is to be viewed as distinct. Therefore, if someone should do several kinds of work while unaware that they are forbidden on Shabbat, he must bring a separate sin-offering to atone for each type of work that he did.
A full list of the thirteen principles can be found in the prayer-book.
3. Edicts (G'zayros):
Torah authorizes the rabbis to protect the word of the Torah through making "G'zayros" (edicts).
The Torah prohibition of eating or possessing chametz (leavened products) on Passover begins at midday of the fourteenth day of Nissan. Our sages added two hours to this prohibition, for they feared that on a cloudy day people would err and eat chametz after noon.
Just like the Congress is constantly enacting new laws and regulations, for the old laws are not always adequate for modern trends and tendencies, so too, the leading rabbical authorities constantly added g'zayros according to the needs of their times.
Although the Torah commands us to follow these g'zayros, there are distinctions between a rabbinic decree and a Torah law. One of the distinctions is that when there is a doubt concerning a Torah law one must be stringent, whereas if there is a doubt in a rabbinic decree one may be lenient. [In case of an actual dilemma, always make sure to ask a rabbi what to do.]
Until the end of the Talmudic Era (approx. 1500 years ago) there was a central rabbinic authority which issued g'zayros which were accepted by all the Jews. Since that time, different communities have assumed upon themselves various stringencies, some are universally accepted g'zayros.
Question: How does ordinary matzah differ from Shmura Matzah?
Steven, New Haven CC, CT
The wheat for ordinary Passover matzah is guarded from the time of grinding. A few authorities maintain that the wheat must be guarded from the time of reaping. Because the mitzvah (commandment) of not eating any chametz (leaven) on Passover is so stringent, many people observe the mitzvos of Passover with greater caution and only eat matzah that is acceptable by the strictest opinions. Many people make a point of eating Shmura Matzah at least at both Seders, when eating matzah is a positive commandment of the Torah.
Question: My Hebrew name is Reuven, can you explain what it means?
Reuven, Five Points CF, Romulus NY
Reuven was the name of the oldest of Jacob's twelve sons, father of the twelve tribes. The Torah records when he was given this name and as well as its meaning.
But first a little background information: Jacob had intended to marry Rachel, but was tricked by his father-in-law into first marrying Leah - Reuven's mother. When she gave birth to her oldest, she chose the name Reuven, saying, "Because the L-rd has seen my affliction, for now my husband will love me." The name is made up of two halves; "re'u" means "look" or "see," and "ben" means "son." Thus, the name Reuben expresses the fact that "re'u" - G-d saw my needs, and therefore blessed me with "ben" - a son.
The Chassidic masters teach that the name Reuben refers to "sight," a highly tuned level of G-dly awareness that is so real that it is as if the person actually perceives G-d with his own eyes. No amount of argument will convince a person that he did not see something when he did. This experience is unambiguous and definite. The name Reuben expresses certainty and immediacy in our awareness of G-d.
Question: What is Torah?
William, Metropolitan Detention Center, S Diego CA
If you are confused by usage of the word Torah, you're probably on the right track. Grammatically, the word Torah should mean any instruction, but in actual usage:
The title Torah often refers specifically to the Five Books of Moses. A parchment scroll version of the Torah, carefully written by an expert scribe, is kept in the ark of the synagogue and taken out to be read during services.
Torah can also refer to the entire Written Torah, meaning the entire canonized scripture.
Torah can also refer to the above plus the Oral Torah, which includes: the compilation of laws and rulings known as Mishnah, along with other accepted compilations; the discussion and debate of that material, known as Talmud; the stories and their lessons that are collected in the Talmud and Midrashic works; any other teaching that has been accepted by a long-term consensus of the observant Jewish community, because it is based firmly on some precedent, or because it has been demonstrated to emerge by accepted means from previous texts and opinions.
"If someone tells you there is wisdom among other peoples, believe him . . . If someone tells you there is Torah among other peoples, do not believe him . . ." -Midrash
Torah, it seems, is distinct from what we generally call wisdom. Our sages go so far as to say that Torah precedes all existence, that it contains the blueprint for the cosmos, and that the very existence of the cosmos is contingent upon Torah.
Even the term "divine wisdom" is insufficient. Our universe, after all, is composed of divine wisdom. Our environment, our bodies and the very psyche with which we observe all of these are of unfathomable design. "How wondrous are Your works, O G-d," the Psalmist declares. "You made all of them with wisdom!"6 Yet the laws of nature are not the laws of Torah.
Human wisdom can be described as the ability to predict the outcomes of this wondrous design. We take note of its patterns and extrapolate into the future. We strive to know enough about what is to predict what will be-and therefore, what could be if we make informed choices. Nevertheless, what should be is decided by means that are not related to knowledge or wisdom.
For example, wisdom tells you that how you treat others is bound to come back to you. It's up to you to decide whether you want that coming back or not. Possessing property that doesn't belong to you might not be a good idea-for you or for the people around you. It's up to you to decide whether or not to suffer the consequences for the sake of the immediate benefits.
Torah, on the other hand, doesn't simply inform, it instructs, "Don't steal." It's nice to know that respect of private property benefits you and the society in which you live, but that's not the reason you refrain from stealing. You don't steal because that is your Creator's will.
A construction worker looks at a blueprint and sees a building; an architect listens to the builder and understands what he really wants. The Torah is like the architect-which is why studying it tells us not only what is, but what should be. Torah is the Creator sharing His innermost desire with us, the created.
The seed of Torah was planted with the experience at Sinai, recorded in the Five Books of Moses. But the voice of Sinai continues to be heard in each generation as students of the Torah unfold the DNA of that seed, discovering new meanings that were always meant, new applications that had always lay dormant.7 After all, the ultimate instruction is that which lifts the student to a vantage point from which he can discern his own evaluation, using the same tools as the teacher.
When you immerse yourself in Torah, your goal is not simply to amass information, but to gain a sense of how the Creator of the Universe relates to His creations. To think in a G-dly way. It is a sharing of spirit, until the same preferences and desires breathe within the two of you. His thoughts are your thoughts and your thoughts are His. There is no comparable union to be found in any other wisdom.
Question: In prison, staff and inmates alike speak profanity. What is your opinion?
Donald, Valley State Prison, Chowchilla CA
"Watch your mouth." "Watch my mouth? Every time I try, my nose gets in the way!" Bad language shleps you down. Many of us are careful to only put healthy or organic or the latest gourmet food into our mouths but cavalier about what comes out of them.
And bit by bit, we callous our souls. Bit by bit, we diminish our self-respect and, contrary to our avowed purposes, actually lose the respect of others. We may be able to cow people into submission through screaming and cursing, but fear is not respect. The profanity masks a lack of real power.
The Talmud speaks very harshly about one who speaks in a vulgar way. Although we generally think of speech as just a superficial act, in truth it has a strong impact on your inner self. The words that leave your mouth make an imprint on your mind and heart. No matter how high up you are the rope of fine, noble character, a few rotten words can throw you back down to the ground.
And the flip side is also true. A crude person can become more refined if he improves the way he speaks. This is why shemirat halashon, "guarding one's tongue," is considered one of the first steps that need to be taken before correcting more serious character flaws.
"If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say it all" â€” Certainly silence is preferable to a barrage of vulgarity assaulting our ears or the ears of those around us.
Question: A Rabbi visited me during my short stay in prison, and told me, after I told him that my grandmother, mothers mother was Jewish, that I too am Jewish. I'm forty years old, never had a bar mitzvah and don't consider myself Jewish. My dad's not Jewish. My mom believes she is not Jewish. Besides, I really don't look Jewish. Now no longer in prison, I am not sure what to do, am I or am I not Jewish?
Louis, Bexer County Jail, San Antonio TX
Indeed, for any religion besides the Jewish religion, if you don't believe in it, you are not part of it.
If your grandmother was Irish, you would not be Irish and if she was Buddhist, you can choose anything and need not also be Buddhist.
Being Jewish is not about religion, or about nationality. It's more like being born into a tribe. And this tribe is heavily matriarchal. That's how the rules of the tribe work: Since your mother's mother was a member of the tribe, that makes her Jewish, too. Which, in turn, makes you Jewish.
So you want out of the tribe but you can't. It started off as a family of descendants of a man named Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham, some three and a half thousand years ago. But then, the people gathered at Mount Sinai and made an eternal covenant.
From that point on, it became a one-way street. You can get in, if you join the pact. Or just by being born into it. But there's no way out.
That may not make much sense to you, but there's deeper stuff going on here. A person is not just a bag of meat wired together with neurons and programmed by DNA. There's something more inside, something mysterious and unpredictable. Something we often call a soul. And souls come in different flavors. You may not look Jewish from the outside, but on the inside, you have a Jewish soul.
What does that mean? Think of it as something like being told that your poor old grandma left you a hefty trust fund, and all you need to do is drop into the bank and take out the cash. Lots of cash. If that happened, you might say, "Well, I don't really believe that my grandmother had any cash to leave me, so I'll pass, thank you." Right? We doubt it. My guess is that you would at least risk a visit or two to the bank to ask some relevant questions.
In this case, your grandmother has left you a heritage of timeless wisdom, a great history, and a lifetime membership in the oldest and most amazing worldwide tribe, spread over the entire globe. And a Jewish soul.
There's a good chance your Jewish soul will resonate with that wisdom. There's a good chance the history will be meaningful to you. There's a good chance the rituals and holidays will enrich your life. And you might find it cool to be a bonafide member of a global community that accepts you unconditionally, just because you're a member of the tribe.
It sure is worth a try.
Question: Why do we put on Teffilin on the left arm?
Eric, Federal Corr Institution, Littleton CO
The sages of the Talmud take it as a given that tefillin are put on the left arm (or the right arm of a lefty) and offer several reasons: According to one tradition, whenever the Torah uses the word yad ("hand") without defining which one, it refers to the left hand.
The Talmud tells us that the hand tefillin need to be placed "facing the heart." Although some interpret this as merely telling us that the tefillin need to be placed on the bicep, which is level with the heart, others explain this to be an additional reason for placing the tefillin on the left arm, which is nearer to the heart.
Rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoah (13th century), known for his commentary on the Torah, explains that since the right hand is the more active hand, used for mundane, menial tasks, it isn't fitting that the tefillin, which contain G-d's holy name, be strapped to it. Instead, we place them on the left hand, which isn't used as often.
The fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Sholom Dovber, known as the Rebbe Rashab, explains that through putting the tefillin on the left arm next to the heart, one subjugates his animal soul to the G-dly soul, transforming the negative desires into positive. Thus, bit by bit, we transform negativity into positivity, until we reach the state in which, as the mystics put it, "there will only be a right (i.e., positive) side." This will come to fruition and be revealed in the messianic era-may we see this very soon!
Question: Before going to prison, I never really attended synagogue and even if I did, never really saw or cared about all the traditions. Prison allows me to see things I never knew. Can you please explain why is the Torah scroll opened and raised aloft at the end of Torah reading?
Daniel, Federal Corr Institution, Fort Dix NJ
The Talmud mentions raising the Torah scroll adjacent to its reading, "It is a commandment for all the men and women to see the writing, and bow, and say, â€˜And this is the Torah which Moses placed before the children of Israel' (Deut. 4:44)"
During "hagbah" (the raising of the Torah) - at the beginning of the Torah reading for Sefardim and at the end for Ashkenazim - the words are carefully shown to all to emphasize that all Jews are able to understand that the Torah is our common heritage. Some have the custom to point to the words of the Torah while it is being raised up.
Question: My son recently died in an accident. I would like to know if he can see or hear us here on earth. Is he still aware of us now that he is in heaven? Your comments would be appreciated.
Mark, Federal Corr Institution, Miami FL
The mystery of death is one that we cannot truly comprehend. Why some souls are with us so briefly is beyond our understanding.
But we know that only the body dies, not the soul. And it is the soul of a person that we love. Our connection with a loved one is not with their physical presence, but their personality, their love, their energy, their spirit. And that relationship never goes away. It just takes another form.
The Rebbe, (Chabad Lubavitch), once spoke to a mother who was inconsolable after the loss of her son. He asked her, "What if I told you that your son isn't dead? Rather, he has gone to a place where he is safe and happy. He feels no pain; he has no fear and no regrets. You can't see him. But you can send him love packages, and he will receive them and enjoy them. If I told you this, would things be different?"
She thought about it and answered, "Well, I guess the pain would not be quite so unbearable if I knew he was safe, and I could tell him that I love him."
"Well," the Rebbe told her, "this is in fact the case. Your son is in heaven, where he is at peace. And he can still feel your love. The love packages you send to him are the mitzvahs, the good deeds you do in his memory and in his honor. When you give a coin to charity, say a prayer, light the Shabbat Candles, learn and study some Jewish texts, or show kindness to those in need, and you have him in mind, he receives a flow of love from you. His soul is elevated when you perform good deeds in his memory. Channel your grief into a positive force. Let the vacuum caused by your loss draw more light into the world."
Nothing can replace the physical touch of a hug, the pleasure of seeing your child grow and learn and play. But he is still with you. And he knows that he is blessed with a loving mother who will always think of him.
We don't know why it has to be this way. But one day, with the revelation of Moshiach, we will be reunited with the souls of our loved ones, and we will understand it all.
Question: Will our daily prayers and blessings change when Moshiach comes?
Moshe, Federal Prison Camp, Otisville NY
Today we pray three daily prayers: morning, afternoon and evening. Our prayers are a combination of praise to G-d, humbling ourselves before Him and serving Him, and requests for our daily needs. Will we continue to ask for our daily bread when all our needs will be provided for in the days of Moshiach?
Being that most of our prayers nowadays are requests for Redemption, it is obvious that in the era of Moshiach they will change to prayers of thanksgiving to G-d for having brought the Redemption.
Also, many of our prayers were instituted as substitutes for the sacrifices that were offered in the Holy Temple. Once the Temple is rebuilt, there will be no need for these prayers.
Another major difference will be the tone. While in exile we pray the Amidah silently, in the era of Moshiach the prayer will be said aloud (see Zohar on Parshat Vayigash).
The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that in the time of exile we are very aware of our own existence. It is our job and obligation to nullify our ego and worldly desires, subjugating ourselves to G-d. This is symbolized by praying quietly.
In the times of Moshiach, however, the true reality of our existence will be revealed. The truth of creation will be revealed-that it exists only to serve as a dwelling place for G-d. We will no longer feel our corporeal selves. We will feel only our oneness with our Creator. This is the ultimate self-nullification. Therefore we will pray out loud, symbolizing and emphasizing that G-d is our only source of existence in a revealed way.
(Reference: Likutei Sichot vol. 35, p. 197)
Question: I've often heard the argument that there must be a G-d, because creation is so well designed that there must be a designer. For example, the human brain is so complex, it must have a creator, so G-d must exist. That makes sense, but by using the same logic, I can ask the question: Who created G-d?
Jason, Federal Corr institution, Jesup GA
Your question can be answered by following a few logical steps.
Before creation, there was nothing but G-d. Nothing. When we say that G-d is the Creator, we don't just mean He created solid objects, like planets, trees and aardvarks. We mean He created everything. Any thing you can think of, every single existence on every plane and in every dimension, was once not, and G-d made it be.
That means that even concepts were created by G-d. G-d not only created the concrete universe, made up of gases, solids and liquids; He also created all of the abstract realities, such as love, goodness, purpose and logic. These concepts did not exist before He created them.
One concept G-d introduced is the very concept of creation. G-d came up with the idea that you can have nothing, and make something out of it. The very notion that something has a beginning, a point at which it comes into existence-that notion itself was created by G-d. The concept didn't exist before. Just like there were no trees before G-d created the first tree, so too there were no beginnings before G-d created the first beginning.
So your question is based on a false premise. You can't ask "Who created G-d?" because the whole concept of creating was G-d's idea in the first place. There was no such thing as creation before G-d came up with it. Just as it is obvious that the person who made the first cartoon was not himself a cartoon, so too G-d, who invented the concept of creation, is not Himself a creation.
G-d, the Creator, never changes. He is always the same; He always was and always will be. Humans, created beings that we are, do not remain the same. We once were not, were brought into being, and will one day be no longer. And that is why humans are so special. Because as creations, we-you and I-have the power to change. That's the gift of being human.
Question: I am having some difficulty understanding G-d's presence in the world. First, I heard that Jerusalem is a place where the spiritual is connected to the physical in a way that does not happen anywhere else in the world: Then I read that every time someone does a good deed (Mitzvah) G-d's presence in the world is clearer. And finally I was told that G-d is everywhere; meaning that He is in the synagogue, in the street and even in prison. Each seems to contradict the other. Can you help me, please?
Michael, Federal Detention Center, Seattle WA
Lets try to explain it with a little analogy: When a radio station broadcasts, it sends radio waves through the air. Some stations send out stronger signals, some send out weaker signals. We are always surrounded and bombarded with radio waves. So why aren't we deaf from all the noise? Because we can't hear the sounds unless we have a radio which is tuned to the proper frequency.
G-d's presence is not only everywhere but within everything. G-d's name in Hebrew is a contraction of the Hebrew words for "was," "is," and "will be," because He is the G-d of creation, and G-d's constant presence is what perpetually keeps all of creation in existence.
However, just like our ears don't hear radio waves, we generally do not sense G-d's presence in this world. But when a mitzvah is done, this "strengthens" the signal of G-d's presence and fine tunes our receptors, making us more aware of it. In a place where many mitzvot are done-for instance, in a synagogue, it is much easier to sense G-d's presence in the world. Similarly, when a home has a mezuzah on the door, or a prison has Jewish books, etc.-we are more aware of G-d's presence there.
Jerusalem is the holiest city in the world. The site of the Holy Temple for so many years, it is consecrated by so many acts of service, so many mitzvahs that have been, and continue to be, performed there. G-d's presence is so much clearer there, and it is easier to connect to Him.
If, G-d forbid, someone does a negative deed, thereby implicitly proclaiming that there is no G-d, then the signal of G-d's presence becomes more faint and harder for us to pick upâ€¦
Question: In this prison we have a mixed crowd. Some are very orthodox and have beard and never shave, why?
David, Federal Prison Camp, Otisville NY
It is actually a command that comes from the Torah, (Bible). The Torah forbids "destruction" of the hair in five places on the face. The Talmud interprets "destruction" as shaving with a razor.This prohibition also includes shaving with any implement which completely removes all the facial hair, but does not include trimming with scissors or any other tool which does not provide the smooth shave provided by a razor.
In addition to the issue of destroying the beard, there are halachic authorities (including the Tzemach Tzedek, third Chabad Rebbe) who opine that cutting any part of the beard, even without a razor-like implement, has the additional problem of cross-dressing, which is forbidden by the Torah.
Maimonides teaches that the reason the Torah forbade the destruction of the beard is because shaving was a practice of ancient idol-worshippers.
In addition, Kabbalah attaches great importance to the beard, teaching that the "thirteen locks" of the beard are representative of G-d's thirteen supernal Attributes of Mercy. Growing a beard makes one a beneficiary of the bounty which originates from G-d's compassion.
Traditionally, Jews throughout the ages wore beards in order to not even come close to destroying the forbidden parts of their beards.
As the winds of "enlightenment" spread to Eastern Europe, many people felt that wearing a beard labeled them as backwards and old-fashioned. Many Torah leaders, including the Chafetz Chaim, protested this change.
Chassidim were in general less swayed by the modernization taking place around them, as is evident in their dress. Therefore, they-for the most part-did not feel compelled to shave their beards. In addition, the Kabbalistic reason mentioned above made the practice of growing a beard much more precious to them.
Question: I am truly moved by the prayers at Friday night services. But the little skeptic within me has one niggling question. There is something very important to me that for many years I have been praying for, and it has still not materialized. Are my tears wasted? Can I believe in the power of prayer?
Michael, CIM, Chino CA
No prayer is ignored and no tear goes unnoticed. But the response is not always in the form we expect it to be.
At the high point of Yom Kippur, toward the end of the day in the Neilah prayer, we address G-d with the following plea: "You who hears the sound of weeping, store our tears in Your flask, and save us from all cruel decrees."
This seems to be a strange expression. Why would G-d store our tears? It doesn't seem to be of any use to keep our tears in a flask.
The meaning behind this is profound. Not always are our prayers answered in the way we want them to be. Sometimes, in His wisdom, G-d does not grant us our wishes at the time we demand them. Instead, He stores away our tears and files away our prayers, to be taken out and answered at another time.
We are not privy to G-d's timetable, and we don't get His system. But every word and every tear is accounted for, and makes an impact. When and how that impact is felt by us is up to G-d. A prayer said today for someone's health may take effect only many years later. We are depositing our request, but we don't know when it will be withdrawn.
In physics, the law of conservation of energy states that energy can never be destroyed, it just changes from one form to another. There is a similar law in metaphysics. No prayer is ever lost; no tear is ever wasted. Your request will be granted; it just may be in an unexpected form. So keep praying, because every word is stored away. It will rebound back to you when you need it most.
Question: How does one handle feelings of anxiety and guilt? How does one let go of the past?
David, Federal Corr Institution, Petersburg VA
The Baal Shem Tov advises that essential in overcoming negative emotions linked to one's past is forgiveness. It is well-known the importance of forgiveness in reference to others; but what about forgiving oneself? This tends to be overlooked, as it is easy to be overly critical and to forget to extend that much-needed forgiveness to oneself.
Self-forgiveness does not mean self-governing, G-d forbid. A Jew is governed by the Torah, and self-forgiveness is not a free pass to transgress or neglect one's service of Him. For this, every person is granted free choice - every Jew does his or her best to live in accordance with Hashem's will. But when the Jew has erred, and made the wrong choice, gone in the wrong direction, G-d forbid -he needs to accept responsibility and show remorse, but not become despondent or upset with the situation he has brought upon himself.
Yes, remorse for choosing to go in the wrong direction is crucial to getting back on track. With positive resolutions, the person needs to move on, now stronger and more knowledgeable, with firm resolve to make better decisions in the future. But grieving over the situation one has brought upon himself is a different story. For finding oneself in this situation, too, is ultimately Hashem's will. Everything is for the best, and everything is from Hashem.
One mustn't think, "If only I had known betterâ€¦", because there are no "ifs" and Hashem makes no mistakes. Here is where self-forgiveness comes into the picture. With this in mind, one can move on with joy and fortitude, realizing that Hashem is with him every step of the way.
Question: Before coming to prison, I led a lay back religious lifestyle. It almost seemed like nothing mattered. But since coming to prison, I can't understand it, but I am in a challenging mood and don't let the chaplain get away with anything. Why have I changed like this?
Daniel, Federal Corr Institution, Jessup GA
Each of us has a Divine soul and The soul thrives on adversity-nothing revs its engines like an attack on its beliefs and principles. Indeed this is an age-old phenomenon: our history is replete with men and women who demonstrated incredible courage when confronted with decrees restricting the observance of Torah and mitzvot. More often than not, these heroes were "run-of-the-mill" simple folk who led otherwise non-heroic lives. But every Jew has a Divine soul, a soul which possesses staggering powers. In many a Jew this soul is in hibernation. A little opposition and friction is needed in order to awaken and startle it into action.
There is a well-known chassidic adage: "An olive must be crushed to release its oils."
The final challenge of the Jewish galut (exile) is to awaken the soul without the "benefit" of outside incitement. Today we must "crush" ourselves to release our "soul oils."
A Jew's yearning to connect to G-d, his burning desire for the Creator to be overtly manifest in His creation, and his frustration with the current state of affairs - when galut places obstacles at every junction of our spiritual journey, when the Divine reality is concealed in a world which instead brims with materialism and falseness - shakes him to the core of his soul, crushing it into action. At that point the soul becomes consumed with one goal-doing whatever necessary to bring an end to galut - Exile.
Question: Here I am in a prison camp and found out that some orthodox men sleep with Tzitzit. I thought this was a requirement only for the daytime?
Barry, Federal Prison Camp, Otisville NY
Let's first clarify the basic Jewish law regarding tzitzit at night. The verse states regarding tzitzit, "This shall be fringes for you, and you will see them . . ." The Talmud infers that a "nighttime garment"-worn at a time when things aren't normally "seen"-is exempt from tzitzit.
Now, what is a "nighttime garment"? Some authorities, most notably Maimonides, maintain that the Torah's exemption focuses on the time the garment is worn. Therefore, any garment worn at night, even if it is a garment designated to be worn by day, is not required to have tzitzit attached to it.
Conversely, any garment worn by day, even if it is a garment designated for the night, is required to have tzitzit attached to it before it is worn, because the tzitzit can be seen at the time the garment is worn.
Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, author of the Tanya, in his Siddur, lists three reasons why one should wear tzitzit to bed: As soon as the day begins, while still asleep, the tzitzit you are wearing provide you with a mitzvah.
The mystics, most notably Rabbi Yitzchak Luria (the Arizal), cautioned that for mystical reasons, although a tallit should only be worn during the daytime, one should always wear tzitzit (tallit katan) even when he goes to sleep at night (only taking it off to bathe) since it helps to protect from negative spiritual forces.
Question: I have had even before coming to prison an interest in sex with men. I grew up in a home in which religion did not play a role, except for attending services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. In prison, being a homosexual can be dangerous, but I am pulled in that direction. Can you give me some religious advice?
Michael, CCCF, Olney Springs CO
Part of our development from childhood to adulthood is creating for ourselves a moral compass. Something that's internal. That which tells us right from wrong. And that moral compass is comprised of myriad components, but must be firmly grounded, always, in a system of values.
For Jews, the all-encompassing system is Torah law. Torah law governs every single part of living. And from the body of Torah law emerges a system of values - general, societal and personal. Sometimes, it's easy; we feel an affinity, for example, to the laws of tzedaka, or we feel a strong connection to the laws of Shabbat or kosher food. And sometimes, we feel something quite the opposite - we feel estranged or disconnected or personally deeply at odds with a law.
We feel what we feel. Some feelings are very hard to change, and some we can't. Sometimes what we feel is subject to modification, and sometimes it's not. Totally and unequivocally not. And yet, the law is absolute. As much as we know about human sexuality, we don't yet know enough. We're all, as individuals and as a society, still learning. In the last half century, we've come a long way in our understanding of human sexuality, and in redefining a cultural moral code. Some of what we've come to accept as a society is long, long overdue. And some of what we've come to accept undermines the very dignity of human sexuality. But, we're learning.
We do know this, though: we know that among other sexual behaviors, Torah law expressly forbids the specific act of male homosexuality. And we do know this: Torah law forbids bigotry; homophobia is prohibited.
And we do know this: too many Jewish girls and boys, Jewish women and men, have suffered too much for too long. And we know that most of that suffering is caused by the environment around them. We do know this: when we become judges of another person, we behave contrary to Torah law.
And we do know: A Jew belongs in a Jewish environment. Each of us, struggling or not, needs to be in a truly Torah-observant environment. And each of us is responsible for that environment - each of us is responsible for what we bring to that environment. When we bring ignorance, or cruelty or self-righteous judgment of others, we contribute to the sullying of a true Torah environment. When we bring the most ideal principles of ahavat Yisrael, respect for every individual, recognition of each individual's personal relationship with G-dâ€¦when we bring the best of our humanity, as expected by Torah ideals, we contribute to a Torah environment that is healthy and wholesome.
The classic work known as the Tanya provides strong advice: Consider what it means to have such burning passions for forbidden fruit. Consider the day to day fierce and relentless battle demanded to conquer such passions. And then ask yourself, "Do I ever fight such a battle on my own ground?"
The Tanya continues to illustrate the many areas in which all of us can improve by waging at least a small battle on our own ground. The Tanya is available at any Chabad House all over the world and in many fine Book stores. Man can change but you need the right tools.
Question: In olden times when there was no DNA testing, we followed the religion of the mother to know if we are Jewish. But today, why do we need that as proof, when a simple DNA test can resolve the entire matter?
Mark, SCI Greene, Waynesburg PA
Jewishness is not in our DNA. It is in our soul. The reason it is passed down through the maternal line is not just because it is easier to identify who your mother is. It is because the soul identity is more directly shaped by the mother than the father.
Jewishness is not in our DNA From a purely physical perspective, a child is more directly connected to their mother. The father's contribution to the production of a child is instantaneous and remote. The mother, on the other hand, gives her very self to the child . The child is conceived inside the mother, develops inside the mother, is sustained and nourished by the mother, and is born from the mother.
This is not to say that a father and child are not intimately attached. Of course they are. But as deep and essential as the bond between father and child may be, the child's actual body was never a part of her father's body. But she was a part of her mother. Every child begins as an extension of their mother's body.
This is a simple fact. It doesn't mean that a child will be closer to a mother, or even follow in the mother's ways. We are not discussing the emotional bond between parent and child, but rather the natural physical bond. There is a more direct physical link between mother and child, because a child starts off as a part of her mother.
The body and its workings are a mirror image of the workings of the soul. The physical world is a parallel of the spiritual world. And so, the direct physical link between mother and child is a reflection of a soul link between them. While the father's soul contributes to the identity of the child's soul, it is the mother's soul that actually defines it. If the mother has a Jewish soul, the child does too.
If the mother is not Jewish but the father is, his Jewish soul will not be extended to the child. There may be a spark of Jewishness there, but if it was not gestated in a Jewish mother, the child will have to go through conversion for their Jewishness to be activated.
Jewishness is passed down by the mother because being Jewish is a spiritual identity, it defines our very being. And our very being we get from our mother, both in body and in soul.
Question: As a former alcoholic and having taken the RDAP class while in a federal prison, how should I conduct myself at the Passover Seder, with the obligation of drinking four cups of wine?
Michael, Los Angeles CA
The sacramental consumption of wine is commonplace in Judaism, used to mark the beginning of nearly every major holiday and the weekly Sabbath dinner.
On the Passover seder night, tradition calls for the drinking of four cups as a sign of liberation. Wine also figures in other seder-night rituals: Many Jews have the tradition of removing drops of wine from their cup for each of the plagues visited upon the Egyptians, and a cup of wine traditionally is set aside for Elijah. Naturally, the ubiquity of drink poses problems for alcoholics and addicts of other substances. Jewish law says everyone has to drink wine during the seder, but for an alcoholic, it's a danger of death.
Participants in sober seders say the absence of wine not only doesn't detract from their enjoyment of the event, but can even enhance it. They connect the struggles of recovering from addiction to Passover's theme of breaking free from servitude.
"Pikuach nefesh," the Jewish principle that saving a life takes precedence over other religious strictures, in skipping the wine-drinking in Jewish rituals.
Hundreds of recovering addicts are expected to attend a seder, they will be raising a glass of grape juice in celebration not only of the liberation of the Jewish people from bondage in ancient Egypt, but of their own sobriety.
Question: I have hurt so many people, it gives me no rest. I sit in my cell and have been contemplating suicide.
Michael, State Prison, Canon City CO
The idea that "my body belongs to me" and therefore I can do with it as I please, has been an important factor in making modern life more secular and libertine. "My body belongs to me," some people say, "as long as I do not harm other people, I can do as I please." It sounds logical enough. We live with our bodies all the time. We can understand that there should be rules about what we do to other people. But my body is "me", so why should anyone else care? Why should the Torah care? Why should the Torah give rules for how I treat my own body? In fact, many of the rules and teachings of the Torah are precisely about our own bodies. The laws of kosher concern what kind of food we feed to our bodies. There are special blessings to be said before and after eating. There are laws and ideals of modesty and of personal morality. There are laws against physically damaging our bodies. There is even a law against tattooing.
Now, we understand that G-d is the Master of the whole universe and therefore He is able to give us rules through His Torah which affect every detail of our lives. G-d created the world, and our bodies are part of the world, and therefore it makes good sense that there are Torah teachings and rules about what we do or do not do with our physical bodies. However, there is a further step.
The Torah perspective is that our body in fact does not belong to us, it is totally Divine property. In this it is different from the possessions that we own, our money, computer, house, car. It is true that in general terms "the whole world belongs to G-d" but nonetheless, G-d has given us material possessions which we actually possess, although of course we have to use them in the right way, as guided by the Torah. By contrast, our physical bodies do not actually belong to us. The Sages tell us they are lent to us by G-d, and they retain their spiritual quality all the time.
Our bodies remain Divine property, lent to us by G-d, and are for us to keep in best health till G-d takes our soul from the body and one dies. We do not have a right to commit suicide.
Question: In prison, the Passover Seder was very important, everyone tried to attend, but now that I am out of prison, why is it still so important?
Scott, Philadelphia PA
Passover is when the Jew comes out of Egypt and out of hiding as well. Hiding from the Jew within.
According to the people at Pew, somewhere around 7.5 out of 10 Jews will be sitting at a Passover Seder this year. There are Jews that may not fast on Yom Kippur - but Passover? It just pulls. Because it's an identity thing. It is not just any another night. It is who we are as Jews.
A Jew lives inside a story. When does the Jew go back to that story? On the night of Passover, when we sit together, tasting the bitterness of oppression as we bite into the bitter herbs, sinking our teeth into the bread of poverty called matzah, drinking the four cups of wine of freedom, and retelling our story of liberation through wonders to our children and friends.
It is not just any another night. It is who we are. It is a story that never really ends. Oppression verses freedom. Tyranny versus Covenant. Destruction verses tikun etc.
So a Jew comes to the Seder. And the Jew is there in one of four modalities of Jewishness-described in the Haggadah as "The Four Sons."
There's the wise, know-it-all Jew. The kicking, screaming Jew. The just plain Jew. And the apathetic Jew.
But they all have one thing in common: They've all been chosen in this story.
Without the Jew, there is no story.
Without the story, each Jew is just another grain of sand on the beach.
Question: Friday evenings after the prayer, we sing Shalom Aleichem- "Peace unto you, angels" before Kiddush, why?
Joseph, Two Rivers CI, Umatilla, OR
The Mystics explain that because of the hustle and bustle of Shabbat preparations, members of the household might irritate one another, so the angels are called upon to restore peace.
Also, according to the Midrash, when returning home from the synagogue, we are escorted by two angels, one good and one evil. When they enter the home and see everything beautiful and serene, the good angel blesses the family, and the evil one must answer "amen."
Question: I am quite excited to see in the last Reaching Out that you are giving birthday gifts to our children, so that even while in prison and we can't afford it, you will provide the gift. But I would like to know, is there a Jewish way for me to celebrate my birthday?
Richard, US Penitentiary, Coleman FL
Sure, there's a Jewish way for everything! But first it is important to know your real birthday, your Hebrew date and if you write us your English birthday, we will tell you what the Hebrew/Jewish birthday is.
Here are some ideas (culled from the teachings of the Rebbe shlita MHM):
- Giving charity should be a daily event. On your special day increase the amount of your contribution, especially before the day's morning and afternoon prayers. If your birthday falls on Shabbat or a Jewish holiday when handling money is forbidden, give the added charity beforehand and afterwards.
- Spend some extra time praying, focusing on meditating and concentrating on the words of the prayers.
- Say as many Psalms as possible. Ideally you should complete at least one of its five books (Psalms is divided into five books).
- Study the Psalm which corresponds to your new year. This is your age plus one â€” e.g. Psalm 25 if this is your 24th birthday. This is also the Psalm which you should try to say daily until your next birthday.
- Take some time out to contemplate on your past year. Consider which areas require improvement, and resolve to do so.
- Learn some extra Torah on this day.
- Study a Chassidic idea and repeat it at a gathering in honor of your birthday.
- Partake of a new fruit which you did not yet taste during this season and recite the Shehecheyanu blessing.
- Take the time to teach another something about Torah and Judaism.
- Commit yourself to doing a particular good deed. Choose something practical and doable!
- Men and boys over the age of thirteen: On the Shabbat beforehand, get an aliyah at the Torah. If the birthday falls on a day when the Torah is read, be sure to receive an aliyah on that day too.
Have a happy and meaningful birthday!
Question: What is Gehinnom (Hell) in Jewish teachings? Can a Person avoid going to Hell?
Joseph, MCI Norfolk, MA
What happens after a person passes? Gehinnom is similar to the way our clothes are cleansed in a washing machine. Put yourself in your socks' shoes, so to speak. If you were to be thrown into boiling hot water and flung around for half an hour, you might start to feel that someone doesn't like you. However, the fact is that it is only after going through a wash cycle that the socks can be worn again.
We don't put our socks in the washing machine to punish them. We put them through what seems like a rough and painful procedure only to make them clean and wearable again. The intense heat of the water loosens the dirt, and the force of being swirled around shakes it off completely. Far from hurting your socks, you are doing them a favor by putting them through this process.
So too with the soul. Every act we do in our lifetime leaves an imprint on our soul. The good we do brightens and elevates our soul, and every wrongdoing leaves a stain that needs to be cleansed.
If, at the end of our life, we leave this world without fixing the wrongs we have done, our soul is unable to reach its place of rest on high.It must go through a cycle of deep cleansing. The soul is flung around at an intense spiritual heat to rid it of any residue it may have gathered, and to prepare it for entry into Heaven.
Of course, this whole process can be avoided. If we truly regret the wrong we have done and make amends with the people we have hurt, we can leave this world with "clean socks."
Question: My memories are heavy, I try to stay in prayer to overcome depression. My childhood was a painful one, growing up was not better. I have let everyone down and can't figure a way out. Help!
Boruch Yisroel, Somerset County Jail, Madison Maine
One day a farmer's donkey fell into a well. The animal cried piteously for hours as the farmer tried to figure out what to do. Finally, he decided the animal was old and the well needed to be covered up anyway, and it just wasn't worth it to retrieve the donkey. He invited all his neighbors to come over and help him shovel dirt into the well. At first, the donkey realized what was happening and cried horribly. Then, to everyone's amazement, he quieted down. A few shovel loads later, the farmer looked down the well and was astonished at what he saw. With every shovel of dirt that fell on his back, the donkey was doing something amazing. As the farmer's neighbors continued to shovel dirt on top of the animal, he would shake it off and take a step up. Pretty soon, everyone was amazed as the donkey stepped up over the edge of the well and trotted off!
The moral of this story is that life is going to shovel dirt on you, all kinds of dirt. The trick is to not get bogged down by it. We can get out of the deepest wells by not stopping and never giving up! Just shake off the dirt and take a step up!
Question: My siddur tells me to start saying the prayer for rain in the Amidah on the night preceding December 5 or 6. Why does it use a secular date rather than a Jewish one?
Hananel, Northern Nevada Corr Facility, Carson City NV
A good question! As a rule of thumb, Jewish holidays and customs always follow the Jewish calendar, which is linked to the phases of the moon. One exception to this rule is the special prayer requesting rain, which Jews in the Diaspora begin saying on the night preceding December 5 (or 6). To understand why, let's take a look at the history and significance of this small but important prayer.
Jews have been praying for rain for millennia. In the land of Israel, rain is a life-and-death concern. A good rainy season meant a good harvest and ample drinking water, while a drought could be fatal to livestock and cripple the economy. So when the Men of the Great Assembly set out to codify the prayers, they made sure to add a prayer for rain to the daily Amidah (silent prayer).
In fact, rain appears twice in the Amidah. It is first mentioned in the second blessing, as one of a string of natural and supernatural wonders that G-d performs. Not least among them is that "He causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall."
Here we are praising G-d, who brings rain, but we are not actually asking for rain. It is only later, in the blessing requesting a bountiful year, that we ask G-d to "bestow dew and rain for blessing upon the face of the earth . . ."
In both instances, the rain-related phrase is said only during the winter (Israel's rainy season). However, the two prayers follow slightly different schedules. We begin to say "He causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall" on Shemini Atzeret. But, as you point out, we start saying the second prayer, the actual request for rain, only at the beginning of December.
Why the differing start dates? It's an interesting story . . .
The Jews of ancient Israel made three pilgrimages to Jerusalem each year, for the holidays of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot. The official rainy season begins on Shemini Atzeret, when the Jews were about to start their journey back home after the festival of Sukkot. As much as they wanted the rain, they chose to delay their supplications in the interests of a safer and easier trip.
That is how the practice of delaying the prayer for rain began. In Israel, the prayer was begun only 15 days after Shemini Atzeret (the 7th of Cheshvan), allowing enough time for even the Jews living near the Euphrates to return home. This custom is followed by Jews living in Israel until today.
Outside of Israel, however, a more complicated calculation became necessary. For much of our history, the primary Jewish community in the Diaspora was in Babylonia (modern-day Iraq), where the climate is much hotter than Israel's, and the autumn rains do not begin until much later. Therefore, the sages instituted that Jews living in the Diaspora should start praying for rain only 60 days after the start of the halachic autumn, which is known as tekufat Tishrei.
Nowadays very few Jews live in Babylonia, and the Jews of North America need rain at a different time than the Jews of Singapore. Nevertheless, we all start asking for rain on the day established for the Jews in Babylonia, regardless of when rains are actually needed in our respective locales.
The Chabad/Lubavitch Rebbe, explains that even Jews living in the Southern Hemisphere, where the seasons are reversed, should follow the schedule established for the Jews of Babylonia, because we pray for the needs of the Jewish people as a whole, most of whom reside in the Northern Hemisphere.
Obviously, this does not preclude us from praying for rain at other times. An individual or community that needs rain at a different time may add a personal prayer into the sixteenth blessing of the Amidah, "Shomei'a Tefillah," where we add our unique requests.
Question: Now that I will soon be released from prison, it seems that my career is at a dead end. Before going to prison I was training to be an actor and struggling to get my first break, but every time I come close to a significant role something went wrong. I believe I have talent (this has been confirmed to me by others too). But should I now consider going the same path?
David, Federal Corr Institution, Sandstone MN
It seems that you are not an actor. You may be good at acting, but that is not who you are. Stop calling it your career. You need to discover an identity that is beyond your work. That way, success and failure in your career will not spell success or failure in your life.
In our world of inverted values, a man is called successful because he has made a lot of money. He may have abandoned his third wife, be estranged from his children, have no friends and his dog ran away from him. But he's done well at his "career," and people say, "I wish I had his luck."
We achieve true success when we succeed in our relationships. If you are a caring friend in times of need, if you treat your parents well, if you are a supportive and understanding spouse, a devoted and caring parent, then you are a success. Those who contribute to the community, not just money but time and effort, those who have developed happy relationships with G-d and man, they are real success stories.
As long as we identify ourselves with our profession - an actor, a sales person, an IT technician - then we are pinning our success as a person on our career success. But it's not true. We are not defined by our job. What we do to make a living is different to what we do to make a life. We work to make a living. But to make a life we must love, connect, serve a purpose and find meaning.
You may be great at doing your job. Or maybe not. But it's more important to be good at being human. When it comes to being human, also a failed businessman can be the greatest success story, and a struggling actor can be a star.
Question: Can you provide to me a brief explanation why Teffilin is important? The chaplain is refusing its use, arguing he has never heard of Teffilin.
Aaron, Niagara County Jail, Lockport NY
Tefillin is one of the most important Mitzvot (precepts) of the Torah. It has been observed and treasured for thousands of years, right down to the present day. The Torah (Bible) mentions it more than once, but most explicitly in Deut. 6:8 "You shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they should be for a reminder between your eyes."
The Teffilin consist of two boxes and are placed onto the hand and head by Jews starting from the age of 13, Bar Mitzvah. It teaches us to dedicate ourselves to the service of G-d in all that we think, feel and do. It is also to teach us not to be governed solely by the impulse of the heart, lest that lead us into error and transgression. Nor are we to be governed by reason alone, for that may lead to harsh materialism.
Question: I never really thought about it before coming to prison, but now that I am in prison, the thought that I might be Jewish has come into my mind. How can I know if I am truly Jewish, when my parents never acted as Jews?
Bryan, United States Penitentiary, Atlanta GA
There are many that wonder if they are Jewish. It may be that they feel an inner pull toward Judaism and Jewish people. So how are we to determine who is Jewish?
Judaism is passed on exclusively through the biological female line. This means that if you trace your Jewish lineage through your mother's mother's mother's mother (etc.), you are Jewish, even if all other branches of your family are not Jewish.
But Judaism is not only conferred by blood. If you convert to Judaism under the auspices of a bona fide Orthodox beit din (ecclesiastical court), you are 100% Jewish, and so are all offspring born to you after your conversion (if you are female).
If you have been living as a Jew as part of the Jewish community for your whole life (as has your biological family for as long as anyone knows), it is safe to assume that you are Jewish. The same would apply to someone who either converted or is the direct descendant of a (female) convert.
If you have been living as a non-Jew and wish to establish your maternal Jewish heritage, you may need to provide more evidence than "I once asked my grandmother if we were Jewish and she stared back at me blankly," or "my mother has a Jewish sounding maiden name." For a host of reasons beyond the scope of this article, genetic testing would not be sufficient either.
It's not that the Jewish community is hostile toward people who've dropped their tribal affiliation for a generation or two. It's just that they want to make sure that you are indeed a member of the tribe before establishing you as such.
Chances are that you'll need to dig for old documents (or a Jewish person who can actually testify about your ancestor's Jewishness). There are rabbis and rabbinical documents that specialize in documentation from various parts of the world. Rabbis who have experience in this field may often be skeptical. Experience has taught them that documents can be forged, and they have learned to ask hard questions and dig deeply before conclusively identifying a person as Jewish.
If you discover Jewish ancestry deep in maternal past, but have been living as a non-Jew, it is customary for you to dip in the mikvah, not as a conversion (since you already are Jewish), but to symbolize a clean break from your non-Jewish past.
Question: The Western Wall is one of the four walls that is a part of the Temple Mount. Why is it so special and to date so many visit and pray near it?
Joel, Federal Corr Institution, Fort Dix NJ
The Western Wall (or Kotel), is actually the only surviving wall of the Temple Mount. Much of the structure we see today was rebuilt during the 2,000 years since the Temple was destroyed. How did the Western Wall survive? The Midrash tells a fascinating tale:
When Vespasian conquered Jerusalem, he assigned the destruction of the four ramparts of the Temple to four generals. The western wall was allotted to Pangar of Arabia. Now, it had been decreed by Heaven that this should never be destroyed, because the Shechinah (Divine Presence) resides in the west.
The others demolished their sections, but Pangar did not demolish his. Vespasian sent for him and asked, "Why did you not destroy your section?" He replied, "By your life, I acted so for the honor of the kingdom. For if I had demolished it, nobody would [in time to come] know what it was you destroyed. But when people look [at the surviving wall], they will exclaim, â€˜From the great building he destroyed, you can tell the might of Vespasian!'"
Vespasian said to him, "Enough! You have spoken well. But since you disobeyed my command, you shall ascend to the roof and throw yourself down. If you live, you will live, and if you die, you will die."â€˜ Pangar ascended, threw himself down and died.
"Behold, He is standing behind our wall, looking from the windows, peering from the lattices." we read in Song of Songs. The Midrash explains that this refers to the Western Wall. "Why is this so? Because the Holy One, Blessed be He, has taken an oath that it will never be destroyed."
Based on this verse, the Zohar states: "The Divine Presence never departed from the Western Wall of the Temple." This is seen as a manifestation of G-d's promise to Solomon when the Temple was first built, that "My eyes and heart will be there at all times."
The Zohar explains that this idea is hinted to in the word kotel (×›×•×ª×œ), which can be broken into two words, ×›×• ×ª×œ. The word ×›×• is the numeric value of 26, the value of the Tetragrammaton. And the word ×ª×œ means "hill" or "mountain." Thus, the Kotel's very name hints to the fact that G-d's Divine Presence is still to be found on the Temple Mount.
Some say that the current Western Wall is a part of the Temple itself. However, most maintain that the Western Wall is actually a part of the retaining wall that surrounded the Temple Mount.
Although the intention of the enemies of Israel in leaving the wall intact was to show the glory of Rome and the subjection of the Jewish nation, the opposite transpired. Rome is long buried in the dustbin of history, but the Western Wall has remained as a beacon of hope, signifying G-d's eternal promise that His children will ultimately return to the land and that the Temple will be rebuilt.
Question: Since coming out of prison, having served time in which I felt I was not entitled to the privilege, it seems that I am angry at the world. Of course I try to hide it when socializing with friends, but I feel that my kids are suffering. It seems I become angry when they do something wrong. I don't like myself at those moments, and know it is wrong. And yet I haven't been able to control it.
Alex, Federal Prison Camp, Otisville NY
We all have our weak moments, when a combination of lack of sleep, pressures of life and our imperfect hearts conspire to make us lose it. And who are the poor victims of our fury? Those we love most, our children.
Of course if it is happening frequently or if you are really harming your kids, you need urgent professional help. But if its just a once in a while burst, you're human. That doesn't excuse your behavior; it just means you need to work on yourself, like everybody does.
Here are some wise words the Rebbe offered to a father who had problems in the way he behaved with his children.
The Rebbe asked, "If your neighbor dropped off his kids at your house to look after while he went out, and during that time the neighbor's kids misbehaved, would you lose your temper with them?"
The father had to admit that no, when it is someone else's kids misbehaving, we don't allow ourselves to lose control, because they are not our kids. How could we face our neighbor when he returns to pick up his kids, only to find them crying and hurt? We don't feel free to lose ourselves when the kids aren't ours.
"Well," continued the Rebbe, "your children are not yours either. They are G-d's children. He has entrusted them to you for a while to take care of. And you are answerable to G-d for how you treat them."
Children are not our property; they do not belong to us. They belong to G-d, and we have been honored with the heavy responsibility of caring for them in their young years and guiding them for their future. If we'd be embarrassed to return our neighbor's children having hurt them, then how much more should we recoil from the thought of hurting G-d's children.
Of course as parents, we need to discipline our kids-that is an essential part of our role. But that must come from a place of love, not anger. It must be deliberate and thought-out, not impulsive and reactive.
This is all easy to say when we are calm and well-rested. But what do you do when you haven't had a good night's sleep in weeks, and you feel a pressure? What do you do then?
You say two words to yourself: G-d's kids.
Question: In light of the terror lately all over the world against Jews and all mankind, why do Jews not also do Jihad?
David, Federal Corr Institution, Manchester KY
There are a number of reasons that come to mind why Jews don't do Jihad. However, to spare you a long thesis, I will just focus on one reason:
Judaism discourages people from taking the law into their own hands.
On the most basic level, a Jihadist feels authorized to kill.
Once a Jihadist feels empowered by the authorization to kill, all they must do is find someone deserving of death simply by opening up a holy book of their religion and identifying those condemned with capital punishment.
A Jew, however, cannot do this. For Judaism is a religion based on a Jewish court system. Anyone condemned to die in the Torah must appear before a court, and it is the court that must hear the case and actually sentence the person to a death penalty. It is Jewishly illegal to take the law into your own hands and condemn people to death on one's own.
What's more, only the most prestigious of courts, the Jewish Supreme Court called the "Sanhedrin", had the power to sentence a person to death. And it was so hard to prove liability with witnesses and evidence that the "bloodiest" of courts only sentenced to death but one person every 70 years!
And to top it off, once King Solomon's rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans 2000 years ago, the "Sanhedrin" no longer had the power to hand out death sentences.
Therefore, from all of this, a Jewish culture has emerged that rejects all types of vigilantism and religiously sanctioned sentencing of people to death.
Indeed, the Jewish attitude is that we are not the judge of other people. We may have very strong opinions how people should act based on Torah morality, but nevertheless, we are not the judge. For judgement is something solely in the hands of G-d.
Question: Why did G-d create evil if not to allow us to do it?
Victor, United States Penitentiary, Jonesville VA
What is the difference between a book that brings joy and enlightenment to its readers and a work that espouses prejudice and hate? Both are comprised of the very same letters and punctuation marks. It is only their configuration that is different. The same characters that, lined up one way, make a work of art, are a boorish scribble when arranged differently. The same words might form a celebration of goodness or a diatribe of utter virulence, depending on the sequence in which they are placed.
With this analogy, the Kabala explains the mystery of evil. If everything comes from G-d, and G-d is the essence of good, where does evil come from? But evil is a non-entity, explain the Kabbalists, devoid of any reality or substance. What we know as "evil" is merely a corruption of good - the same letters differently configured. This explains how we have the power to "transform darkness into light and bitterness into sweetness."
When confronted with the enormity of evil in our world, we should remember that evil is not itself evil - it is goodness in the form of evil. We need not vanquish the darkness and generate light in its place; we need not eradicate the bitterness and manufacture the sweetness to replace it; we need only rearrange the letters. All the world needs is a good editing.
For thousands of years, the writer who did not "get it right" the first time had to start all over again. Whether engraving in clay or stone, inscribing on papyrus or parchment, or banging away at a typewriter, the writer's first efforts usually ended up being discarded. He or she could erase, apply white-out fluid, cross out words and insert others between the lines or in the margins - up to a point. In the end, a fresh, new sheet would invariably be rolled into the typewriter for a "clean" (and hopefully) final copy.
Then came the computer and, with it, the word processor. Now the writer could juggle words, move sentences from one page to another, salvage lines from failed paragraphs and save them for use in another context.
Across the globe, the sound of balled-up pages being thrown into the wastebasket began to die out.
Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chasidism, taught that, "Everything that a person sees or hears should teach him/her a lesson in his/her service of the Alm-ghty." Everything - whether it is a natural phenomenon, a quirk of human nature, a technological development or a news story - can tell us something about our life's purpose. Because the world in which we live - our own everyday, mundane world - is a mirror of the spiritual cosmos.
We know that history is a process - a process by which the whole of creation advances toward the fulfillment of its function as a home for G-d. The climax of history is the era of Moshiach - a time when all ignorance, animosity, suffering and want will be eliminated from the face of the earth. A time when the letters of creation will be perfectly configured, so that the very forces that formerly spelled "evil" will now be channeled as forces for good.
The evolution of writing reflects our world's progression toward this ideal. In earlier generations, the task of "editing" the forces of creation was beset with false starts, abandoned efforts and wasted resources. But today we live in the age of electronic writing; today, the task of aligning the letters of our lives in their proper configuration is more accessible and more "user friendly" than it has ever been.
So too when doing evil, with one delete, a person can start all over again.
Question: Why do we eat dairy products, like blintzes, on Shavuos?
Jerome, Attica CF, Attica NY
Until the Torah was given, the Jews were permitted to eat non-kosher meat. After the giving of the Torah, the Jews became the Jewish Nation and received the laws of kashrus and they were therefore not permitted to use any of their cooking utensils. They ate dairy food which needed no preparation.
Another explanation is that Moses, as a baby, was drawn out of the water on the sixth of Sivan (Shavuos) and refused to be nursed by anyone but a Jewish woman.
Also, milk is one of the main parts of an infant's diet. By eating milk products we intimate that no matter how much one has studied the Torah, he is like an infant who has not even begun to fathom its depth.
Question: I always thought Mazel Tov meant "congratulations." I recently heard that it actually means "good luck." But I thought Jews don't believe in luck â€¦ ?
Stuart, Federal Corr Institution, Fort Worth, TX
That is a good question and your confusion is understandable. The Talmud-the ancient encyclopedia of Jewish wisdom-seems to contradict itself on the issue. In one place it states, "On your birthday, your mazel is strong." Elsewhere the Talmud reports, "The Jewish people are not subject to mazel"!
The word mazel literally means "a drip from above." Mazel can have different connotations depending on its context, but they are all connected to this basic definition-something trickling down from above.
There is another meaning of the word mazel that is more relevant to the phrase Mazel Tov. Mazel is the term used in Jewish mysticism to describe the root of the soul. The mystics say that only a ray of our soul actually inhabits our body. The main part of the soul, our mazel, remains above, shining down on us from a distance.
Have you ever experienced a sense of spontaneous intuition, where out of the blue you suddenly feel at peace with yourself and the universe? Or a sudden flash of inspiration that makes you see life in a new light? Occasionally we may receive an extra flux of energy from our soul above. It can happen at any time, but is most common at a time of celebration-a birthday, bar/bat mitzvah or wedding. It is especially at these times of joy that we are able to see beyond the mundane and the petty, and to sense the deeper truths of life.
When we tell someone Mazel Tov, we are giving them a blessing: May this drip of inspiration from your soul above not dissipate, but rather have a positive and lasting effect, that from this event onwards you should live your life with higher consciousness. You should be aware of the blessings in your life, and be ready to receive more and more. In other words: Good Mazel!
Question: Prison has kept me away from my Passover family meal, but has also opened me up to a new life. The Passover Seder was run by some orthodox Jews, and I found very interesting the need to have an egg on the Seder plate, and we eat it without any ceremony during the Seder. Why an egg?
Richard, Federal Corr Institution, Ashland KY
Let's start with the Seder plate. On each of the three festivals-Passover, Sukkot and Shavuot-there was a mitzvah to go to Jerusalem and celebrate in the Beis Hamikdosh (Holy Temple). Since it would be inappropriate for one to come empty handed, there was a special mitzvah to bring a festival offering to be enjoyed during the holiday.
In commemoration of the special offering for Passover, the sages instituted that there be a cooked dish (egg) at the Seder.
We use an egg, which has no opening, for on this Passover day "the mouths of our enemies became sealed shut" like the smooth, closed egg. When witnessing the miracles of Exodus, it became clear to all that G-d was protecting the Israelites, His favored people.
The egg also symbolizes our hope and prayer for the future. When a chicken lays an egg, the egg appears to be a completed object. Yet in truth it isn't complete, and the egg is just a preparation for the live creature that will emerge from it later. So too the Exodus from Egypt, while at first appearing to be an end in itself, in truth is only a preparation for the Final Redemption, with the coming of Moshiach-may it be speedily in our days!
Question: They have a custom here, that if someone is unsure of the Omer count and ask what count is tonight, to respond with yesterdays count. This is the first time I have encountered anything like it, can you please explain?
Zev, South Bay CF, FL
One is only to say a blessing mentioning the holy name of G-d when absolutely necessary. In the case where one says that tonight is this and tzhis count of the Omer, than technically he has already counted and therefore can no longer say the blessing. The solution is to mention what yesterdays count was, and wait until after the blessing to mention the number for tonight.
Question: My father, since coming out of prison, seems to be in a state of loss all the time. He told me that he has lost his will to live and sees no sense in it anymore. I would like to help, do you have any suggestions?
Linda, S. Cloud, Florida
We all need a reason to live. We all need to feel needed. We all need to have a sense of purpose. Having a purpose is far more important than having money or a comfortable life. It is even more important than our health. A life that is healthy but purposeless is like a blunt pencil. It has no point.
Purpose comes from serving others. When we know that we are giving, that we are contributing to the world, that we can make other people happy and help make their lives better, then life is worth living because we feel we need to be here.
Make sure your father feels appreciated. And if he isn't currently doing anything purposeful in life, then you need to find avenues for him to be productive. Think of something that he is able to do to serve others, and if that need doesn't exist yet, create it. Find an organization that needs volunteer drivers.
One thing he has is time. Find people with health problems, people who are even more lonely than he is. If he gives of his time to others-even just to be with them-he will very quickly find a reason to live.
Question: Reaching Out, the excellent monthly publication tells us that the Sabbath begins at sunset on Friday. There are some religious men at this prison who say, and have shown this to me in the calendar, that candle lighting should actually take place about 18 minutes before sunset. Why?
Mordechai, Federal Corr Institution, Fort Dix NJ
The Sabbath begins at sundown, and from sundown it is forbidden to perform certain activities (including lighting Shabbat candles). However, based on the language the Torah employs, the sages of the Talmud learned that there is actually a mitzvah to add a few minutes to the Shabbat, both before it starts and after it ends.
Not only does bringing in Shabbat early ensure that we will not accidentally miss the start time and perform forbidden work on Shabbat, it also demonstrates our affection for the Shabbat. We go out to receive the Shabbat even before she arrives, and accompany her out when it comes time for her to leave.
Different Jewish communities have different customs as to how much time to add on to Shabbat, ranging from about 15 to 40 minutes. The most prevalent custom is to light the Shabbat candles 18 minutes before sunset.
When we add to Shabbat, we are essentially taking time from the mundane workweek and transforming it into something that is holy. This reflects the entire purpose of creation-making the mundane world into a more spiritual and holy place.
Question: Can you please explain the Jewish calendar vs. the regular calendar regarding the Jewish Leap Year in which an extra month is added?
Albert, Federal Medical Center, Ayer MA
Specifically, this is how it works. The Jewish calendar follows a 19-year cycle. Seven out of these 19 years-years 3, 6, 8, 11, 14, 17 and 19-consist of 13, instead of 12, months.
Let us take a journey through this 19-year cycle: During the first two years of the cycle, the lunar year falls behind the solar year 22 days. Therefore, by the third year of the cycle, when 36 lunar months (three lunar years) would have set it back almost 34 days in relation to the annual seasonal solar cycle, we add a 13th month to the lunar year. Now, we are only four days behind.
Three years later, now some 38 days behind (almost 34 from three lunar years plus four days behind from before), we repeat the process. Now we are eight days behind.
Two years later, the lunar year accumulates a deficit of 29 days, so we add once again a month of 30 days to the lunar year. This actually places the lunar year ahead of the solar year, and now the solar year needs to do the catching up.
And so it goes: every two to three years, an extra month is added to the Jewish lunar year. At the conclusion of each 19-year cycle, the solar and lunar years will be perfectly aligned with each other. Which is why once in 19 years your English and Hebrew birthdays will finally be on the same day. Then we once again resume the cycle.
Question: I found your letter very interesting. I have turned to Kabalah and have learned many interesting things on how to control my emotional state. Since I do not have a Rabbi, I turn to Buddhism for educational direction and although the Buddhist teacher is not Jewish, he tells me that Kabalah and Buddhism are not faiths, so its ok.
Kevin, Mule Creek State Prison, Ione CA
Many Jews began their spiritual trek with the path of Buddha and continued by discovering their own heritage in Torah. Many of the Buddhist practices and world-concepts are in direct opposition to the Torah concept of singular Divine providence. When it comes to Tibetan rites, for example, Shamanism abounds. Even if the intellectual Buddhist conceives of these notions in a highly abstract fashion, they are still the notions of idolatry against which our father Abraham struggled. For a Jew to burn incense in front of a statue is horrifying, no matter what he will say are his inner intents. Similarly, the proclamation, "In Buddha I find refuge" is a catastrophe for the Jewish soul.
On the other hand, the mental rigor and personal discipline of these practices have proven of great benefit to many in their praying and meditation (both of which are organic to Judaism). Furthermore, it is likely that the essential teachings of the original teacher who is now called Buddha contain much of the ancient wisdom that was lost. Buddha lived at the time of the Babylonian Exile, as did Lao Tse (according to some historians) and Pythagoras. At that time, the Jews were deliberately transported to the frontiers of the Persian Empire. Along with them, they took their Torah knowledge and undoubtedly spread it to others. Perhaps we are now only sifting Solomon's lost jewels out of the mud in which they have been buried for two and a half millennia. On this, read The Palace & the Pigeons.
Over time, Buddhism has evolved more in the past thirty years than in all its history before, to the point that what is presented today in America as Buddhism is already more Jewish than it is Buddhist. And, secondly, when those practicing "Jubus" return to Jewish practice, they reject those aspects that are anathematic to Torah, while making good use of those aspects that are complimentary.
As for those who were born into Buddhist culture, I believe that they will find a particular path within the framework of the Noahide guidelines that leads them to the truth within their own heritage. In fact, I see at least one group in Japan quite close to this already. But for a Jew, I suggest you stay away from Buddhism.
Question: Thank you for Reaching Out. Each month it brings Torah, information and other goodies which I never heard of before coming to prison.
This one had an article about celebrating the New Year for Trees. You write that Jews celebrate it on the 15th of the Hebrew month of Shevat, which happens to be in the middle of January. I don't know about where you live, but where I live, it's freezing, with plenty of snow covering the trees. If you want to celebrate the trees, do it in spring. Why now, right in the middle of winter?
Howard, Eastern CF, Napanoch NY
The New Year for Trees, called in Hebrew Tu B'Shevat, the 15th day of the Jewish month of Shevat is not the Jewish version of Arbor Day. As is the case with many Torah laws, the halachah (Jewish Law) is based on what happens in the Land of Israel. So, since most of Israel's rainy season is over by the 15th of Shevat, this date is considered the New Year for Trees. Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (Rashi) explains that at this point the ground has become saturated with the rains of the new year, causing the sap to start rising in the trees, which means that the fruit can begin to bud.
Regarding your complaint of the sub-zero weather, you may find the most comfort in the explanation of Rabbi Menachem Meiri (1249-c. 1310), who points out that the winter season extends from the month of Tevet until the month of Nissan. The 15th of Shevat is the midpoint between fall and spring. Once half the winter has passed, its strength is weakened, the cold is not as intense, and the budding process begins.
So take heart. Yes, it may be smack in the middle of winter, but the 15th of Shevat marks a turning point, a time when under all that cold and snow the sap of the trees is rising, readying for spring. In a sense, the 15th of Shevat signifies that sometimes it is precisely from within the darkest and coldest moments of our lives that the new blossoms burst forth!
Question: Someone very close to me did horrible things to me, even turning me into the Feds. I don't know how to forgive him, where do I start?
Andrew, Federal Corr Institution, Coleman FL
Forgiveness is a multi-layered process and a long journey where we slowly progress and move towards the goal. It is not a single action that you begin and complete in a short time.
In an essay on the topic, the Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that there are three levels of forgiveness:
- We don't wish the person any harm and we even pray for their well being. At this basic level of forgiveness we might still be upset, feel hurt or even angry. Yet we find it within ourselves not to hope for the person's downfall and not feel the need for revenge.
- We stop being angry. At this second stage we might not be ready to relate to the person as we did before, but we are able to move on and let go to the point where we no longer carry feelings of anger and resentment on any level.
- Restoring the relationship. At this final stage the forgiveness is complete. Not only have we forgiven the individual but we have totally understood and re-accepted him or her. We are now ready to be as close to the offending person as before.
The Talmud explains that even if someone has hurt us terribly, it is expected of us to find the strength to forgive them at least on the first level. Absence of any forgiveness whatsoever is a sign of cruelty. Wishing badly on someone and the desire for revenge represents a weakness of personality that requires rectification.
A more difficult form of forgiveness is the second stage, where we cease to feel hurt or anger. If we have been hurt or betrayed we might need time and hard work to rid ourselves of negative feelings. It could be a long process of healing and soul searching, until the feelings of resentment actually disappear from our heart and soul.
The ideal form of forgiveness is the third level where we restore the relationship. However, it must be pointed out that this is not always possible. Some relationships are so toxic that the responsible thing is to walk away from them. But we don't need to take an "all or nothing" approach. If restoring the relationship is impossible it is not always necessary to terminate all contact or become antagonistic. We can still achieve a more basic level of forgiveness by wishing them well. We can still cease being angry and give them basic respect. We can still greet them when we see them and give them the dignity that every human being deserves.
Every small improvement in our relationship is significant, has a profound effect and generates happiness. We suggest that you take the first step and others will follow.
Question: When is the next Jubilee year?
Phil, Tomoka Corr Institution, Daytona Beach FL
According to biblical law, the Jubilee is only observed when all twelve tribes of the Jewish nation are living in Israel, as is derived from the verse, "And you shall sanctify the fiftieth year, and proclaim freedom throughout the land for all who live on it," which implies that the Jubilee is only sanctified when "all who live on it"-meaning, all who are meant to be living there-are in the Land of Israel. Furthermore, the Jubilee is only observed when every tribe is living in the specific part of the land which was it was allotted when the Land of Israel was divided.
In the 6th century BCE, the Assyrians conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel and sent the majority of its population into exile. Those who were deported are historically known as the Ten Lost Tribes.
We are certain that before that point in time the Jubilee was regularly observed. We also know that, with the destruction of the Second Temple and the disbandment of the Sanhedrin (supreme rabbinical court), we ceased to mark the Jubilee year in any form. The periods about which there is a question are the remaining years between the exile of the Ten Tribes and the destruction of the First Temple, and the Second Temple Era.
Some are of the opinion that the Jubilee is observed as long as there is a partial representation of each tribe, even if most of the tribe is not in Israel. According to the opinion that partial representation of each tribe is sufficient to fulfill the scriptural requirement, biblically mandated Jubilees were fully observed throughout the periods in question, because there remained a small representation of each tribe in Israel.
However, according to the first opinion mentioned above, with the exile of the Northern Kingdom the required condition for the Jubilee to be sanctified was lost. Thus, the last time there was a biblical requirement to observe the Jubilee was about 150 years before the destruction of the First Temple.
As mentioned above, today the Jubilee year is neither designated nor observed. Although there was no biblical requirement to observe the Jubilee year after the Ten Tribes were exiled, the observance of the shemittah (Sabbatical year) remained a biblical obligation. Although the laws of shemittah are observed in Israel to this very day, the Jubilee year is not designated or observed.
So now for the answer to your
Question: "When is the next Jubilee year?"
We eagerly await the day when G-d will bring our entire nation back to our homeland-including the ten "lost" tribes-and we will again resume observing the Jubilee year, as well as so many other mitzvot which we are incapable of performing until that awaited day.There are many reasons for this.
Some of them:
- The Jubilee only affected the shemittah cycle when the shemittah was established and declared by the Sanhedrin, (supreme rabbinical court) as opposed to today when it is automatically programmed into the perpetual Jewish calendar.
- The observance of shemittah today is only a rabbinic decree, and therefore the Jubilee year does not affect its cycle.
- No commemoration is in order when there is no Sanhedrin, whose participation in the declaration of the Jubilee year was integral. In fact, it was the Sanhedrin's blast of the shofar (ram's horn) on Yom Kippur which signaled the entry of the Jubilee year.
The information in this response is taken from Encyclopedia Talmudit, vol. XXII.
We will merit to celebrate the Jubilee year again as soon as Moshiach is revealed, may we see it soonest.
Question: Can you explain, wherever I go, this or that prison, there is so much hate for the Jew. Why all the hate when we never did anything bad to them?
Malka, Southern Nevada Detention Center, Pahrump, NV
Hebrew is a unique language in that the words convey the essence of what they stand for. "Sinai" is of the same etymological root as sinah, the Hebrew word for hatred. The Talmud says that since the Torah was given on Mount Sinai, a hatred for the Jews developed.
Social scientists say that jealousy is a basis for hatred. The fact is that the Jews are and always have been morally and intellectually superior in the world. The Jewish people were scattered all over the world to disseminate goodness, decency, morality, and social responsibility to mankind, because ultimately, everything is derived from Torah. For all the contributions which the Jews gave society, instead of appreciation, the reaction is one of envy, which breeds hatred.
Question: I am in a NY State Prison and was told by another lady that orthodox women have a certain dress code. They have to cover their bodies. Is there something shameful or evil about a woman's body? If men can't control their urges, then it's their problem, not women's. Why should a woman have to hide herself just so others shouldn't be tempted?
Rachel, Albion Corr Facility, Albion NY
You are assuming that the only reason for modest dress is to avoid temptation. While this may be the case in other religions, for Judaism this is not true. The Jewish way of modest dress is not merely about how other people view women, but more about how women view themselves.
Covering something doesn't always mean being ashamed of it. Have you ever noticed how we treat a Torah scroll? We never leave it lying around open. It is hidden behind many layers. The Torah is kept inside a synagogue, in the Ark, behind a curtain, wrapped in a mantle, held tightly closed with a belt. It is taken out only when it is to be used for its holy purpose, to be read during the prayer service. For those special times we carefully draw the curtain, open the doors of the ark, bring out the Torah, uncover it and unwrap it. As soon as we have finished, we immediately wrap it up again and put it away.
Why do we do all this? Why do we go to such trouble to conceal the Torah? Are we ashamed of it? Is there something to hide? Is there something ugly about the Torah?
Of course not. The opposite is true.
Because the Torah is our holiest object, because it is so sacred and special and precious, we never leave it exposed unnecessarily. We keep it under wraps because we don't want to treat it lightly; we don't want to become too casual with it. Were the Torah to be always open and visible, it might become too familiar and its sanctity minimized. By keeping it away from sight, and bringing it out only for the appropriate times, we maintain our reverence and respect for the Torah.
The same is with our bodies. The body is the holy creation of G-d. It is the sacred house of the soul. The way we maintain our respect for the body is by keeping it covered. Not because it is shameful, but because it is so beautiful and precious.
This is true for men's bodies too, and laws of modest dress apply to men too. But it is even more so for women. The feminine body has a beauty and a power that far surpasses the masculine. The Kabbalists teach that a woman's body has a deeper beauty because her soul comes from a higher place. For this reason, her body must be kept discreetly covered.
In a world where the woman's body has been reduced to a cheap advertising gimmick, we need no proof for the truth of this wisdom. Where all is exposed, nothing is sacred. But that which is truly precious to us, we keep under wraps.
Question: When I was younger I attended Hebrew school and learned the Hebrew letters and the vowels. But upon coming to prison I realize that the Siddur (Prayer Book) has vowels and the Torah which we use every Sabbath, has no vowels. We had a discussion about it and no one was able to explain it.
Paul, Federal Corr Institution, Danbury CT
Although there are no vowels actually written in the Torah, it is not accurate to say that the Torah has no vowels. The vowels, or in Hebrew called nekudot, were never actually marked in the Torah itself, they are of divine origin just as the letters are. The vowels were given by G-d to Moses on Mount Sinai and were passed down orally from leader to leader as part of the Oral Torah, until they reached Ezra the Scribe, who revealed and taught them to the Jewish nation. Up until that point, Hebrew was never written down with vowels.
As with many early Semitic alphabets, one who is fluent in Hebrew can, for the most part, read it without vowels, which is why even nowadays the overwhelming majority of Hebrew literature is written without vowels.
Question: My father passed away recently. Our relationship was never the best. Maybe he didn't like me for the choices I took but I now understand what he was going through and how wrong I was to be so hard on him. How can I make amends to a deceased person? What can I do to obtain forgiveness?
Jonathan, Wabash Valley Corr Facility, Carlisle, IN
Unfortunately we cannot turn the clock back; we can only move ahead. First good stem is that you admit your mistake and you wish to make amends for it. Your father is now in the World of Truth, and as such can see beyond the pettiness of our world.
I suggest that you do on his behalf things that he no longer can do. I am referring to mitzvot, which-no matter what his attitude was while alive-in the World of Truth he appreciates their real value. He can no longer do good deeds on his own behalf, but you can do it in his merit, and he will greatly appreciate this. You can choose any good deed, whether it be putting on Teffilin more then only once in a while, or giving extra charity in his merit, or being extra careful in any of the mitzvot-kosher, Shabbat candles, family purity, or whatever it is that you choose. You might choose something that might have been especially meaningful to him during his lifetime.
I also suggest if at all possible, that you visit his grave and ask him for forgiveness for your past conduct. Speak openly and honestly and with a humbled heart. Ask for him to pray on your behalf and on behalf of your family.
But doing extra Mitzvahs is something that he will eternally appreciate and will be meaningful for him, and can atone for your past behavior.
Question: We have someone here who when only nine people show up for the minyan, he says we can include the Torah or Holy Ark as the tenth. Is this what Jewish law states?
David, Low Security Federal Prison, Butner NC
There is a statement in Talmud Brachos 47b regarding using a Torah to make up the Minyan, however it is rejected. And therefore it is not acceptable to utilize this method under any circumstance.
Question: Seems some orthodox men at our prison insist to have salt at the meal in order to dip the Challah into it before eating. Can you please explain?
Fred, Federal Prison Camp, Otisville NY
The Talmud explains: When the Temple stood, the sacrifices brought on the altar would atone for Israel. But now, when there is no Temple, a person's table-upon which he feeds the poor-atones for him.
If the table is like the altar, the food eaten upon it is like the offerings. With regard to the offerings, the verse states, "You shall not omit the salt of your G-d's covenant from [being placed] upon your meal offerings. You shall offer salt on all your sacrifices." Hence, we add salt to our staple food, bread.
According to Kabbalah, salt, which is bitter, represents divine severity, and bread, the staff of life, represents divine kindness. Both the Hebrew word for bread, lechem (×œ×—×), and the word for salt, melach (×ž×œ×—), contain the same letters. However, we wish to overpower the severity of the salt with the kindness of the bread. Therefore, the common custom is not to sprinkle the salt (severity) atop the bread (kindness), but instead to dip the bread into the salt-kindness atop severity.
Question: Why are Teffilin black?
Arthur, Washington CF, Comstock NY
We wear two tefillin boxes. One box is placed upon the head, the seat of our intellect, and the other is placed upon the left arm, resting against the heart, the seat of our emotions and desires. Thus, tefillin signify the submission of one's mind, heart and actions to the Almighty, as well as the rule of intellect over emotion.
The Kabbalist explain that the reason the Tefillin are colored black is because unlike all the other colors, "black is not receptive to any other color," for when you have a black surface (as opposed to a white surface), other colors don't show on it, and black does not mix with any other color.
This idea may perhaps also be understood by exploring the unique qualities of the color black. According to physics, black is not actually a color; it is the absence of light that appears black. From the standpoint of dyes and pigments, black absorbs all light and doesn't reflect any colors back (in other words, again, you aren't seeing any color). White, on the other hand, contains all colors and reflects all colors back, while blue for example, absorbs all colors and reflects just the color blue.
This unique property of the color black symbolizes G-d's absolute unity, oneness that does not lend itself to any additional attributes or parts.
Question: We are going to start a Havdalah service and I would like to understand what we need to do and also why we do it so tat we can explain it to the chaplain?
Jason, United States Penitentiary, Pine Knot KY
Shabbat begins before sunset on Friday evening, and ends after nightfall the following night. (The time varies by location and time of year.) After the holy day has ended, we mark its departure with a special multisensory ceremony that involves a cup of grape juice (wine), sweet spices and a flame.
The person leading the Havdalah will pick up a brimming cup of grape juice, which signifies our wish for a week overflowing with blessing, and will recite a number of faith-themed verses from the Prayer Book. One of these verses, a quote from the Book of Esther that "The Jews had light, gladness, joy and honor-so let it be with us," is said aloud by everyone else as well. (Here is the transliteration: La-Yehudim ha-yeta orah vesimchah vesimcha ve-sason viyekar, kayn tih-yeh la-nu. If you do not know the Hebrew, it's okay just to listen.)
Next, he will pick up something sweet-smelling (typically cloves and/or myrtle), say a blessing (to which you respond "amen"), take a sniff and pass it around. When it comes to you, just take a sniff and pass it along to the next person. We do this to "revive" our souls, which have been saddened by the departure of the holy day of Sabbath rest.
After everyone has had their turn, he will recite another brief blessing (again warranting an "amen" from everyone else) and then lift up his fingers close to the flame and look at his fingernails in the candle's glow. This is reminiscent of the first time Adam and Eve used fire, on the night following the first, brilliant, Shabbat of history.
The one fellow with the grape juice cup then picks up the cup and recites a final blessing, the actual havdalah, marking the division from holy and the ordinary. After he finishes everyone says "amen" he will sit down, drink the grape juice, and extinguish the flame in the grape juice in his saucer.
Sometimes, you may observe people dipping their pinkies into the grape juice and brushing their wine-stained fingers above their eyebrows (to express their appreciation of the mitzvah) or even shoving them into their pockets (expressing their wish for a successful week). Others may pick up the extinguished candle and give it a sniff (expressing their wish for improved memory for Torah study). These are among the interesting customs that have arisen around this ceremony-and there are many more. If you wonder about something you see, just ask.
Even though night has fallen on Saturday night, Shabbat does not leave us until we usher it out through Havdalah.
Question: We have another inmate here who teaches us great things from the Talmud etc and he said that the Beis Hamikdosh (Holy Temple) will first be build when Moshiach comes. My question, why do we have to wait, after all, Israel is now in Jewish hands?
Jacob, Federal Corr Institution, Coleman FL
As anyone who has been to Israel knows, the country is nothing short of a modern-day miracle. At the same time, there are very real political and security issues-issues that get even more heated when there is any discussion about the Temple Mount, where the Beis Hamikdosh (Holy Temple) needs to be built, let alone actually building anything there. That being the case, this entire conversation is purely theoretical, with no relation to the current sociopolitical state of affairs. Additionally, there is much rabbinic debate surrounding the building of the Third Temple. To keep things short and simple, we'll just touch on some of the issues that may be involved.
When discussing the question of rebuilding the Holy Temple, it is important to keep in mind that, in general, this mitzvah is not an individual obligation, like the mitzvah of Tefillin or Shabbat. Rather, it is a communal obligation. One of the obligations are that rebuilding can happen only when there is a Jewish king or prophet.
Even if we're not obligated, should we build the Temple anyway, restoring G-d's home one earth? Truthfully, we don't even know how to construct it. The dimensions of the Third Temple are somewhat described in the book of Ezekiel, but the interpretation of many verses is subject to debate. In fact, when it came time to build the Second Temple, the Jews built it according to the dimensions of the First Temple, and included only certain aspects that are explicitly stated in Ezekiel. It is only the third and final Temple that will be built entirely according to the prophecy of Ezekiel.
Perhaps the most challenging aspect of all is the placement of the altar, which must be in a very specific location, as the verse states, "This is the altar for the burnt offerings of Israel." According to tradition, the altar is to be placed on the exact spot from which the earth to create Adam was taken and where he later offered sacrifices to G-d, and where Abraham built the altar to sacrifice Isaac. The altar's location is so essential that when they built the Second Temple, they needed three prophets to vouch for the location they had planned. Accordingly, we'd need at least one prophet to help us in our construction project, and prophets seem to be in short supply nowadays..
Assuming that somehow we did get the exact dimensions figured out, there is still one big issue: It is forbidden to enter the Temple area in a state of ritual impurity. The only way to become ritually pure is with the ashes of a red heifer, which presents its own set of challenges.
The Temple was (and will be) staffed by kohanim, descendants of Aaron through a direct line of males. In order for a kohen to actually work in the Holy Temple, his genealogy would need to be verified with certainty, a test very few of today's kohanim would pass. Additionally, they would need to wear the priestly garments, made of materials such as threads dyed with the special techeilet (blue) dye, and a selection of precious stones for the high priest's breastplate-but the specifics of both are a matter of great debate.
As for how the Temple will ultimately get rebuilt, it is a matter of dispute between the classic commentators. Maimonides teaches that the Temple will be built by Moshiach himself, and in fact its construction will be one of the signs that he is indeed the Moshiach. One of the Moshiach's first orders will be to use his spirit of prophecy to discern who is a priest, as well as the tribal affiliation of each Israelite. Additionally, we will have the ashes of the red heifer to purify those who are impure.
Others are of the opinion that in the messianic era, the Holy Temple will descend ready-built from heaven. Despite the above complications, without even lifting a trowel, we can actually fulfill the mitzvah of building G-d's home. How so?
Our sages tells us that after G-d revealed the dimensions of the future Temple to the prophet Ezekiel, Ezekiel turned to G-d and asked, "Why should I tell this to the Jewish people, if they are in exile and will not build the Holy Temple now? Let me wait until they are redeemed, and then I will tell them this prophecy."
G-d replied: "Just because My children are in exile, should there be no building of My house?! Learning about the description of My house is as great as the building of it. Go and tell the Jewish people to occupy themselves in learning about the Holy Temple, and in that merit I will consider it as if they engaged in building it."
Based on this, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, strongly encouraged learning the laws of the Holy Temple, especially during the period known as the "Three Weeks," during which we mourn the destruction of the Temple. For through this learning, not only do we fulfill the commandment to build the Holy Temple (even during the exile), but we actually weaken the concept of its destruction-and we ultimately merit its rebuilding with the coming of the messianic era, any day now!
Question: I have been following the path of the Noahide as you have instructed and guided me. But once out of prison, I'm planning to convert to Judaism. This has been something I've been considering and mulling over for years, and I've made my decision. What I should expect? What will the process look like?
Marc, Metropolitan Detention Center, Los Angeles CA
You need to know that the most important thing is that when you convert you will be Jewish. This is something that you will carry with you for the rest of your life. It is important to note that conversion to Judaism is a one-way street. Once you take the plunge (literally and figuratively), you're a full-fledged member of the tribe forever.
Another important thing to take note of is that conversion is something that can be done only under the auspices of a bona fide beit din (Jewish court) made up of three G-d-fearing, fully observant rabbis. When looking for a beit din to do your conversion, do your homework, and make sure the rabbis are indeed Torah- observant (Orthodox) and recognized as such by others.
The actual Conversion to Judaism has a few components, which are undertaken under the supervision of an established beit din:
Accepting the yoke of the commandments. When you convert, you must verbalize your commitment to live in accordance with all of the Torah's commandments as they are explained in Torah law. It is not enough to commit to some or even most of the precepts; a convert must commit to every single one of them. Also, this needs to be done out of a sincere desire to serve G-d as a Jew, not because of any other motive, such as the desire to marry a Jewish man or woman.
Immersion in the mikvah. A mikvah is a pool of natural water, usually rainwater. At your conversion, you will dunk into this spiritually cleansing bath. It is at this moment that you will accept the Torah upon yourself.
Circumcision. If you are a male, you will need to be circumcised. If you were circumcised as a baby, a symbolic drawing of blood is all that will be done at this point.
When the Temple stood in Jerusalem, a convert would bring a special sacrifice to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. When the Temple is rebuilt-which we expect will happen very soon-converts will again bring sacrifices.
Why Does It Take So Long? Because conversion is a lifetime commitment. This means that you really need to know what you're getting into, and the Jewish community, as represented by the beit din, needs to know whom they are embracing as the newest member of the Jewish family. In order to make sure that everyone is on the same page, many beit dins have a regimen of study and observance they require potential converts to undertake before they will perform a conversion. You'll often be required to live immersed within the Jewish community, observing all the mitzvahs, so that you get a firsthand feel of every aspect of a committed Jewish life.
In some cases this process might be overseen by a rabbi vouching for your sincerity, knowledge and commitment. Other beit dins may actually set a course of study and practice spread out over the several months or years, to make sure that you are really ready to convert.
The laws concerning conversion are derived from the instructions the children of Israel were given to prepare for receiving the Torah at Sinai. As the verse states, "One rule applies to the assembly, for yourselves and for the proselyte who resides [with you]; one rule applies throughout your generations-just as [it is] for you, so [it is] for the proselyte, before the L-rd."
Take a careful look at our nation's conversion process at Sinai, and you will see all the elements there:
Circumcision: The children of Israel had to circumcise themselves in Egypt before partaking of the paschal lamb, as is clear from the verse in Exodus, "All uncircumcised males may not eat from it [the paschal lamb]."
Immersion: Later, at the foot of Mt. Sinai, we are told that Moses sprinkled the blood of the sacrifice upon the Jewish people as a preparation for receiving the Torah and becoming the Jewish nation. The rabbis received a tradition, "There is never a sprinkling without immersion." Furthermore, we find that G-d tells Moses that in preparation for receiving the Torah he should tell the Jewish people to "sanctify them today and tomorrow, and have them wash their garments." According to tradition, "washing" is a reference to immersing in the mikvah.
Sacrifice: The third thing that the Jewish people did before fully converting was to offer a sacrifice at Mt. Sinai.
Beit Din: Additionally, the children of Israel were overseen by a rabbinical court, as the verse states, "I charged your judges at that time, saying: â€˜Hear the causes between your brethren, and judge righteously between a man and his brother, and the stranger [ger, "convert"] that is with him.'"
Our sages say that a convert is someone who has always had a Jewish soul. That is why the Talmud refers to the convert as "a convert who comes to convert" rather than as "a gentile who comes to convert." In other words, the convert was always a Jewish soul at his or her core.
Additionally, our sages compare a convert to a newborn child. The process of birth is the closest human beings can come to touching the divine. At the same time, it is a painful experience that sometimes seems like it is stretching on forever. Like a birthing mother, hang in there. The results are well worth it.
Question: I understand that the Torah tells us that you are not supposed to eat meat and dairy together, but why can't I have a dairy dessert after I already finished eating my meat? What's up with the six-hour buffer zone, and why is there no six-hour break between dairy and meat?
Yosef, Metropolitan Detention Center, Los Angeles CA
In a somewhat cryptic discussion on this topic, the Talmud relates that the Babylonian sage Mar Ukva stated, "I am like vinegar, the son of wine. My father, if he would eat meat today, would wait until tomorrow to eat cheese. I, however, will not eat them during the same meal, but at another meal I will eat cheese."
While this statement makes it clear that one can't eat meat and dairy at the same meal, the Talmud itself does not actually explain the reason why we need to wait six hours. However, the commentaries offer a number of reasons:
Maimonides explains that we are concerned that meat may get stuck between the teeth. However, after six hours, it would deteriorate to the degree that it would not be considered meat. Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, known as Rashi, explains that due to the fatty nature of meat, the meaty taste can remain in a person's mouth for an extended period of time. If a person would eat dairy during this time, he would have the combined flavor of milk and meat in his mouth, which is prohibited. Some explain that it takes up to six hours to fully digest meat.
So why don't we wait an equally long time after eating dairy products before eating meat? If we look at the reasons above, it makes sense: the taste of dairy is not as strong, and pieces of dairy food do not generally get stuck in one's mouth. According to the Talmud, it's sufficient if one eats or drinks something else in order to cleanse the mouth of any residual dairy foods before eating meat.
However, according to the Zohar, one should be careful to refrain from eating milk and meat not only in the same meal, and but also in the same hour. For this reason, it is the Chabad custom to refrain from eating meat for a full hour after eating dairy; other communities have a custom of waiting a half hour before eating meat.
This is true for the majority of dairy products. When it comes to eating hard cheeses, or cheeses with a very strong taste (e.g., parmesan and Swiss cheese), the custom is to wait six hours before eating meat.
Question: A friend of mine recently shared that when he was visiting the gravesite of my relative in a Jewish cemetery, he noticed that some tombstones had small rocks or pebbles on top of them. What is the reason for this?
David, Federal Correction Institution, Danbury CT
There are a number of reasons given for this custom, both on a basic as well as a more esoteric level: By placing a rock or a pebble on top of the tombstone, we honor the deceased by letting people know that the gravesite has recently been visited. When others notice the rocks, they will see that this is a grave visitors frequent, and they, too, will take an interest in who is buried there and perhaps will visit the gravesite themselves.
On a more mystical level, the Talmud tells us that reading the inscription on a gravestone can adversely affect one's Torah learning. While the Kabbalists explain that, in general, this warning only applies to inscriptions that protrude from the tombstone and not words engraved into it.
Rabbi Yosef Yuzpah (1570-1637) cites a tradition that placing a stone on the tombstone also helps to avoid any undesirable consequences that would result from reading a tombstone.
The placement of the stone serves as an invitation of sorts for a spark of the departed to come down and rest upon the tombstone for the duration of the visit.
While placing a rock on a tombstone is an old Jewish custom, placing flowers at a gravesite is not. In life, people may enjoy the beauty of their physical surroundings, but when they die, all of their material possessions and beauty are meaningless and left behind. It is only their accumulated spiritual wealth that remains immortal, just like a rock, which stays forever.
Question: If G-d will gather in all the exiles and bring them back to Israel, does it matter where one is living when Moshiach comes?
Ilya, Wakulla Corr Institution, Crawfordville FL
As a rule, it will make no difference where a Jew is living at the time of Redemption. G-d will gather up all Jews, one by one, from the most distant and remote locations, and bring them to Israel with the Redemption. As the verse states in Isaiah, "And you will be gathered up one by one." Rashi in his commentary explains that G-d Himself will come to collect His children, wherever they might be found.
However, the manner of the ingathering will not be the same for all places. The Maharshal (Rabbi Shmuel Eiezer), in his commentary on Tractate Megillah, writes: "In the rebuilt Jerusalem of the future, all synagogues of the world will be joined to the Holy Temple." In other words, all the synagogues will miraculously be transported to Jerusalem, where they will be attached to the Temple. The Lubavitcher Rebbe adds: "The private homesâ€¦ that have become permeated with the light of Chassidus and the holiness of the soul," they, too will be transported to Jerusalem.
In other words, one who is found in a synagogue or home that is suffused with holiness will not be uprooted, but will be transported to Israel inside his home or synagogue. However, one who is found somewhere else-in the street or other public place-will leave that area to go to Jerusalem.
What is the practical difference? In Jewish Law known as halachah, this distinction has certain practical ramifications. For example, halachah mandates that one who goes from one house to another in middle of eating must recite a new blessing after arriving at the second place, since moving from place to place constitutes an interruption.
Therefore, should the ingathering of the exiles transpire while you're in middle of eating, there is a difference in whether you will need to repeat the blessing. If you are in a synagogue or a home imbued with holiness, there will be no need to repeat the blessing, but otherwise you will need to do so.
Question: I have learned so much since arriving in prison. Being in contact with you and with other inmate who know more then me, has opened my eyes to the teachings of the Torah. Can you explain though why is there a ritual way of slaughtering and preparing all kosher animals except for fish? No one here seems to know.
Michael, Federal Corr Institution, Maxwell AL
Thank you for your interest. When the Jews were in the desert and started complaining about the lack of meat, Moses turned to G-d saying, "If sheep and cattle were slaughtered for them, would it suffice for them? If all the fish of the sea were gathered for them, would it suffice for them?"
From the fact that the verse specifies slaughter in reference to sheep and cattle, but gathering in reference to fish, we learn that it is enough to simply gather fish out of water without slaughtering them.
However, the question remains. What is the reason that fish are treated differently than other animals?
A somewhat cryptic Talmudic passage seems to address this question:
A Galilean lecturer expounded: Cattle were created out of the dry earth, and are rendered kosher by the severing of both organs [of the neck]; fish were created out of the water, and are rendered fit without any ritual slaughtering; birds were created out of mud and are therefore rendered fit by the cutting of just one organ.
There are a number of explanations for this fascinating piece of Talmud. Here is one of them:
In Jewish teachings, as well as in ancient philosophy, all of creation is divided into four elemental categories: fire, air, water and earth. The earth is considered to be the lowest of the elements. Then comes water, which is more refined; followed by air, which hovers above the water; and finally fire, which constantly strives to reach higher.
The Talmud seems to be saying that the kosher requirements depend on how an animal was created. Cattle (and to a lesser degree birds) were created from the "earth," and therefore require slaughter. Fish were created from the more elevated element of "water," and therefore don't require any type of slaughter.
The great Kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria (the Ari, 1534-1572) taught that every creation possesses a "spark" of divine energy that constitutes its essence and soul. When a person utilizes something toward a G-dly end, he or she releases this divine spark, realizing the purpose for which it was created. Thus, one who makes a blessing, eats, and then uses the energy from the food to perform a mitzvah elevates the spark of divinity that is the essence of the food.
But some divine sparks are harder to get to than others. Because cattle were created from earth-which is considered the coarsest of the elements-they require more preparation to be elevated, and must be slaughtered according to Jewish ritual. Fish, on the other hand, were created from the more refined element of water. Therefore, merely gathering them (drawing them out of the water) suffices, and all one needs to do in order to elevate the G-dly spark in fish is to make a blessing, and then use the energy from what you have eaten for G-dly pursuits.
Question: Why do you leave the "O" out of G-d in your writings?
Peter, Federal Corr Institution, Morgantown, WV
The third of the Ten Commandments states: One shall not take the name of G-d in vain. Therefore, writing the name of G-d in any form (including English) is not allowed. Also, being that there is a problem with someone disposing of or desecrating in any way a document that has the name of G-d written on it, we use a dash in the middle so as not to write the full name of G-d.
Question: Someone pointed out to me that the Talis I am wearing, and the same with everyone's Talis, that it has to have four corners, why?
Maxwell, Federal Corr Institution Med, Coleman FL
The simplest answer is that the verse states, "You shall make yourself twisted threads, on the four corners of your garment with which you cover yourself." You ask a good question, why four?
Immediately following the commandment of the tallit, the Torah states, "I am the L-rd, your G-d, who took you out of the land of Egypt to be your G-d . . . ," thereby linking this mitzvah to the Exodus.
The great Torah commentator known as Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (Rashi) quotes a teaching that the corners of the tallit are alluded to in a verse describing the Exodus: "I carried you on the wings (×›Ö¼Ö·× Ö°×¤Öµ×™) of eagles." The word kanaf, "wing," can also mean "corner." As for why there are specifically four corners, Rashi goes on to explain that they correspond to the four expressions of redemption associated with the Exodus: "I will take you out . . . I will save you . . . I will redeem you . . . I will take you . . ."
But what does the tallit have to do with the Exodus? The Torah tells us that the purpose of the tallit is to remind us of all the mitzvahs. The Midrash shares a fascinating insight into why this is so. Each letter in the Hebrew alphabet has a corresponding numerical value. The numerical values of the five letters that comprise the Hebrew word tzitzit (the tassels on the corners of the tallit) add up to 600:
09 = ×¦ 01 = ×™
09 = ×¦
01 = ×™
004 = ×ª
Add the eight strings and five knots of each tassel, and the total is 613, the exact number of mitzvahs there are in the Torah.
Additionally, our sages tell us that affixing and wearing tzitzit on the tallit is equal, in a certain sense, to all of the mitzvahs of the Torah (similar to what is said regarding idolatry and Shabbat).
G-d introduced the Ten Commandments (and by extension, all of the commandments) with the words "I am the L-rd, your G-d, who took you out of the land of Egypt." G-d is not some distant creator of the universe who is giving us commands. Rather, He gives us the mitzvahs as our personal and caring G-d, the G-d who took us out of Egyptian bondage and claimed us as His nation. Furthermore, G-d is telling us that our bond is a supra-natural bond, forged by the miracles He performed for us in Egypt.
It is for this reason that a tallit must have four corners, corresponding to the four promises of Exodus. As a representative of the 613 mitzvahs, the tallit is inherently connected to the Exodus that gave birth to all the mitzvahs.
On a more mystical plane, the Kabalah book known as Tikkunei Zohar explains at length that the four tassels of the tallit correspond to the four "beasts" that carry the supernal chariot described by the prophet Ezekiel. By fulfilling this mitzvah, we are building a throne for G-d, as it were.
The four corners of the tallit don't connect us just to our past redemption, but to our future redemption as well. In the messianic era G-d will gather us from the "four corners (kanfot) of the world," corresponding to the four corners of the tallit.
May we merit the revelation of Moshiach any day soon!
Question: I am from a small town and work not far. But since arriving to this prison, I have encountered Chassidic Jews that wear long sidelocks (also knows as Peyot), why not the shorter version which most have?
Michael, Federal Correction Institution, Fort Dix, NJ
First, I should mention that leaving peyote (sideburns) is a Jewish thing and has nothing to do with Chassidim. The Torah states, "Do not round off [the hair] at the edges of your heads." The Talmud explains that the term "edges" refers to the hair between the ears and the temples. "Rounding out the edges" refers to removing the sideburns so that there is a straight hairline from the forehead to behind the ears. This prohibition applies only to men.
Like many laws in the Torah, the verse does not spell out the exact reason for this prohibition. Nevertheless, some commentaries explain that since this mitzvah is placed among other prohibitions related to idolatry, and since many idol-worshipers used to cut off the hair on the sides of their heads while leaving the hair on top to grow, we are required to maintain a physical appearance that distinguishes us from idol-worshipers.
Others, however, are of the opinion that the prohibition of shaving off the sideburns is included in the category of mitzvahs called chukim, decrees, and the exact reason for this mitzvah has not been revealed to us.
Now that we've established that fact that not shaving off one's sideburns is a mitzvah, we can turn to what prompted your question to begin with-the various lengths and styles of peyot.
It is generally accepted that the width of the peyot area extends from the forehead to behind the ear, including the temple. As for the length of the peyot area, it is a matter of dispute. Some hold that it extends until below the ear, while others hold that it extends to the side of the ear, i.e., "the place where the upper and lower jawbones meet."
Although one is permitted to trim the peyot, some, especially certain chassidic people, have the custom of never cutting their peyot. One of the sources for this custom is a directive that the chassidic master Rabbi Meir of Premishlan gave to Rabbi Sholom Mordechai ha-Kohen Schwadron (Maharsham) when he was a young boy: that he should never cut his peyot, and would thereby merit long life.
However, it is not clear that this instruction was ever meant to be anything more than a personal directive. Additionally, it is known that for Kabbalistic reasons, Rabbi Yitzchak Luria (Arizal) would make sure to trim his peyot with scissors so that the hairs of the peyot not mix with those of the beard, since they correspond to different mystical attributes. In light of this, many-including Chabad-have the custom specifically to trim the peyot.
Throughout the ages, and most recently by the Nazis during the Holocaust, much animosity and torture was directed specifically at the Jewish peyot-for the peyot are a sign that differentiates and clearly marks the Jew. However, instead of being embarrassed by them, many Jews literally gave their lives for their peyot, staying proud Jews even to the last moment of their lives. Indeed, Yemenite Jews, instead of calling them peyot, call them simanim, "signs," for they are signs that we proudly wear, proclaiming to all that we are Jewish.
Question: Some of the Rabbis when they visit us, amongst each other speak in Yiddish, which I know is a form of German. Why are Jewish people living in the United States speaking German? Can't they speak in Hebrew?
Michael, Federal Prison Camp, Otisville NY
While you ask about Yiddish, it should be noted that Jews speaking their own special, non-Hebrew language extends far beyond Yiddish. There is Ladino, Judeo-Arabic, Jewish Aramaic, Judeo-Italian, Judeo-French, Judeo-ProvenÃ§al, Judeo-Persian, Jewish Malayalam and many others. But it is true that Yiddish is the most common one, and is somewhat unique in that it has outlasted many of these now extinct languages.
In order to understand why Jewish people tenaciously hold on to Yiddish, let me first share some history.
Historical Perspective: While the exact origins of the Yiddish language are still shrouded in some uncertainty, all agree that it has its origins in the 9th-10th centuries, when the first Jews settled in the Rhineland and the Palatinate (in present-day Germany). While Hebrew, the "holy tongue," was reserved for spiritual purposes, for common speech the Jews at that time had been using Aramaic mixed with other languages. After settling in the Rhineland, where Germanic languages were developing, the Jews concurrently developed their own unique language, variably called Ashkenaz and Jargon, but most commonly called Yiddish ("Jewish"). So, although Yiddish is linguistically similar to German, it is not German any more than German is Yiddish.
When Jewish people migrated eastward, they carried Yiddish along with them. By the onset of World War II, there were about 11-13 million Yiddish speakers.
In 1981, the Lubavitcher Rebbe gave a fascinating address in honor of the first publication of the Tanya with a Yiddish translation and commentary.
The Rebbe explained that on the one hand the very reason that Yiddish, as opposed to ancient or biblical Hebrew, became the common spoken language was because Jews generally refrained from using Hebrew, the "holy tongue," for common, non-holy, everyday speech.
Unlike other languages, the very words and letters of biblical Hebrew are holy. Hebrew is the language used for creating the world, and it is the language of choice that G-d uses to reveal himself to the prophets. It is for this reason that, according to Jewish law, one shouldn't use biblical Hebrew when speaking in jest. Additionally, although strictly speaking there is no prohibition to do so, Jewish law advises that one who is pious should be careful to not talk in biblical Hebrew, even regarding everyday matters, in a bathhouse or an unclean place.
So Jews over the ages usually reserved Hebrew for holy, spiritual speech, and they chose a secondary language for common speech.
Yet, on the other hand, said the Rebbe, the Yiddish language was used for Torah study and mitzvah observance for over a thousand years, giving it a measure of sanctity beyond other non-Hebrew languages, similar to the holiness conferred to a physical object used for a mitzvah.
The concept of Jews sticking to their own unique language is not new (if we can call something millennia-old "new"); after all, the Midrash relates that the Jews were redeemed from Egypt in the merit of three things, one of which was that they didn't change their unique spoken language.
So when you hear Jews speaking Yiddish, know that they are doing something that we've been doing long before there was a country called Germany, and will continue to do long into the future.
Question: I was never orthodox and upon going to prison, Fort Dix in this case, I am given for the Sabbath challah bread braided and would like to know the reason. No one here knew.
Elliot, Federal Corr Institution, Fort Dix NJ
Good question. Most challahs are braided with either three or six strands of dough. I recently heard an interesting explanation for the six-braided loaves.
Shabbat represents the idea of unity. The six days of the week are the paradigm of diversity. They are like the six directions in our three-dimensional world-north, south, west, east, up and down. During these days we are in a search outward, full of action and initiative, trying to master our environment.
Shabbat, on the other hand, represents the inner point. Shabbat points inward, and is full of the unity and the peace that comes with unity. That is why we greet one another with "Shabbat Shalom," Shabbat of peace and unity. Shabbat also represents the innerness of absorbing the blessing from the six workdays and directing them to our homes and our lives.
Perhaps the braided challah we eat at the Shabbat table, also represents this idea of unity: how we tie everything together, bringing all the diversity in our lives together for a peaceful harmony and unity that only the Shabbat can achieve.
The two challahs together are thus also symbolic of the twelve showbreads which were placed every Shabbat on the table in the Holy Temple sanctuary.
It is certainly not mandatory to use six-strand challahs, as any braid is good enough.
Question: You have written in your letter that it was wrong for me to say, "I'm keeping my fingers crossed" for good luck? I would like to know why and is there a Jewish equivalent to crossing fingers?
Barry, Federal Prison Camp, Montgomery AL
Crossing fingers is a Christian practice. It originated in medieval England, when Christians believed that the cross symbol had the power to ward off evil and bring good fortune. If you bumped into a witch and didn't have a cross handy, the easiest way to form one was by curling one finger over another.
These days, most finger-crossers don't associate it with any religious belief. But it is still not a Jewish thing to do.
And I don't think there is a Jewish version of crossing fingers. You could try twisting them into a Star of David, but that is more likely to bring arthritis than good luck. Besides, we don't believe that good fortune comes from signs and gestures. We pray to G-d, do good deeds and have faith in the future.
The language we use shapes the way we think. So rather than say "I'm keeping my fingers crossed," say "If G-d wills it, I'll get the job," or whatever the need is. If it's not meant to be, no finger contortion can change that. And if it is G-d's will, no "witch" can get in the way.
Question: Not having grown up in an orthodox home, but coming to prison brought me face-to-face with some beautiful Jewish traditions. One such is the havdalah ceremony at the end of the Sabbath, which marks the transition from Shabbat to the weekday. I know that we make a special blessing on the havdalah candle, but I never had the courage to ask why.
Charles, Federal Corr Institution, Butner NC
The Midrash relates, before the creation of the sun and moon, G-d created a great light, a light so bright that "one could gaze with it from one end of the earth to the other".
It was very late Friday afternoon on the sixth day of creation, and Adam and Eve had just sinned by eating from the forbidden fruit. As a consequence, G-d wished to hide this bright primordial light and expel Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. However, due to the sanctity of Shabbat, G-d postponed His actions and left the light to shine until the end of the sacred day.
When the sun began to set at the termination of Shabbat, darkness set in for the first time, terrifying Adam, who thought that the darkness would engulf him. G-d then inspired Adam, who took two stones and struck them against each other, and fire burst forth. At that moment, Adam praised G-d and said the blessing "Blessed are You, L-rd our G-d . . . who creates the lights of fire," the very same blessing we say as part of havdalah, while gazing at the flickering flames.
Fire is unique, for unlike all the other creations, we make a special blessing commemorating the time it was created. The reason for this is that since the use of fire is prohibited throughout Shabbat, and it becomes permitted only on Saturday night, it is as if fire is created anew each week with the departure of Shabbat.
As the holiness of Shabbat departs, and we are about to go back to our daily life, we may feel that we are no match for the raging tempests coming our way. The havdalah candle reminds us that just as Adam was able to create a flame-from stone!-that combated the swirling darkness, we too can bring light and clarity to the darkest of circumstances from the most unexpected sources.
Question: When Moshiach comes will everyone have to move to Israel? What if I already own a comfortable home in the U.S.?
Maurice, Maryland Correction Center, Hagerstown MD
It is important to first understand the ultimate objective of Moshiach's coming, which is to make the world more complete. Therefore, anything that will make us feel uncomfortable or under stress will obviously not happen. Anything that will "squeeze" us, either physically, mentally, emotionally or spiritually, will not exist in the age of Geulah (Redemption).
Geulah is a transformation, a release from straits and personal barriers, but never something oppressive.
Accordingly, our comfortable homes will be taken along with us to Israel, especially if they were used for Torah study and other Jewish functions, and permeated with good deeds. How this will be accomplished is still a mystery which our finite minds cannot yet comprehend. However, we are assured that the finest things in our lives will go along with us. All of the rubbish, undesirable, depressing objects, experiences and attitudes will be dropped on our way to Israel. Once we are there, things will only improve and change for the better.
Question: I will remain in prison for my entire life and after death I was thinking of cremation, but in reading Reaching Out I realize that this may not be the Torah view, can you please explain?
Yosef, Utah State Prison, Draper Utah
The body is more than just a physical shell. The body is to be treated with great respect because it is through the vessel of the physical body that we have fulfilled our mission in life. The body is thus a holy instrument.
A Jewish burial honors the body and treats it with respect. The body is watched over and lovingly cleaned. It is placed in simple white shrouds, and then in a coffin of wood.
Cremation, on the other hand, is destructive and denigrating. In the same way we don't burn holy books, so too the body was a vehicle for the soul and should be treated with gentle respect.
Judaism permits only burial. The source for this comes from the Torah, where G-d tells Adam: "You will return to the ground, for it was from the ground that you were taken." (Genesis 3:19)
This is reiterated in Deuteronomy 21:23 which insists on burial directly into the ground. By preventing a burial from taking place, one negates this mitzvah.
After the Holocaust it is imponderable that a Jew could agree to be cremated. People think that cremation is antiseptic and wholesome. "One moment a body, the next moment a sealed urn of fine ashes." The reality of cremation is more accurately described as a carcass roasting in fire. (Think of the smell when you leave something too long in the oven.) It takes about two hours to roast a human body at 1700 degrees Fahrenheit. And then comes the grinder to make sure that the bones which were not reduced to ashes will fit into the urn.
What about the millions of Jews cremated in Nazi ovens? The Almighty certainly guarded their souls from needless agony. But are we to follow in the path of the hateful Nazis?
Jewish tradition records that with burial, a single bone in the back of the neck never decays. It is from this bone - the luz bone - that the human body will be rebuilt in the Messianic era when the souls of the departed will be reunited with their bodies.
The idea of resurrection is a fundamental belief of Judaism, as expressed in Maimonides' classical "13 Principles of Faith." With cremation, that bone can be destroyed, and the resurrection process stymied. Thus the Talmud states that one who chooses cremation will not merit the resurrection.
Question: I pray every day with a Talit and Teffilin. I have been in prison for six years now and things do not seem to be getting better, in fact, they are worse. Rabbi, I don't feel that G-d is listening. Does G-d really care if I pray?
Leonard, Okeechobee Corr Institution, Okeechobee FL
G-d listens and answers every prayer of the heart, whether we recognize it or otherwise. He eases the suffering of the innocent and protects those who are helpless. Where there is oppression, G-d is there with the oppressed. Where there is wrongdoing, He stands with the downtrodden, the persecuted and the broken hearted. This lies at the very core of our faith: That there is only one of Him, from whom all things come, and He is good. To live believing otherwise is to not truly live at all.
Remember always that those who foster darkness will face the consequences of their own devices while those who stay close to Him in the hour of their distress will remain there to bask in His light as it breaks forth in unbounded intensity in a time to come. Even now, they sit embraced within that light, unable to sense more than an inkling of His presence. Our world is not yet ready for such revelation, but will soon be with the revelation of Moshiach any time now.
In the meantime, continue your daily prayers and whenever your heart is aching, turn to Him. If you are angry with Him, tell Him so. If you need to cry, cry out to Hashem. Evil exists within a fleeting moment, but good endures for eternity.
Question: You have written in a letter, I should refrain from using dirty language when I talk, can you explain why?
Robert, Southeast Corr Center, Charleston MO
Foul language is spiritually unhygienic. In the bathroom, there are two brushes - a toilet brush, and a tooth brush. It's not hard to keep them separate. Foul language is like scrubbing the toilet with your toothbrush, and then using it to brush your teeth.
If you wouldn't do that, then you shouldn't use the same mouth for profanity, that you use for words of friendship, love and prayer.
Like pure water, flowing through rusty pipes, even words of love, when coming from a dirty mouth, cannot help but become stained.
Speech is a powerful gift. When used correctly, the spoken word can build and strengthen relationships, give comfort and support, and sometimes even save a life.
Our words can lift a heavy heart, and inspire a lost soul. Words of prayer, can reach the heavens; words of care, can go even higher.
The words we say, do not just disappear. They hover around us, forming the air we breathe, and the atmosphere in which we live. Holy words create, an aura of holiness around us.
Words that are obscene, slanderous, abusive or untrue, foul the air, like a spiritual pollution. They are no less lethal, than second-hand smoke.
Question: Can you explain why some holidays are two days outside of Israel, which was thus established hundreds of years ago, but now that we live in an era where all has been resolved, why do we still stick to the two day Holidays?
Moshe, Everglades Corr Institution, Miami FL
Jewish customs have the import of law since the Torah itself recognizes them as law. The basis of Torah is not the book, but the people. How do we know the Torah is true? Because the people witnessed it, accepted it and passed down the tradition. So without tradition, we have no Torah.
Your question gets down to a core issue about Torah. What is the Torah, a book or a wisdom? If the Torah were a book, then there would be "the real Torah" as it is written in the book, and "the dressed-up-with-customs Torah." Every once in a while, we might take off one set of dress-up and replace it with another-or do without it altogether. In other words, there would be the essential Torah-by-the-book and a disposable, optional set of customs.
But Torah is not a book, it is a Divine wisdom that enters into the world through the collective Jewish experience. What was written in a book some 3300 years ago is the wrapped-up Torah, like a seed containing the DNA for all the future. The Jewish People are the earth in which that seed was planted. And G-d is the gardener. The difference being that a gardener never really knows how his plantings will grow, but this Gardener had everything in mind to begin with (being, as He is, beyond past and future). He plants the seed that contains everything packed tightly into nuances, codes and anomalies, and watches His wisdom unfold in history and tradition.
So when the learned rabbis accept upon themselves a tradition that arises out of our understanding of the Torah, G-d, so to speak, agrees and it becomes a part of Torah which brings us the blessings we seek by doing what G-d wants of us.
Question: What does B"H at the top of your letters mean?
Jonathan, State Prison, Corcoran CA
B"H (or BH) is an acronym for the Hebrew words "Baruch Hashem," which means, "Blessed be G-d." Traditionally, Jewish people begin letters and correspondences with these letters, in part to contextualize what's most important, and in part to remind us that all comes from Him-including the contents of the communication to follow. Some may start their letters with By the Grace of G-d, which means the same.
Question: A friend in prison recently lost his father and I am not sure what to do. Does he want to be left alone or what, I just don't know what to say in these situations.
Bryan, United States Penitentiary, Inez KY
When we visit one who is in grief, we assume that we have to become philosophers, and present a profound thesis to explain their loss; or we feel we should become counselors, and try to soothe their pain.
That is not true. Your job is to be a friend, and just be there. Your very presence, especially when he has no family with him, the fact that you made the effort to be there, is a comfort to the mourners. It means that they are not alone.
Jewish tradition says that when you visit a mourner, you should stay silent and wait for the mourner to initiate the conversation. They may want to laugh, they may want to cry, or they may want to sit in silence. Let them set the tone, and respond accordingly. And when they seem to want to be left alone, then take the hint.
If you have some words of comfort and wisdom to share, then do so. But if you have nothing to say then that's fine too. The purpose of the visit is to show your support, and you have done so just by being there. Your presence is more powerful than words. Words can bring comfort to the mind, but the heart is comforted by simple togetherness, knowing that they are not alone.
Question: Coming to prison is a learning experience. Attending Jewish services beside just twice a year, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur was an eye opener. Now I am starting to feel guilty about the entire time before coming to prison when I didn't attend. I have also found out that there are also blessing's before and after you eat and a whole slew of other things to feel guilty about. This is getting really depressing. At times, I feel this whole Jewish religion is not designed for happy-go-lucky wannabes like me.
Joshua, Waupun Corr Institution, Waupun WI
A mitzvah means you're connecting with the Infinite Creator of the Universe on a deep, personal level. When you obey the Jewish law you're changing the world for the good. What's more worth celebrating than that?
If for whatever reason you are feeling guilty, take some advice from the founder of the Chassidic movement known as the Baal Shem Tov and say, "Guilt, I have no time for you right now, I am too busy performing Mitzvahs. I know I messed up before, I am sorry and I trust with perfect faith that G-d has forgiven me. And then, one day before Yom Kippur, or sometime when you're inspired enough and want to go even higher, you cry a little over the messes you've made and resolve to do even better from now on.
The secret behind success is knowing how to fail. Failures are people who fail once. Successes are people who fail thousands of times-and pick themselves back up each time. Like little kids learning to walk.
There's a reason it works that way: Everything in the world-whether it's energy, matter, a journey or a story-moves in waves. Wherever there's a crest, a trough is on its way. To surf those waves, you have to learn to travel the troughs just as well as the crests. When you're little, you're good at that. When you grow older, your ego doesn't let you anymore. Drop the ego, admit you're fallible like the rest of us, and allow yourself to experience success.
And that's the way it works with mitzvahs, too. As the Baal Shem Tov put it, "It's not the bite of the snake that kills, it's the poison." The bite is the failure. The poison is the kvetching voice telling you what a failure you are. Why is that voice saying those things? To make you into a better person? To get you to do more mitzvahs? Absolutely not. There's only one objective behind its strategy, and that is to get you depressed enough that you'll give up on the whole thing. And yours seems to be succeeding.
Guilt is the gateway to depression, and depression is the gateway to surrender. Celebration is the gateway to transcendence, higher and higher without end. When you're happy, you ride high above every obstacle and all the good things in life become so much easier.
Question: There is a woman whom I knew before going into prison for a long time. I love her so much, but we're not together anymore. It's been more than a year since she broke off all contact with me. In two months I'm leaving prison and I hear she is getting married. What should I do? I am still convinced that she is the only one in the world for me.
Jose, Federal Corr Institution, Littleton CO
You are obviously in a difficult situation. But it is also a dangerous one, because she is marrying another man and you certainly don't want to destroy her marriage.
One thing I must explain to you about what we call "love": The One who created us wishes us to marry and have children. This is His greatest gift to us, for this is how we become most like Himself â€” creators of life. But He knows that if we were all sane, controlled people we would never do these things. So, when we get into a relationship with a member of the opposite sex, He arranges for us to go insane and lose all trace of common sense.
This insanity is a very good thing. But the problem is that it has been made to be part of our natures, so it is indiscriminate. Meaning that it can work against us, too. We see, over and over, how destructive this wonderful insanity can sometimes become.
You are young. Like they say in America, there are plenty more fish in the sea. Especially wonderful Jewish girls. My advice: Save your beautiful insanity for another one. Let this woman marry and raise a family in peace. And you will merit to do the same.
Question: Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?
Mark, Mule Creek State Prison, Ione CA
Most of us remember the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 also known as the Lockerbie bombing. Pan Am Flight 103 was a regularly scheduled transatlantic flight from Frankfurt to Detroit via London Heathrow Airport and New York-â€JFK that was destroyed by a terrorist bomb on December 21, 1988, killing all 243 passengers and 16 crew on board. (Large sections of the aircraft also crashed into Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 11 more people on the ground.) One of the 243 passengers was Marc Alex Tager, 22 years old from London, seat number 26H.
On 5 Kislev, 5750 (Dec. 3, 1989) Marc's parents, Mr. and Mrs. Tager, came to the Lubavitch/Chabad Rebbe at "dollars." The Rebbe distributed each Sunday dollars and blessings to thousands from all over the world. The interaction is recorded on video. The Rebbe blesses the Tagers that they should be able to report good news in the future. Then the mother turns to the Rebbe and says, "But how can we live with this? We lost our son. How can we live this way?
The Rebbe looks extremely serious and says, "After everything that has befallen the Jewish people in our generation, we cannot fathom the tragedies. G-â€d allowed them to do it. His reasons we do not know. But since we've seen what happened and the whole world was silent and even aided them and G-â€d has not yet responded, the one thing is, it must reinforce the demand that it is high-â€time that Moshiach must come."
The look of relief on the face of the parents is immediate. The mother nods, "Moshiach. We must wait for Moshiach." And the Rebbe adds, "He will answer all of the questions."
We know that everything is for the good, but we don't yet see it. But there is only one solution to this, Moshiach must become revealed, may it be now, and we will have all of our questions answered.
Question: I have been seriously hurt by my husband. Even before he went into prison, he has lied to me and even cheated me out of personal money. During his few years in prison, I have remained silent. But now that he will soon come out I have an overwhelming urge to take revenge. And I have the chance. With one phone call, I could ruin him. Should I do it?
Wife of a prisoner in a federal prison
We need not be helpless victims of those who have malicious designs on us. We must protect ourselves from being hurt and do all we can to prevent acts of evil. But even if we have been hurt, we mustn't hurt back.
We have an innate expectation that justice should be done, and when we see evil go unpunished, we want to intervene. But we can't. "Do not take revenge," the Torah warns. Revenge is wrong.
On the other hand, the very same Torah which warns us not to take revenge describes G-d Himself as "a vengeful G-d." How can this be? If we are told not to be vengeful, why is G-d then allowed to be? If revenge is immoral, how can G-d be vengeful?
But that is exactly the point. The very fact that G-d is vengeful allows us humans not to be. No human justice system is foolproof, so ultimate justice is in His hands. He will right the wrongs and punish the wicked. In this world or in the next, in this lifetime or another, in ways we may never know, justice will be served.
It is precisely G-d's vengefulness that enables humans to let go of the desire for revenge. We know there is a true Judge, and He will do justice. So we humans can leave the vengeance to Him, and get on with living.
Don't waste your energy on feelings of bitterness and hostility. The more hatred thrown at you, the more you should surround yourself with love. If there are evil people out there, make sure you associate with good people. Don't worry about getting even. Focus on getting on.
Question: Before coming to prison I never attending a synagogue. Well, maybe once when I was younger and my parents forced me to go. I am trying to be a part of it but I can't understand, some of the men, at a certain point in prayer stand there praying quietly, to what, whom? Someone I cannot see, nor hear, nor touch. How am I to relate to this with all my heart?
Mike, Pensacola Federal camp, FL
Someone once asked Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotz and demanded, "Rebbe, where is G-d?" To which the rabbi calmly answered, "Wherever you let him in." If you want to speak to him, he's wherever you let him in.
You've got this infinite, invisible G-d. And you've got to fit Him somewhere in there. But, of course, He doesn't fit. But the truth is the opposite way around. G-d is all that's real. To pray demands that you first step out of your highly limited context into a much greater reality.
Question: As you know, we get to light the Sabbath candles every Friday evening. Some inmates want to light it when it is already dark and it has created a discussion. We would like to hear from you.
Jeff, Federal Prison Camp, Pensacola FL
It is of utmost importance to understand - that if for any reason one did not light the Shabbos candles on Friday before sunset - it is the opposite of the holiness and greatness of Shabbos to light them afterwards. It is similar to a person who comes to "honor" a queen of a great empire by doing - in her face - the opposite of her request, beating her, etc. and it is the greatest prohibition.
Question: My father was a hypocrite. He pretended to take on a religious lifestyle, but it was all fake. He never spent time with any of us and didn't seem to care less, so we all rebelled and left the whole Judaism thing.
Problem is, now I'm in prison, I have met some real Jews and I'm really attracted to Judaism and a Jewish lifestyle. But I don't want to go the same way my father went, what do I do?
Stanley, Miami Federal Prison, Miami FL
My friend, you've written a story about your father that brings you up against a brick wall. What's the problem, you start your own story.
Your father tried to do teshuvah, to return to his Jewish roots. He wanted to be a good Jew, but he failed. You saw where he went wrong and you know how to do it right. You can choose to take it in the opposite direction or take over where your father left off. You can create your own present and future and heal his past and yours. As you rewrite the tale of your past, so your future will proceed.
Question: Regarding who can qualify to be Moshiach, we are having group discussions and would like to have the proper response.
John, Graceville CF, FL
Here is what the Rambam (Maimonides) says (Laws of Kings 11:4):
A King will arise from the House of (King) David, one who delves in Torah study and is occupied in mitzvahs just as David his father, following the Written an Oral Law; he will coerce and influence all Jews to go in its (Torah's) path and will strengthen their weaknesses; he will fight the battles of G-d - this is a sign that he is qualified to be Moshiach. If he succeeds and will then gather the Jews from exile - then he is definitely Moshiach. He will also prepare the whole world to serve G-d together, as it is written, â€˜Then will I change unto the people a pure language, that they may all call on the name of G-d, to serve Him with one accord'.
Question: I read in your excellent monthly publication Reaching Out that we pray towards Jerusalem. Can you explain why and what is it about Jerusalem that fascinates so many?
Alex, Federal Corr Institution, Minersville PA
The reason Jews' love Jerusalem as Judaism's permanent capital stems from the Torah itself. The Holy City is referenced hundreds of times throughout Tanach (the Five Books of Moses, Prophets and Writings, also known as the Written Torah). The Talmud elaborates in great depth on our bond with that city.
Although one can ask, "Why do we focus so much attention on one place? Is G-d's presence not found everywhere?" The question may be broadened regarding time as well. We can ask, "Why are certain days considered holy? Can G-d's presence not be experienced at any time? "
The answer is it is true that G-d's presence can be experienced everywhere at any time. That is because G-d is unlimited, and indeed created both time and space, and so He is superior to both. Nonetheless, the Torah (a creation of G-d that also supersedes time and space) decrees that there are special times and special places.
King David, the great prophet, purchased the land for the Holy Temple from the local inhabitants, knowing full well the holiness of the site. It was, after all, on that site that Abraham offered Isaac as a sacrifice. It was on that same site that Jacob laid down his head and had his prophetic dream of angels on the ladder. The site of the Temple is a veritable gate to heaven found here on earth.
The Jewish heart stirs upon approach to the last remnant of the Holy Temple that we have. The Wailing Wall, also known as the Western Wall, was built as a retaining wall during Herod's renovations of the Temple Mount above it.
As the Torah represents G-d's immutable will, we see that the holiness of Jerusalem does not waver nor diminish. It has always been, and will always be, the holiest place in the world. And once Moshiach is revealed for the entire world, Jerusalem will once again be in its full glamour
Question: We have all kinds here, some claim to be orthodox and others have no idea what a Jew means. But there is one fellow who says his parents converted to Catholicism back in Europe, he never had a circumcision or even a Bar Mitzvah, and he is married to a non-Jewish woman. Furthermore, he claims to be a messianic Jew and although he was born Jewish, believes in everything the Catholics teach and in nothing we Jews believe. Is he considered Jewish?
Jimmy, United States Penitentiary, Tucson AZ
Here is a guy who could easily identify as a non-Jew, and has every reason to. His parents converted to another religion, he married out. So why doesn't he just drop the whole Jewish thing altogether?
Because he can't. Being Jewish can't be dropped. It is a Jew's deepest identity. Whether you love it or hate it, it will always be there. No conversion can change that.
And so, in a twisted way, he expresses his Jewishness by being the anti-Jewish Jew.
Yes, he is using his Jewishness as a weapon against Jews. But he is a Jew.
He has a Jewish soul yearning to connect to Jewishness, who has blocked his own path. Here is someone whose primary preoccupation, whose main claim to fame, is his Jewishness, but a tormented Jewishness. Rather than embrace it, he fights it. He is an accomplice in his own persecution.
We can't take away the fact that he is a Jew. Somehow, that Jewish spark is still alive. And any time he wants to embrace it, we will embrace him.
Question: Since coming out of prison, its been a rough ride for both myself and my wife. We get along just fine, but can't seem to have enough to pay the bills. We live modestly, but it's just not enough. We've had notices from the bank about our late mortgage payments twice this year, and I don't even have money to buy new clothing for the Holidays. I'm constantly tense and I feel like I am failing.
Ronnie, PA State
It appears that you have many blessings in your life, thank G-d-a wife, jobs for both of you, a home. That's a lot to be grateful for! Focus on what you do have, and this will give you some perspective and restore your life's joy.
G-d commands us to be happy. But how can we be commanded to feel happy when we're going through difficulties? The answer is that most of our misery doesn't come from our circumstances, but from the meaning we attribute to them. If you're having money problems, you may think you've failed in some way-and you haven't, because money comes from G-d. He decides how much each person will receive and when they will receive it. As long as you're making reasonable efforts to earn your livelihood (and it sounds like you are), then you're creating a conduit for G-d to supply you with your needs.
Earning a livelihood should also not be some form of drudgery. We need to use our G-d-given talents in the world and find joy in what we do. Doing this will also increase the flow of abundance to us.
Money is very fluid. It moves from one person to another as the wheel of fortune turns. Although you might be financially strapped right now, you may find that very soon you will be blessed with more financial success. The fact that you're currently in a rut doesn't mean you will always be there. If you thought you would win the lottery tomorrow, you wouldn't be anxious, would you? G-d can bring you wealth at a moment's notice, and putting your needs in His hands is better than buying a lottery ticket.
Having said that, each one of us has an area in our lives that we seem to constantly have to work on, a "theme" problem. G-d gives us this challenge. G-d can bring you wealth at a moment's notice to help us grow, just as G-d tested the patriarchs and matriarchs because He wanted them to discover their spiritual strengths.
In the great school of life, your money problems are your "major." But your test isn't how you balance your budget. It's how you work on things like gratitude, integrity, faith, prayer and performing mitzvahs, despite all your financial pressures. And G-d believes you can succeed, the same way a professor creates tests knowing his students can pass them.
Realizing it's all a test makes it easier to sit the class. May you merit the honor roll and have much success!
Question: I am experiencing a major lull in my spiritual motivation. I started getting into Jewish things while I was in a prison and Reaching Out helped me every step of the way. But now, about a year after I have left prison, I just don't have the passion for it anymore. Rosh Hashanah is coming - last year I was all inspired, this year I don't feel any drive whatsoever to attend services. Is there something I can do to revive my enthusiasm?
David, former inmate in a Federal Correctional Institution
To explain your frustrations in simple terms. Do you remember how you learnt to ride a bike? Your first bicycle was fitted with training wheels on both sides, to keep you from tipping over. The training wheels allowed you to get the feel of riding the bike and build confidence. You felt so good, speeding along and never falling.
Then, just as you started to get comfortable, your parents removed the training wheels and told you to get on the bike and ride. So you got on, rode for half a second and then lost balance and fell flat. "How can I ride without training wheels?" you thought. But your parents insisted that you try again. So you did, and again you fell.
Your frustration built up, to the point that you were ready to give in. You may have wondered why your parents took the training wheels off in the first place. But had they not, you would never learn to ride your bike all on your own. It's harder to ride without training wheels, but only then is it really you riding the bike, using your own skill rather than depending on outside help. You may fall a few times, but as long as you get back up and keep pedaling, eventually you get your balance and the bike rides smoothly along the road.
When someone gets in touch with their Jewishness for the first time, there is a thrill and an excitement unlike anything else in the world. This initial inspiration is a little helping hand from G-d; spiritual training wheels (in your case prison and Reaching Out helping you) that helped you start your journey. But once you got the hang of it, once you have advanced along the spiritual path and ready to go deeper, the training wheels are removed and we have to ride on our own. You are no longer in a prison and now have to handle things on your own. The inspiration can disappear, the motivation fades, and you are left dangling.
Here's the real test. When the excitement wears off, there are those that drop out of the spiritual life. They think that the fun is over, this spiritual stuff isn't for me, and they move on. If we do that, then we miss out the chance to go to the next level: to connect to our souls through our own efforts. Precisely the moment when the inspiration fizzles out is when the real soul work begins. Rather than being propped up by divinely created inspiration, we have to look within and start riding on inspiration that we create ourselves. The spiritual path has to become ours, something we work for and earn.
We will fall again, but every fall brings a chance to take things to a new level. Keep on pedaling, inspired or not, and you will advance further and further in your soul's journey.
Question: Why is Rosh Hashanah considered the Jewish New Year?
Arthur, Federal Correction Institution, Miami FL
What actually occurred on the first Rosh Hashanah, more than 5700 years ago? G-d created the world in six days, and Adam and Eve, the first people, were formed on Day Six. Rosh Hashanah is the anniversary of their creation.
So why do we celebrate Rosh Hashanah, and the beginning of the year, on this day? Shouldn't it be observed six days earlier, on the anniversary of the first day of creation?
The question becomes stronger when we look into the prayers of the day. During the musaf services we say "This day is the beginning of Your works, a remembrance of the first day." Is it really the first day?
The answer is that the creation of Man enables the true purpose of Creation to be fulfilled. G-d created a world that conceals His presence, and He wants us to reveal Him. Only man â€” who is endowed with intelligence and freedom of choice; the ability to accept G-d or reject Him â€” can accomplish this. On the day of his creation, Adam realized that G-d is the Master of the Universe, and he said to the other creations: "Come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before G-d our Maker."
Rosh Hashanah is the day when we follow Adam's example, and accept G-d's kingship over us and the entire world. For this is the true head of the year: the time when G-d's goal in making the world started to be fulfilled. Because of the significance of the day, it is the first day of the year on the Jewish calendar.
Question: In Reaching Out I have read about the importance of giving. To be nice to people, to give a smile to someone who is depressed and I guess also to give tzedakah, donations. Can you explain how much I should give and why I should give money that I have earned in my life and worked hard at it too. After all, doesn't that money belong to me?
James, Donald Wyatt Detention Center, Central Falls RI
The Torah teaches that we set aside a tenth of our earnings for charity. Now, that sure defies all the laws of calculus and economics! If I give up a tenth of my earnings to charity, then obviously there is a tenth less for me-a tenth less for me to invest, or to spend on any of my needs.
But the true value of money depends on so many variables that we can neither predict nor control. Will my investments succeed or fail? Will I derive satisfaction from my earnings, or will my money go toward medical bills, legal expenses or other aggravations? Even if I have enough money to enjoy the tangible pleasures of life-a nice car, fine dining, vacations-will I have enough of the intangibles, such as strong relationships and meaningful goals, to make it all seem worthwhile?
What am I really giving up by giving away a tenth? I think what we are most afraid of is not giving up our money but giving up control. When I choose to buy a car, I can do research; I can even plug in my maxima-minima functions to find the best possible car at the lowest possible price within my budget. Once I buy the car, I can trade it in, sell it or upgrade it, and I can buy insurance to offset any possible loss or damage.
But giving tzedakah, charity, has no such guarantee. I am giving up something that I earned through the sweat of my own brow, to be enjoyed by someone else who didn't put the same effort into it. Once I give up the money, it's gone-I have no further say in how it will be spent. This is why the book of Tanya states that giving charity is equivalent to all other mitzvahs. While other mitzvahs might use a specific part of the body (tefillin on the hand and head, for example), charity involves giving money that we earned with our time, talent and expertise, money that we could have used for any of our human needs. Giving up our money is the closest we can come to giving up ourselves.
Jewish law is clear on the minimum and maximum recommended amounts to give to charity: not less than a tenth and not more than a fifth of your income. But what I receive in return has no minimum or maximum. It is truly infinite. It is a divine promise for success in our endeavors, success that will give us the ability to truly enjoy and make use of the bounty we are given. G-d even invites us to challenge Him with the mitzvah of charity, to see if the money we gave is repaid. "Please, test me with this," says G-d.
The concept of tzedakah is especially pertinent when you find yourself in prison. Giving tzedakah is a unique opportunity to bring holiness and blessing into every aspect of our lives, and thereby merit the ultimate redemption.
Question: What does the Torah teach about drug addiction and breaking free from it? For instance: Why does man beg G-d for help, yet still remain in addiction? It is as if religions are powerless to defeat the monster of addiction. Can you give me some insight?
Louis, Federal Corr Institution, Fort Dix NJ
The only one who can defeat your addiction is yourself. But you can't do that as long as you are the same person who got yourself into the addiction. You need to plug into something bigger than yourself to get that power to do it yourself.
It's something that concerns all of us, because all of us are addicts-to our habits, to our emotions, to our limited perception of reality. The first step of progress out of our little boxes is to acknowledge, recognize, and surrender to a truth higher than our own.
This is why we say the Modeh Ani as soon as we open our eyes each morning, to say, "Although I feel myself to be the center of this world, I acknowledge Your presence as the Author of this world. You are bigger than me." With those words, we punch a hole in an otherwise sealed existential prison. We open ourselves to freedom.
What kind of freedom? The freedom to navigate our own lives. The very concept of Torah implies that we all have free choice to direct our lives. We are never helpless. G-d never gives us more than we can handle. But it's always with the condition that we recognize how small we are-and so we don't try to go it alone.
An addict, too, has free choice. He has the choice to continue going it alone-something akin to trying to dig himself out of a pit, or to pull himself up by his own hairs-or to call out to someone outside of his particular pit who can throw him a rope.
The mind that has sunk itself in a mess is lost to that mess. Only someone who is not bound and tied can untie the bonds of another and offer him a hand to pull him out. Ironically, it is that first move of surrender that allows the addict to win over his addiction.
Question: I have been attending Jewish services in prison, something I never did before I came to prison, except for the Jewish New Year and Yom Kippur. I am attracted to many of the aspects of Jewish life - the beautiful Shabbat services, even kosher food. But I don't want to be one of those religious extremists. I don't want to go that far. What is your advice?
Randy, Federal Corr Institution, Coleman FL
What is an extremist?
Is someone who keeps kosher an extremist? Someone who believes in G-d? Someone who prays? Every day? Three times a day? Someone who will not marry out? Everyone's definition of extremism is different - and a lot of it is relative to where you are at a particular stage in your life.
Consider your time in prison and a tremendous opportunity to come face to face with our rich heritage. And don't worry about being an extremist. Continue your voyage of growth in the study of Torah and the observance of mitzvahs. Slowly but steadily, climb the ladder one step at a time, moving upwards, ever upwards â€¦
May your journey towards your roots and your essence be blessed with much success.
Question: I recently was taken out to a family member funeral and was surprised that the mourners tore their clothing on the death of the loved one. What is the reason for this?
Vlad, Federal Correctional Institution, Lompoc CA
On the most basic level, the tearing is expression of pain and sorrow over the passing. Torah law encourages-in fact mandates-such expressions as part of the mourning process.
But there is also a deeper significance. Judaism views death as a two-sided coin. On the one hand, when someone passes on, it is a tragedy. They have been lost to their family and friends, and there is a feeling of separation and distance that seems beyond repair. For this reason we observe a seven-day intense mourning period, during which the family sits at home and feels that pain and loss, followed by a year of mourning.
But often, within that very pain, the mourners have an underlying belief that "it isn't true"-that their loved one hasn't really gone. This is not just denial; in a way they are right. Death is not an absolute reality. Our souls existed before we were born, and they continue to exist after we die. The souls that have passed on are still with us. We can't see them, but we sense they are there. We can't hear them, but we know that they hear us. On the surface, we are apart. Beyond the surface, nothing can separate us.
So we tear our garments. This has a dual symbolism. We are recognizing the loss, that our hearts are torn. But ultimately, the body is also only a garment that the soul wears. Death is when we strip off one uniform and take on another. The garment may be torn, but the essence of the person within it is still intact.
From our worldly perspective death is indeed a tragedy, and the sorrow experienced by the mourners is real. But as they tear their garments, we hope that within their pain they can sense a glimmer of a deeper truth: that souls never die.
Question: Is the Oral Law also Divine like the Torah/Written law?
Joel, Marcy CF, Marcy NY
Yes it is! The Torah is foremost a book of law. Yet if we would just follow the literal reading of the Torah we would not know how to do a single law! Because we are missing a lot of the details. For example: In the Torah it is written regarding the commandment to put on tefillin, "You shall bind them on your arm as a sign, and it shall be a remembrance between your eyes" Now it doesn't say anywhere in the verse that it needs to be square and black or any other details! It is the Oral law that came along with the written law and explained the details on to how the Teffilin should look, and where exactly they should be placed upon putting them on.
However your question still remains, maybe the rabbi's in their quest for figuring out the details,created their own definitions? Exodus 24:12 says "I will give you the Torah and it's commandments" Why did G-D add the word "commandments"? This is one clear reference to the oral law. There is another verse (Deuteronomy 17:11) "You shall not divert from that which they teach you" This is a direct instruction from G-d to listen to the rabbi's. The verse before (Deuteronomy 17:10) says "You shall do according to the Torah That they teach you".
To summarize: Belief in the oral law that it comes from G-D (through the rabbi's) is integral to the Jewish religion, for without it the entire infrastructure of the Torah falls apart!
Question: Can you explain why we need ten people for a minyan?
Paul, Federal Corr Institution, Loretto PA
The concept of having ten Jewish men is discussed in the Talmud. The source is from the Torah (Numbers 14:27): In the story of Moses sending spies to the land of Israel, when ten of the twelve spies came back to give their evil report, the Jewish people were very sad and complained to Moses. G-D in his answer to Moses refers to the ten evil spies as an "assembly". From here the rabbi's derived that ten men is an "assembly" (a minyan).
Question: Having served time in a prison, I am alert to all wrong doing in my work place. I've recently become aware that there is widespread forgery and misrepresentation taking place. When I confronted some co-workers, they explained that the job cannot be done without some "creativity." I am not sure what to do and want to tell the management. The problem is, I may be putting many people out of a job, or worse, ruining their careers.
Should I impose my understanding of what is ethical on the company?
Henry, Toledo Ohio
We understand your dilemma. It is painful to stand by while others behave unethically, but as you have noted, before we take action we must ensure that it will not have unintended consequences. With so many recent high-profile cases of whistle-blowing, modern ethicists have been busy debating under what circumstances it is appropriate to inform on others. For the most part, the debate has centered on the balance between one's loyalty and obligation to the employer on one hand, and freedom of speech, as well as the duty to try to stop wrongdoing, on the other.
Jewish law has an entirely different perspective. In fact, "freedom of speech" and "loyalty to the employer," as we understand them, do not really exist in Torah thought. Before getting to the issue of whistle-blowing, however, halacha (Jewish Law) may require you to first confront the wrongdoers personally. If you see your friends doing something wrong, Torah requires you to confront and admonish them. As the verse states, "You shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall surely rebuke your fellow, but you shall not bear a sin on his account." (Leviticus 19:17). This obligation exists regardless of whether the action harms others, and the requirement lasts until the wrongdoer begins to curse or scream at you. (Code of Jewish Law, Orach Chaim 608:2).
Jewish Law, however, provides a range of exceptions to this law. First, the obligation applies only to close acquaintances or friends with whom you feel comfortable (even if they won't necessarily listen to you). If the wrongdoers are not your friends, then in all likelihood your rebuke will only provoke them to hate or to take revenge against you (both Torah prohibitions in their own right). (Tanya, Likkutei Amarim, ch. 32).
Second, if a) the sin is unintentional, b) it is not a violation of a biblical prohibition, and c) you believe that the person will not heed your rebuke, then it is not proper to admonish the wrongdoer. Finally, if rebuking the person will result in a financial loss for you, you are not obligated to do it.
In the ideal situation, the wrongdoers are your friends, and after you politely approach and admonish them, they realize their error and correct their ways. Unfortunately, things don't usually work out that way. In a situation where there is no harm to others, you can usually leave things be. But more often than not there is a third party being harmed, either physically or financially, and in that case Torah may require you to inform others so that corrective measures can be taken.
In general, repeating an evil report, even a true one, about someone else violates the biblical commandment, nevertheless, in a situation where the wrongdoing will result in physical or financial harm to others, it is mandatory to report it. Jewish Law makes a distinction, though, between the obligation to report a physical, life-threatening harm and the obligation to report a financial one. If you are in a situation where you can save someone from physical danger, then you are obligated to do so even if it means incurring financial loss. As the verse states, "You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor." But you are not obligated to save others from a financial loss at your own expense, though it is praiseworthy to do so.
So called whistle-blowers face a harsh dilemma: do they reveal the wrongdoing and face the consequences, or do they keep quiet? Contemporary society has not treated whistle-blowers very well. Unfortunately, many are either fired outright or passed over when it comes time for promotions. Nevertheless, in many instances Torah requires us to inform the proper authorities when someone does wrong.
Question: Can you please explain if Cremation is within Jewish allowance or is it against Jewish law?
Alan, Everglades CI, Miami FL
According to Jewish teachings the soul & the body are two parts to fulfilling one's mission in this world. The soul gives life & meaning, but it can't do anything without the body. It says in the Torah "let's create man in my image" this means that when G-D created man (the body) he created it in his image, therefore it is holy. Now when the soul is a part of G-D, & the body comes from the earth, as the Torah says from earth you to earth you shall return. So to cremate is contradicting what the Torah says.
On a little deeper level. According to chassidic thought, the soul is here on earth to purify the body, to fulfill G-D's commandments with the body (for as we mentioned before the souls on it's own cannot do it). Therefore the body is considered holy once it passes on for it has fulfilled it's mission here. That's why we act with humility & honor when we handle a dead body. Also once the soul leaves the body & goes to heaven it surely understands the significance of a proper Jewish burial. Not to to give it a Jewish burial causes the soul much pain & anguish. There are also certain halachik problems, such as when one is cremated he cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery, and the family cannot practice the shiva (mourning period).
Another aspect: One of the fundamentals in Jewish faith (and one of the 13 principals of faith from Maimonides) is the belief that when Moshiach comes there will be a resurrection of the dead. The concept is based on the Torah, where it says the everyone that has passed away & was buried will be brought back to life. So to cremate is going against the basic belief system of Judaism, as those cremated will not be revived.
To conclude: Let's give our soul & body it's proper honor & respect by giving it a Jewish burial. Where hopefully very soon we will see our loved ones again with the revelation of Moshiach!
Question: I have converted to become 100% Jewish after being released from prison and studying for 3 years under the guidance of great Rabbis. I would like to know what does Jewish tradition say about the relationship of a convert to his parents who are not Jewish and who are not interested in conversion. Are they still considered his parents after the conversion?
Yaakov, Memphis Tennessee
According to Jewish law, one should honor his or her biological parents. It can be difficult for parents to see their child choose a path so different from their own so it is important to remain sensitive to their feelings.
Leaving a certain life behind you while still respecting those who got you there can be tricky. Finding the right balance is something to discuss with the rabbis who helped you with your conversion.
Question: I have learned that it is forbidden to open electric on the Sabbath, is this true also regarding playing a CD run on batteries?
Jonathan, CA State Prison, Corcoran CA
In general battery powered devices are just like an electrical appliance which cannot be used on Shabbat.
There are different opinions on why electricity can't be used on Shabbat (one of them being, you may ignite a spark, which is like lighting a fire, etc.) This is because in the times of the Talmudic era & of course in biblical times there was no electricity. All of the rabbis agree however that one can't use electricity on Shabbat. Even though battery powered devices like a CD player is not like turning on a light bulb, nevertheless it has been universally accepted by practicing Jews that one can't use it. One of the reason's is, if there is a Light in the CD player that you may turn on, or by using it you may be causing the battery to work harder thereby creating more electricity. Even if one might say that my CD player doesn't have a light and I'm going to be careful not to use it in a way that it will consume extra electricity. You are opening yourself up to doing something more (like lighting a fire) which is a biblical transgression.
Question: I became first exposed to the Jewish religion years ago, but it became a stronger urge after I landed into prison and had a Jewish roommate. The few years in prison gave me the opportunity to study the Noahide Laws that you so kindly introduced me to and after I was released from prison I continued to study under the guidance of various Rabbis. Eventually I converted to Judaism. I feel like I am a Jewish soul born into a non-Jewish body. My family has no Jewish roots whatsoever. Can you offer any explanation as to why I am drawn to Judaism in this way?
Baruch, Oregon State
Many people from different walks of life have reported feeling an affinity towards Jews and Judaism. Most people leave it at that. For those who make the choice to convert, however, their connection to Judaism is deeper than a simple appreciation for Jewish culture or taste for kosher food. It is rooted in their soul.
Kabbalah offers a metaphysical explanation as to why non-Jewish individuals are drawn to Judaism to the point that they choose to join the Jewish people. Each time a husband and wife are together, a soul is born. Sometimes that soul comes down into a physical body and is born as their child; other times the soul remains in the heavens.
Abraham and Sarah, the first Jewish couple, were married for many years before they were blessed with a child, but their union generated many spiritual children. Kabbalah explains that the souls created by Abraham and Sarah-and the souls created from the unions of other righteous couples-have been distributed among the nations of the world, and it is these souls who become converts to Judaism.
This is why a convert is called the son or daughter of Abraham and Sarah. In a sense, his or her soul stems directly from our first patriarch and matriarch. When a non-Jew feels a pull to belong to the Jewish people, it may be a latent Jewish soul wanting to return to its community of origin, a long lost child of Abraham and Sarah reuniting with its family.
While many people feel attracted to Judaism and respect its traditions, few make the choice to undergo the long process of conversion and begin keeping the laws of the Torah. You felt a deep calling to join the Jewish people and made the difficult journey to do just that-it must have been Abraham and Sarah calling you home.
Question: Do Jews also believe in Heaven and Hell?
Daniel, Arizona State Prison, Florence AZ
Heaven and hell are where the soul receives its reward and punishment after death. Yes, Judaism believes in, and Jewish traditional sources extensively discuss, punishment and reward in the afterlife (indeed, it is one of the "Thirteen Principles" of Judaism enumerated by Maimonides). But these are a very different "heaven" and "hell" than what one finds described in medieval Christian texts or New Yorker cartoons. Heaven is not a place of halos and harps, nor is hell populated by those red creatures with pitchforks depicted on the label of non-kosher canned meat. After death, the soul returns to its divine Source, together with all the G-dliness it has "extracted" from the physical world by using it for meaningful purposes. The soul now relives its experiences on another plane, and experiences the good it accomplished during its physical lifetime as incredible happiness and pleasure, and the negative as incredibly painful.
This pleasure and pain are not reward and punishment in the conventional sense-in the sense that we might punish a criminal by sending him to jail, or reward a dedicated employee with a raise. It is rather that we experience our own life in its reality-a reality from which we were sheltered during our physical lifetimes. We experience the true import and effect of our actions. Turning up the volume on that TV set with that symphony orchestra can be intensely pleasurable, or intensely painful-depending on how we played the music of our lives.
When the soul departs from the body, it stands before the heavenly court to give a "judgment and accounting" of its earthly life. But the heavenly court does only the "accounting" part; the "judgment" part-that, only the soul itself can do. Only the soul can pass judgment on itself; only it can know and sense the true extent of what it accomplished, or neglected to accomplish, in the course of its physical life. Freed from the limitations and concealments of the physical state, it can now see G-dliness; it can now look back at its own life and experience what it truly was. The soul's experience of the G-dliness it brought into the world with its mitzvot and positive actions is the exquisite pleasure of Gan Eden (the "Garden of Eden"-Paradise); its experience of the destructiveness it wrought through its lapses and transgressions is the excruciating pain of Gehinnom ("Gehenna" or "Purgatory").
The truth hurts. The truth also cleanses and heals. The spiritual pain of Gehinnom-the soul's pain in facing the truth of its life-cleanses and heals the soul of the spiritual stains and blemishes that its failings and misdeeds have attached to it. Freed of this husk of negativity, the soul is now able to fully enjoy the immeasurable good that its life engendered, and "bask in the divine radiance" emitted by the G-dliness it brought into the world.
For a G-dly soul spawns far more good in its lifetime than evil. The core of the soul is unadulterated goodness; the good we accomplish is infinite, the evil but shallow and superficial. So even the most wicked of souls, say our sages, experiences at most twelve months of Gehinnom, followed by an eternity of heaven. Furthermore, a soul's experience of Gehinnom can be mitigated by the action of his or her children and loved ones, here on earth. Reciting kaddish and engaging in other good deeds, such as giving charity "in merit of" and "for the elevation of" the departed soul means that the soul, in effect, is continuing to act positively upon the physical world, thereby adding to the goodness of its physical lifetime.
The soul, for its part, remains involved in the lives of those it leaves behind when it departs physical life. The soul of a parent continues to watch over the lives of his or her children and grandchildren, to derive pride (or pain) from their deeds and accomplishments, and to intercede on their behalf before the heavenly throne; the same applies to those to whom a soul was connected with bonds of love, friendship and community. In fact, because the soul is no longer constricted by the limitations of the physical state, its relationship with its loved ones is, in many ways, even deeper and more meaningful than before.
However, while the departed soul is aware and cognizant of all that transpires in the lives of its loved ones, the souls remaining in the physical world are limited to what they can perceive via the five senses as facilitated by their physical bodies. We can impact the soul of a departed loved one through our positive actions, through giving tzedkah (charity) and other actions, but we cannot communicate with it through the conventional means (speech, sight, physical contact, etc.) that, prior to its passing, defined the way that we related to each other. (Indeed, the Torah expressly forbids the idolatrous practices of necromancy, mediumism and similar attempts to "make contact" with the world of the dead.) Hence, the occurrence of death, while signifying an elevation for the soul of the departed, is experienced as a tragic loss for those it leaves behind.
Question: I was orthodox as a youngster, my family kept kosher and observed the Sabbath. But then once I entered the prison system, I slipped up and ate meat that wasn't kosher. I was hungry and in a weak moment, I ate the meat. And then . . . nothing happened. I was not struck down by lightning, I didn't get sick or collapse, the sky didn't fall. I realized that these laws actually mean nothing. So I stopped keeping Shabbat, and then it was a matter of time before I dropped religion entirely. But since Reaching Out came into my life, I am starting to realize that I would like to be observant again, but doesn't my experience prove that the mitzvahs are irrelevant?
Adrean, Wake Corr Center, Raleigh NC
In actuality, your experience proves just how detrimental sin can be. The consequence for breaking the Torah's rules is not the sky falling, or being struck down by lightning. The consequence of sin is indifference. When you do bad and feel nothing, that is the greatest punishment there can be.
What happened to you is exactly what the Talmud says: "One sin leads to another." When you do something wrong, a layer of ice forms over your soul. You become less spiritually sensitive, less in touch with G-d, cold and apathetic. The feeling of indifference makes the next transgression easier, leading to a vicious cycle of spiritual degeneration and disconnection.
This is the deeper meaning of the biblical death penalty for sins. The death is an internal one-your soul loses its life-force, your spirit is cut off, your heart goes stone cold. When you eat non-kosher or break Shabbat, something changes inside you. The fact you feel nothing is a reflection of how deep the damage is. Your soul is numb.
But your soul can always be revived. For the Talmud teaches that just as one sin leads to another, so one mitzvah leads to another. If one sin can freeze your spirit, one good deed can bring your soul back to life, melting the ice of indifference and allowing you to feel again. The first step is hard, but the next one is easier.
You have proven the numbing power of breaking the Torah's rules. Now prove the reviving power of keeping them, and do just one mitzvah.
Question: I have been reading the Torah and will soon leave prison. I am not sure if I should read the Torah to my four year old who is quite bright. The reason I have the dilemma, as it seems like every story in the Torah needs to be edited for children. I find myself confused all the time with what I am supposed to teach. Adam and Eve sinning and being thrown out of the Garden of Eden, G-d destroying the world with the Noach flood, the Ten Plagues visited on the Egyptians. It seems like every story in the Torah needs to be edited for children. What are your thoughts?
Gregory, Oregon State Prison, Salem OR
How interesting, because all these stories you mention, kids have absolutely no problem with them. It's we adults who have the issues. Some of us have become morally queasy. But our kids need moral clarity.
Adam and Eve did what they were told not to, and they were punished. The generation of the flood was corrupt and was destroyed. The Egyptians who threw Jewish babies into the Nile were punished, after ignoring one warning after another, with the horrible plagues. The message is unmistakable: evil catches up with you. You can get away with it for a while, but not forever. A four-year-old gets that.
Now, of course, the world is not all black and white, people are not all good or all evil, and not every choice is between absolute right and wrong. Life is full of gray areas, nuances and subtleties, and in most moral dilemmas the lines are not so clear cut. But subtlety is for adults. A child needs the security of seeing things in black and white. Rules have to be plainly expressed; borders have to be sharply defined. Good is good and will be rewarded. Bad is bad and will be punished. Children struggle when things are vague and wishy-washy. They thrive on clarity.
Your child has an inner moral compass, but you need to help them cultivate it. Develop a sense of good and evil, and as your child will grow to be a morally healthy adult, this is the most important lesson you can teach them. And that is the theme of the entire Torah. In a world of moral equivalence, this message needs to be communicated loud and clear.
Question: My father passed away on Friday. Is there any significance to passing away on the eve of Shabbat?
Kenneth, Lovelock CC, NV
We are sorry to hear of your father's passing. I am confident that from the World of Truth he takes great pride in the mitzvot and charity done by his descendants in his memory and merit.
You ask a good question and the response comes from the Talmud which writes,"It is a good sign for one who passes away on the eve of Shabbat." On the most simple level this is because they enter Shabbat, a true day of rest, shortly after their passing. The holy Shabbat is a day of rest not only for those who observe it on this physical realm, but also for the souls in the hereafter. Souls that are being cleansed of their sins in Gehinnom are relieved of this painful process for the duration of Shabbat, free to experience the Shabbat rest. One who passes away on Friday is assured of entering a restful state immediately upon reaching the world of souls, which is certainly a "good sign."
In chassidic teaching it is explained that on the first Friday, the sixth day of Creation, G-d caused Adam to fall into a deep slumber in order to facilitate the creation of Eve. Thus, sleep-which constitutes a temporary suspension of many human faculties including the conscious mind-brought Adam great gain. It allowed him to have children, transforming him from a lone man to one with the capacity to sire an infinite amount of descendants-and an eternal legacy.
Using this idea, the leader of this generation, the Lubavitcher Rebbe explained the abovementioned Talmudic statement: When one passes away on Friday, it is reminiscent of the first Friday. Just as the temporary loss of life and vitality experienced by Adam presaged eternal growth, so too, when one's descendants continue to follow the Torah values imparted by their parent even after their parent's passing, they demonstrate that their parent's life did not end with his or her passing, but rather it continues in the lives of the children, through the lessons they taught, for all eternity. A life that was limited by time is transformed into an eternal legacy.
And we firmly believe that death is only a preamble to a more tangible form of eternal life, that which we will experience during the messianic era, when the dead will be resurrected, when we will be reunited for all eternity with all who have departed.
All the above is true regarding every person who passes on, but is most emphasized by one who passes away on Friday-the day when a lack of vitality spawned eternal life.
Question: You have introduced me to Tanya and for some years now I have been studying it. I enjoy the teachings very much but always get stuck at the same point: Through concentrating deeply on how G-d is at once beyond all things and within all things, how He rules and controls the entire world, and how all is like nothing before Him, we are supposed to come to love Him.
How does realizing G-d's greatness foster love for Him? When I concentrate about His greatness it only brings me further away from Him-if He is so great and mighty, and I am so small, where do we connect? I always knew that we can love only that which is close to us, that which you can see and relate to. How can I love something so much bigger than I can even fathom?
Ken, Federal Corr Institution, Petersburg VA
Seems that you are missing a link in that chain. Imagine the following scenario: You're enjoying your morning coffee, flipping through the mail. One more flip, and there in your hands is a large embossed envelope with the return address "The White House, Washington, DC."
You rip it open to find a personal letter addressed to your name from the president of the United States. He describes a new project of his called "Getting To Know My Fellow Citizens," which will enable selected Americans to get to know the President, and you're one of the lucky few participants.
You're wondering if this is an elaborate joke, when the phone rings. "Sir," says the voice on the other line, "this is the events coordinator at the White House. You received a letter in the mail? Wonderful. The President was wondering if he could take you out to lunch today, and perhaps follow that with a spin in his private plane." Getting to know the President would be a thrill. And it's not golfing on the White House lawn or the chats in the Oval Office. It's the knowledge that he chose you-you, out of 300 million or so American citizens-to be his buddy. This most powerful man is choosing to give you his leisure hours, to share the gifts that he and the country have to offer. Now tell me, how would you feel about the President?
I'm sure you've experienced this in real life on a smaller scale. Someone you really admire shows interest in you, and you feel close to this person. It's a spontaneous emotional response: This person is so great, so wonderful, so good, and took the time to seek you out and develop a real relationship with you. You can't help but love this person.
G-d is the great King that the Tanya describes: all-powerful, almighty, with all of existence at His disposal. He looked at creation in its entirety, put it all aside, and chose you. And He says, "I want to be close to you. Let Me tell you how we can build a relationship together."
The stronger your understanding of G-d's greatness, the stronger the impact that choice has on you, and the stronger your love for Him.
Question: What is the significance to eat onions with the Sabbath meal?
Paul, Treatment Center, Bridgewater MA
The custom for eating onions on Shabbos, one reason is written as follows: The Shabbos dishes contain the taste of Manna (the special bread that the Jews ate in the desert), which contained all flavors except that of onions & radishes (for they can be harmful to pregnant women). So in order to complete the taste they eat onions. (That they only eat the onions & not the radishes is because a onion has seven layers corresponding to the seven days of the week).
However this is not everyone's custom!
Question: We have been told that we are not allowed to have a non-Jew cook the Sabbath meals for us, is this true?
Marvin, Pleasant Valley State Prison, Coalinga CA
In general, the entire week, it is a problem if a non-Jew cooks your food, you are not allowed to eat it! With regards to Shabbos: You are not allowed to tell a non-Jew to cook for you on Shabbos. Because a non-Jew cannot do something specifically for a Jew on Shabbos (there is an exception to the rule, where the non- Jew is cooking for someone that is sick. But one should consult a Rabbi first as the laws of what you are allowed to ask a non-Jew what to do can be quite complicated).
Question: Why do Jews not allow flowers on their graves and instead put small pebbles or rocks? Someone just asked me and I couldn't explain itâ€¦ HELP
There are a few reasons:
First: Our Rabbis said that the rich and the poor must be buried alike. (This is why all Jews-regardless of means-are buried in identical linen shrouds.) Placing flowers on the graves of the wealthy makes unnecessary barriers between the classes.
Second: Placing edible things into a casket is forbidden according to Jewish law, as it a waste of G-d's bounty. Similarly, putting good, fragrant flowers (which could possibly be used as spices) in a place where they will not be used, according to an opinion is an infraction of the same law.
Third: It is forbidden to use or benefit from the casket or anything associated with the dead-even the earth which covers them. As such, enjoying the fragrance of flowers placed on graves would be forbidden, and planting flowers there in the first place is just inviting trouble.
The most important reason is that, as is pointed out, it is not a Jewish custom, but rather a non-Jewish practice. We read in the Torah Leviticus 18:3, "Like the practices of the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you, you shall not do, and you shall not follow their statutes." This means that a Jew must be careful not to follow the practices of the non-Jews. It was primarily because of this reason that those opinions ruled that it is to be avoided.
On another lever. While flowers are a beautiful gift to the living, they mean nothing to the dead. In death, the body which is temporary is gone, and all that remains is the eternal part of the person, their soul. The body, like a flower, blossoms and then fades away, but the soul, like a solid stone, lives on forever.
Question: When did the custom of wearing a yarmulke start and how did it come about?
Jesse, State Prison, Cumberland MD
The Talmud relates that a woman was once told by astrologers that her son is destined to be a thief. To prevent this from happening, she insisted that he always have his head covered, to remind him of G-d's presence and instill within him the fear of heaven. Once, while sitting under a palm tree, his headcovering fell off. He was suddenly overcome by an urge to eat a fruit from the tree, which did not belong to him. It was then that he realized the strong effect which the wearing of a kippah had on him.
The tradition to wear a kippah is not derived from any biblical passage. Rather, it is a custom which evolved as a sign of our recognition that there is Someone "above" us who watches our every act, holding us responsible for our actions.
It is also called a "yarmulkah" which is a combination of the words "Yirei Malkah" which mean to fear the king. it wasn't necessarily the custom of all Jews to wear one. Yet later on it became the custom for all Jews to wear a Kippah (especially because it differentiated them with non Jews).
In Talmudic times, the practice of wearing a headcovering was reserved for men of great stature. In later generations, though, it became the accepted custom for all Jewish men to wear a kippah at all times, and especially during prayer. As with all Jewish customs, once they become a universally accepted Jewish practice, they become halachically obligatory.
Question: Both my parents were murdered. Both were young and didn't deserve it. Because I was once in prison for drugs, some people threw the blame on me and I am now in prison serving a long sentence accused of murder that I never committed. The murderers are roaming the street free, while I sit in prison accused of something I never did.
I try my best to understand why G-d would want this for me and my family. I think about this every day and night and can't seem to find an answer. I am sure I did many wrongs in my life, but never did the murder I am in prison for and I am here already 20 years. Can you give me an answer that will allow me to sleep better?
Matthew, Federal Correctional Institution, White Deer PA
Although surely you understand that we don't have an answer, there is a concept in Jewish life called "Hashgacha pratis" which means divine providence. It means that everything that happens is for a reason, just that most of the time we don't know it.
Any situation which we may find ourselves there is a reason for it, and G-D wants us to do something with it. Now some situations are harder than others, and why you are in this situation I don't have an answer for. All I can give you is: Encouragement to continue to have faith in G-D, and believe that everything he does is ultimately for the good! Try to look into your life and see if you can do your part, which is to be the best person & Jew that you can be! One never knows, as our Rabbi's say "even if a sword is on your neck don't stop believing that G-D can help".
Question: Someone mentioned to me that the last meal at the end of Passover is special. Can you please explain?
Arthur, Federal Prison Camp, Miami FL
The last day of Passover ("Acharon Shel Pesach") is particularly associated with Moshiach and the future redemption. The Haftarah (reading from the Prophets) for this day is from Isaiah 11, which describes the promised future era of universal peace and divine perfection. Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Chassidic Movement, instituted the custom of partaking of a "Moshiach's meal" on the late afternoon of the last day of Passover; in addition to the matzah eaten at "Moshiach's meal", the Rebbes of Chabad added the custom of drinking four cups of wine, (or grape juice in prison) as in the seder held on Passover's first days. The cups are not taken all at once, but each with a song in between or some Torah repeated by the assembled.
Question: Why in a leap year do we have Adar I and II? If a leap year is needed, why an extra month of Adar and not another month.
Benjamin, Stafford Creek Corr Center, Aberdeen WA
On the Jewish calendar, the months are determined by the cycle of the moon. But we also take the solar year into account. For example, the Torah instructs us to celebrate Passover in the springtime. Because the lunar year is approximately 11 days shorter than the solar one, if we were to follow only the lunar year, we'd end up celebrating Passover during different seasons, depending on the year. To remedy this, we add an extra month every few years (including this year), which creates a leap year, enabling us to keep the lunar months in line with the solar seasons.
For the months of Tevet or Shevat it was still too early to tell if by Passover it would still be winter. They could not declare a leap year after Passover, for that would then mess up the entire system of the counting of the Omer, as well as the high holidays etc. (for the Torah says that the giving of the Torah was in the third month & the high holidays as well as sukkot is in the 7th month).
Therefore the only month the Rabbis could make a second month is the month of Adar.
The sun and the moon are both luminaries, but there is a core difference between the two. The sun is stable, consistent and reliable. No matter the time of month or year, it shines equally. The moon, however, fluctuates, growing more visible and less visible throughout the month.
The sun and moon represent two aspects of our lives - firm, predictable routine and fresh, progressive change.
The leap year reminds us to strive for the balance of commitment to the unwavering elements of Torah, together with a renewed energy and spirit.
Question: Does G-d pick on some people? It seems as if he is picking on me, because I have suffered one loss after another for much of my life. After surviving a tragedy, another one comes down on me.
Max, Federal Corr Institution, Lompoc CA
We will explain this with a story. There was once a tow truck driver who lived near a muddy old country road. Every day he would jump into his truck and drive a mile or so to a particularly sludgy bend in the road, and every day his truck would get stuck in the mud. But it was a trusty old truck, and its chunky tires and growling engine would always be able to beat the mud and climb up onto solid ground.
Most days, as he drove along, he would encounter other motorists who had unknowingly ventured onto the muddy road and gotten stuck in the mud. Some of them had been trapped there for hours, haplessly revving their engines and watching their wheels spin aimlessly in the muck. The truck driver would appear like a savior and offer them a tow, drag them out and set them back on the road.
The truck driver's son once asked him, "Why do you always drive down this muddy road? You always get stuck in it. Why don't you take your truck somewhere smoother, where the road is clear and dry?"
"That's the whole point," said the trucker to his son. "My tow truck has the power to get through that mud. The only reason I pass by there every day is to find others who are stuck and can't get out themselves. That's what a tow truck is for."
Some souls are like tow trucks. They somehow have the strength to burst through the thickest and muddiest roads of life. No matter what life throws at these people, they muster the inner fortitude to get through. And so they keep getting thrown into the abyss, over and over again.
What these souls probably don't even realize is that they are helping others. When you face a tough time and beat it, you bring light into that dark place, which can shine a path for others who are stuck in their own darkness. It could even be that the only reason you had to pass through that dark roadway is to help drag other souls out of their darkness.
Sometimes we help others directly, by sharing our experiences and teaching a new way to those who can't see a way out. Or it may happen indirectly. The mere fact that you went through it and survived blazes a pathway, opens a door, and other suffering souls whom you may never meet suddenly find a way out of their quagmire and are set free.
So perhaps you are a tow truck soul. Perhaps sometimes you are being towed. We all experience both. But if we would realize that every time we conquer our own darkness we may be helping someone who can't help themselves, we would be inspired to keep on trucking.
Question: Every morning when I don Tefillin, the same curiosity assails me: Why is there a four-armed Shin on the head Tefillin? I was hoping that when you had a moment free you would be able to explain that quirk to me? I thank you for your time and look forward to your response.
Ryan, Federal Corr Institution, Yazoo City MS
Here are some reasons for this. First, the four-lined shin is the shin of the Luchos, the Tablets of the Ten Commandments. The four lines represent the awesomeness and holiness of the engraving of G-D's word into physical stone. To visualize this, imagine the three lines of the shin etched into stone. If you focus on the stone that remains around the shin, there will be four columns. These are the four lines of this form of the shin. They are the wake, the reflected light of the Luchos.
A second reason is that the four-pronged shin represents the four mothers: ,Sarah, Rivka, Rachel and Leah.
One can make a connection between these two interpretations. Like the Luchos, the teachings of our mothers are truly engraved upon our hearts and minds. A mother teaches out of love and compassion. Her lessons commence even before birth and make an everlasting impression upon her children. Contrast this with the instruction of one's father. This begins slightly later in life, and often in an atmosphere of austerity and severity.
The mother's education is more fundamental, more indelible and is therefore represented by the Luchos, which are engraved. The father's education is likened to the letters of the Torah, ink on parchment, which can be erased. Even though the father's instructions are important, the mother has a more impressionable and permanent effect on the child. Our mothers and the Greatness of their teachings are therefore, like the Luchos, represented by the four-pronged shin.
Question: I have heard that we are the "Chosen People" and this makes me uncomfortable. To suggest that as Jews we are somehow closer to G-d than all other nations smacks of arrogance, elitism, and racial prejudice. Can you please explain.
Anthony, Federal Prison Camp, Atlanta GA
This question could only come from someone who is chosen. Allow me to explain.
In the Jewish understanding, being chosen leads not to arrogance, but rather to humility. If it were some human king that chose us to be his special people, then your assumption would be correct â€” we would become elitists. When a mortal power shows favoritism towards a subject, that subject will become more arrogant as a result â€” the closer you are to the king, the more significant you are, and the more significant you are the higher respect you feel you deserve.
But we were chosen by G-d. And the closer you are to G-d, the more you sense your insignificance. While being buddy-buddy with a human leader inflates your ego, a relationship with G-d bursts your selfish bubble. Because G-d is an infinite being, and all delusions of petty self-importance fall away when you stand before infinity. Being close with G-d demands introspection and self-improvement, not smugness.
This is the idea of the Chosen People â€” a nation of individuals who have been given the opportunity to sense G-d's closeness, hear His truth and relay his message to the world. All agree that it was the Jews that introduced the world to monotheism and a system of ethics and morals that has shaped the modern view of life and its purpose. And it is the survival of Judaism to this day that attests to the eternal value of this system.
To say that this is ethnocentric is absurd for one simple reason: anyone from any ethnic background can convert to Judaism and become chosen. To be â€˜Jewish Chosen' is not a gene, it is a state of the soul. Anyone wishing to take it upon themselves is welcome â€” as long as they are ready to have their bubble burst.
So the arrogant person is not acting chosen. The true test of being chosen is how humble you are. You seem to have passed the test, because in your being so humble, it doesn't allow you to accept that you are chosen. While most other religious groups are quite comfortable claiming that they are the best, we Jews will do anything to say that we are nothing special. Now that's what I call a Chosen People!
Question: I read the various weekly Jewish newspapers that arrive and see appeals for kidney donations. While in prison, I want to do something meaningful for the Jewish community and was wondering what the Torah says about donating our personal kidneys.
Mark, Metropolitan Detention Center, Los Angeles CA
Note: The following discussion applies specifically to live kidney donations. Other types of organ donations (specifically, postmortem ones) are more complex and beyond the scope of this discussion.
People were created with two kidneys, although they can survive with just one. This allows a healthy person to donate one of his kidneys to someone suffering from renal disease. In some situations, a kidney donation is the only means of saving the patient's life. The question is: are we obligated to donate a kidney to save someone's life?
While the Torah commands us, "Do not stand idly by your neighbor's blood," and our sages tell us that "he who saves even one life, it is as if he saved the entire world," there are nevertheless limitations to when one is obligated to save someone else's life.
Endangering One's Life to Save Another
The Jerusalem Talmud tells us of an incident in which Rabbi Aimi was captured in a dangerous area. Rabbi Yochanan stated, "Wrap the dead in his shrouds." Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish responded, "I will either kill or be killed; I will go with might and save him." Based on this statement, some commentaries conclude that one the risk factor may not apply to kidney donationsis obligated to save a life even if in doing so he is putting himself at risk.
However, other commentaries point out that the Babylonian Talmud seems to disagree with this conclusion. The Torah states, "You shall observe My statutes and My ordinances, which a man shall do and live by them. I am the L-rd." The Babylonian Talmud explains that the verse teaches that the commandments are meant to be kept when there is a certainty of life, but not when doing so will subject the person to the possibility of death.
When there is a disagreement between the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds, the law follows the Babylonian Talmud; therefore, the law is that one is not required to put himself in danger in order to save someone else's life. Furthermore, according to many authorities, one is (in most circumstances) prohibited from doing so.
Due to the present-day low fatality rate, the risk factor may not apply to kidney donations. But according to all halachic authorities, there is no obligation for one to relinquish an organ in order to save someone else's life. Additionally, if this is done at risk to one's own life, sacrificing an organ is considered a foolish act. In the case of an organ donation that does not involve risk to one's life, the current halachic consensus is that while it is not an obligation to donate the organ, it is certainly considered meritorious if one chooses to do so.
Question: I read the various weekly Jewish newspapers that arrive and see appeals for kidney donations. While in prison, I want to do something meaningful for the Jewish community and was wondering what the Torah says about donating our personal kidneys.
Mark, Metropolitan Detention Center, Los Angeles CA
Note: The following discussion applies specifically to live kidney donations. Other types of organ donations (specifically, postmortem ones) are more complex and beyond the scope of this discussion.
People were created with two kidneys, although they can survive with just one. This allows a healthy person to donate one of his kidneys to someone suffering from renal disease. In some situations, a kidney donation is the only means of saving the patient's life. The question is: are we obligated to donate a kidney to save someone's life?
While the Torah commands us, "Do not stand idly by your neighbor's blood," and our sages tell us that "he who saves even one life, it is as if he saved the entire world," there are nevertheless limitations to when one is obligated to save someone else's life.
Endangering One's Life to Save Another
The Jerusalem Talmud tells us of an incident in which Rabbi Aimi was captured in a dangerous area. Rabbi Yochanan stated, "Wrap the dead in his shrouds." Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish responded, "I will either kill or be killed; I will go with might and save him." Based on this statement, some commentaries conclude that one the risk factor may not apply to kidney donationsis obligated to save a life even if in doing so he is putting himself at risk.
However, other commentaries point out that the Babylonian Talmud seems to disagree with this conclusion. The Torah states, "You shall observe My statutes and My ordinances, which a man shall do and live by them. I am the L-rd." The Babylonian Talmud explains that the verse teaches that the commandments are meant to be kept when there is a certainty of life, but not when doing so will subject the person to the possibility of death.
When there is a disagreement between the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds, the law follows the Babylonian Talmud; therefore, the law is that one is not required to put himself in danger in order to save someone else's life. Furthermore, according to many authorities, one is (in most circumstances) prohibited from doing so.
Due to the present-day low fatality rate, the risk factor may not apply to kidney donations. But according to all halachic authorities, there is no obligation for one to relinquish an organ in order to save someone else's life. Additionally, if this is done at risk to one's own life, sacrificing an organ is considered a foolish act. In the case of an organ donation that does not involve risk to one's life, the current halachic consensus is that while it is not an obligation to donate the organ, it is certainly considered meritorious if one chooses to do so.
Question: There are several places in the books of the Prophets in which Moshiach is called a Nasi. What is the significance of this title?
Marvin, Federal Detention Center, Milan MI
Moshiach will play two roles:
1) The role of leader. In this capacity, Moshiach will induce all the Jewish people of his generation to follow the path of Torah and Mitzvot, will fight the wars of G-d, will rebuild the Holy Temple, gather the dispersed of Israel and bring the entire world to a recognition of the unity of G-d.
The above is a description of the task of Moshiach as king of the Jewish people. As Maimonides defines the role of a king: "His purpose is to elevate the true religion and to fill the world with justice, to break the power of the evil ones and fight the wars of G-d. A king is not crowned except to do justice and wage war."
Maimonides also writes that "after his kingship is settled and the Jews gather to him, he will ascribe all of them according to the spirit of prophecy." In other words, as a leader he will also designate who is a Kohen, who is a Levi and who is an Israelite.
2) His role as a Torah authority. Maimonides writes: "Moshiach will arise from the children of David, he will be wiser than King Solomon and a great prophetâ€¦ He will teach the nation and show them the path of G-d, and all the nations will come to hear from him."
Maimonides also writes, "In that time, the occupation of the entire world will be only to know G-d. Therefore, all the Jews will be great scholars and will grasp the wisdom of their Creator according to human ability, as is written, â€˜The world will be filled with knowledge of G-d like water covers the sea.'" It is apparent that Moshiach is the one who will create this worldwide environment and will lead it.
When Moshiach is playing the role of king, he is referred to by our prophets and sages as melech. When he is fulfilling his spiritual role of Torah leader, he is called nasi, similar to the way the heads of Sanhedrin were referred to as nasi.
Mishna Torah, Hilchos Teshuvah, 9:2. Hilchos Sanhedrin, ch. 18. Hilchos Melachim, 11:4, 12:3,5.
The Rebbe in Likutei Sichos vol. 35, p. 208).
Question: I am going to serve a long sentence and have medical problems. Do I have the right according to the Jewish view to just let go and give up?
Robert, US Penitentiary, Tucson AZ
We know that every Jewish soul comes into this world for a specific reason. Therefore every soul is precious to Hashem, and everything that we do is significant in G-ds eyes. Sometimes we may find ourselves in circumstances that seem to be too much for us, a person might start questioning his place in this world.
Where does this "soul" come from? Our sages explain that each soul is a part of Hashem. It came all the way down to this earth because Hashem wants it to fulfill a mission. Everything that the soul does is closely watched by Hashem. There is no such things like: Who am I that Hashem should care what I do? We are all precious to him! So to do something contrary to Hashem's wish (even if it's by not doing a physical action) is not fulfilling our mission.
There is a concept called "divine providence" which means, even if we may find ourselves in a prison (and for some people for a long time) Hashem wants something of you. Now these things are entirely beyond the comprehension of man. This means that the logic of living, learning Torah, doing Mitzvot, is not based on human logic or emotions. Which means that we must live our lives in a way that we know there is a higher order, something that to us might not make much sense sometimes. But it is an integral part of each and everyone of us.
Rather what should one do? Study Torah (joyfully) which will open our hearts to Hashem's presence in our lives.
Remember also that in any situation, the Rebbe promised that we are the last generation in exile and will merit to be the first in Redemption. Moshiach is very near, so why give up now? Hang in there as it is G-d's Will and once Moshiach is revealed all your troubles will be of the past.
Question: What is the significance of Havdalah and where in the Torah does it teach to have it?
Michael, Federal Corr Institution, Terminal Island, CA
Havdalah means to separate. In the Torah (Leviticus 10:10) it says "Ulehavdil (similar to the word Havdalah) bein hakodesh uvein hachol" (to separate between the holy and the mundane). In the world there are holy things like a Torah, prayer book etc., then there are "regular" things like eating, drinking etc. We need to know that holiness is always going to be on a greater level. It is our job to make from the mundane into something holy.
In the Talmud (tractate Pesachim 103,b) our sages give the text that we use for the Havdalah service till this very day. There is an argument amongst later sages if this a biblical commandment or a rabbinic one.
Shabbat is not just a day of rest, but a day to recharge our batteries, it gives us the power for the rest of the week to elevate the world around us to something holy. Havdalah reminds us that even though we are leaving the sanctity of Shabbat, and going into the world. A world of work both physically and spiritually. We should always remember that our job is to make this world a holy place, not the opposite!
Question: What stands between us in being able to rebuild the Temple and how do we get around it?
Schaffer, Federal Corr Institution, Marion IL
There is a disagreement amongst our sages how the third temple will be rebuilt. some say that the temple will be built by Hashem (G-D), others say that it will be rebuilt by man.
The question is: which one is it? some say that it depends. If Moshiach will come in his proper time then we will build it. But if Moshiach will come "Achishena" (in an instant, even though we may not deserve it) then the temple will be built by Hashem.
How do we reconcile the two opinions? Let us take a look, how a Torah scroll is written: How does a Jew fulfill the Mitzvah of writing a Torah? When a newly written Torah is about to be completed, a great ceremony takes place. The members of a community or congregation gather together and, aided by the scribe, each person will write one letter in the Torah. Each person who participates is credited with the Mitzvah of "writing a Torah". Why? Because if that person's particular letter had been omitted or written incorrectly, it would render the Torah unfit for use, and therefore not considered a kosher Torah! Each person's letter brought this particular Torah scroll into existence. This is called a Hechsher Mitzvah, an act that causes a Mitzvah to be fulfilled.
Let us now apply this principle to building the Third Temple. When Hashem is going to bring the Holy Temple down from heaven, He is going to do it in answer to the prayers of the Jewish people. As we say in our daily prayers, "May it be Your will, L-rd our G-d, and G-d of our fathers, that the Holy Temple be speedily rebuilt in our days." This is our Preparation! Our prayers and yearning for the Temple, will arouse the Will of Hashem. Without this, the Temple would surely never be rebuilt. The Arizal (a famous Kabbalist) wrote: "Our prayers create the spiritual channel of light by which the Temple will descend".
Our sages tell us: "we must look at the world like a scale that is even, one good deed can tip the scale to the balance of good". Every Mitzvah that we do helps to build the temple. Especially the Mitzvah of loving your fellow man!!! It says: The second temple was destroyed because one Jew hated another, the way to rebuild the temple is by doing the exact opposite. Love your fellow man do an act of kindness even though no one may ever know you did it.
May it be the will of Hashem, that we see the third temple & the revelation of Moshiach speedily, Amen!
Question: Rabbi, I never hurt anyone physically, all I did was steal petty items. I needed to support my drug habit, so I stole personal material properties but never hurt anyone.
Scott, Marcy Corr Facility, Marcy CF NY
The Torah commands: Do Not Stealâ€¦ Do Not Robâ€¦ (Lev. 19: 11 and 13)
Our sages said, "He who steals the slightest amount from his friend is as if he stole his soul." [Bava Kama 119a]. The original for "the slightest amount" is "the value of a perutah," a perutah being the smallest coin.
The mystical significance of stealing and robbing is as follows:
Stealing is done clandestinely, so it causes a blemish in the upper world while robbing, which is done out in the open, causes a blemish in the revealed world. Unless he admits his crime on his own, someone who steals from his fellow must restore twice the amount he stole; in this way he suffers the loss he intended to inflict on his victim. (Mishna Torah,Geneivah 1:4.)
When one steals "down below", in this world, he causes the forces of evil to steal "up above", in the spiritual worlds, the souls in the process of descending from its Divine origin into a physical body.
This supernal "kidnapping" or "crib-robbing" means that the forces of evil are empowered by the theft below to claim a certain amount of the souls being born into this world as their own. These souls will be born with less empathy or mercy than they would have otherwise. This means that the task of infusing the world with Divine consciousness and goodness will be slowed down or even suffer a setback.
Therefore the thief must make double restitution, for the numerical value of the word for "double" (kefel = 130) is the same as that of the word for "light" (kal).
There is another reason for the double restitution.
When a soul completes its task (or a task) on earth, it (or the positive energy created by this good deed) ascends back through the spiritual realms into its source. This upward surge from below elicits a corresponding downward response from above, and causes a further revelation of Divine beneficence and goodness in the world.
Furthermore, when someone steals "down below," he also causes the forces of evil to steal "up above" the souls ascending to the source; the forces of evil are empowered to steal this upward surge for themselves, preventing the concomitant, downward response of Divine beneficence and goodness from occurring in the world. He thus causes a double blemish, for which he must therefore make double restitution.
This is the mystical meaning of our sages' statement that "He who steals the slightest amount from his friend is as if he stole his soul." They made a point of saying "he stole his soul" rather than some other expression in order to include the above mystical interpretation. May G-d preserve us from this sin.
Question: The only fast day that we fast also on the Sabbath is Yom Kippur, why does this fast day override the Sabbath?
Chan, Lowell Corr Institution, Ocala FL
Your premise is correct in that all fast days except for the Fast of Esther, if they fall on the Sabbath are postponed till Sunday. The fast of Esther, if it falls on the Shabbat, is moved up and observed on the Thursday beforehand because Sunday is the holiday of Purim.
Yom Kippur is called by the Torah as Shabbat of Shabbats (Shabbat Shabaton), implying that it takes precedence over the Sabbath. According to chassidic teachings, Yom Kippur falling on Shabbat doesn't "deprive" us of the pleasures - eating, drinking, resting, etc. - which Shabbat normally affords us. Rather the extremely holy nature of Yom Kippur accomplishes the same objectives, albeit in a higher, more spiritual manner.
The human's physical need for nutrition stems from the soul's need to be energized by the divine sparks inherent within every physical creation. This is because the soul has many levels, and only its lowest levels are normally expressed in the body, and these soul-levels require the spiritual nutrition derived from various foods. The essence of the soul, however, is far higher than these sparks, and therefore has no need to be fortified through their consumption. Thus, on Yom Kippur, when this essence is revealed and expressed within every Jew, there is no need for eating or drinking.
Question: I always thought that there was Rosh Hashana, the New Year which falls on the Hebrew month of Tishrei. But recently I read that the New Year is in the month of Nissan? Can you please explain?
Michael, Federal Corr Institution, Coleman FL
The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 10b-11a) cites a debate between two sages: "Rabbi Eliezer says: The world was created in Tishrei . . . Rabbi Joshua says: The world was created in Nissan." The Kabbalists explain that Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Joshua are not debating the date of G-d's actual creation of the universe, which after all is a matter of historical fact. Rather, both sages agree that the physical world was created in Tishrei, and that the idea of creation was created in the month of Nissan. Where they differ is on the question of priority and emphasis: is the day that the physical universe was completed to be regarded as the primary anniversary of creation, or is the world's true date of birth the day that it was conceived in the divine mind?
We know that the Jewish year begins on the first of Tishrei-a day we observe as Rosh Hashanah, "the Head of the Year"-and ends twelve (or thirteen) months later, on the 29th of Elul. But if the head of the year is on the first of Tishrei, why does the Torah (in Leviticus 23:24) refer to Tishrei as the seventh month of the year? And why is the month of Nissan, occurring midway through the Tishrei-headed year, designated-in the very first mitzvah commanded to the Jewish people-as "the head of months, the first of the months of your year"?
But like a sphere with two poles, the Jewish year has two "heads" or primary points of reference, each of which is equally its beginning. Our annual journey through time is actually two journeys-a Tishrei-to-Elul journey, and a Nissan-to-Adar journey. Every day on the Jewish calendar can be experienced on two different levels, for it simultaneously exists within these two contexts.
The head is the highest part of the body, in both the literal and spatial sense, as well as in that it is the seat of its loftiest and most sophisticated faculties. More significantly, it serves as the body's nerve and command center, providing the consciousness and direction that guide the body's diverse components toward a unified goal.
And the Jewish year has not one but two heads. For Jewish life embraces two different-indeed, contrasting-modes of existence, each with its own nerve center and headquarters. The "Head of the Year" that we're all familiar with-the one on which we sound the shofar and pray for a healthy and prosperous year-occurs on the first of Tishrei. The first of Tishrei is the anniversary of G-d's creation of the universe, particularly His creation of man. On this day we reaffirm our commitment to G-d as our Creator and King, and ask that He inscribe us in the book of life.
But if the first of Tishrei is the first day of human history, the month of Nissan marks the birth of Jewish time. On the first of Nissan, 2448 years after the creation of Adam, G-d commanded His first mitzvah to the fledgling nation of Israel-to establish a calendar based on the monthly lunar cycle. On the fifteenth of that month, the Jewish people exited the land of Egypt and embarked on the their seven-week journey to Mount Sinai.
The Jew is a citizen of G-d's world-a status he shares with all other peoples and all other creations. As such, his head of the year is the first of Tishrei, the birthday of man and the Rosh Hashanah of the natural world. But the Jew also inhabits another reality-a reality born of the supra-natural events of the Exodus, the splitting of the Red Sea and the divine revelation at Sinai. This dimension of his life has its own "head"-the miraculous month of Nissan.
Question: Please tell me if there is any religious significance in wearing a chain with a mezuzah?
Daniel, Collins CF, Collins NY
Many Jews like to wear jewelry that identifies them as Jews. Chains with a Star of David, mezuzah, the word Chai (Hebrew for â€˜life') are the most popular.
None of these are religious requirements, they are just things people do. However there are biblical and rabbinic commandments that enjoin us to make external signs of our Jewishness. For men, wearing tzitzis - a four cornered fringed garment under our shirt, a kippa, and indeed circumcision, are all ways of identifying ourselves as Jews. Women can light candles on Fridays before the Sabbath.
Question: Can you please explain how I can obtain a Hebrew name and why is it that important to have one?
Benjamin, Stafford Creek Corr Center, Aberdeen WA
On a basic level, a Jewish (Hebrew) name is a key to Jewish identity. Your Hebrew name functions as a conduit, channeling spiritual energy from G-d into your soul and your body. Our sages tell us that although more than two centuries of exile and slavery had all but assimilated the Children of Israel into the pagan society of Egypt, they remained a distinct entity because they retained their Hebrew "names, language and dress." They came to Egypt as Reuven and Shimon (Hebrew names) and departed as Reuven and Shimon, thus merited their miraculous redemption and the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai.
A Hebrew name possesses two opposite characteristics: On the one hand, a person's name does not tell the average individual anything about him, for we observe that many different people share the same name. On the other hand, we observe that when someone faints, it is at times possible to rouse him by calling his name into his ear.
The reason for this is that a person's name does indeed relate to his essence, serving as a conduit through which his soul's life-force emanates within the body. This is why, when a person faints and his revealed powers are in a state of concealment, calling him by his Hebrew name may arouse his soul, which will then be drawn down again and revealed within his body.
A Hebrew name is your spiritual call sign, embodying your unique character traits and G-d-given gifts. Ideally, one should use it 24 hours a day, not just when you're called to the Torah or when prayers are offered on your behalf. According to Jewish custom, a critically ill person is sometimes given an additional Hebrew name â€” somewhat like a spiritual bypass operation to funnel fresh spirituality around their existing name and into their bodies; with the influx of spirituality, the body is given renewed vigor to heal itself. This is why, say the Chassidic masters, an unconscious person will often respond and be revived when his or her name is called.
How does one get a Hebrew name?
Usually, your Hebrew name is applied to you soon after birth. Jewish boys are named at their brit (circumcision), and girls at a Torah reading shortly after their birth. Your name is selected by your parents who usually name you after a dear departed loved one, most often an ancestor. Or, if they don't have anyone to memorialize, you just might end up with a Hebrew name of their own preference. Either way, however, our sages have declared that your parents' choice of a name constitutes a "minor prophecy", since the name they choose conforms with the inborn nature of your soul.
If your parents didn't give you a brit or didn't name you at a Torah reading â€” or if you're a non-Jew who's converting to Judaism â€” you can select any Hebrew name that resonates with you. Often, people will choose a name that is phonetically similar and/or of similar meaning to their "given" name (e.g., Benjamin becomes Binyamin or Bernie becomes Baruch). The name should be given in the presence of a Rabbi.
Question: What is the difference between Targum Onkelos and Targum Jonathan ben Uziel?
Victor, Snake River Corr Institution, Ontario OR
Targum Onkelos is on the Torah Targum Jonathan ben Uzziel is on the Nevi'im (Prophets)
Targum Onkelos (or Unkelus), is the official targum (Aramaic translation) to the Torah. Its authorship is attributed to Onkelos, ××•× ×§×œ×•×¡, a famous convert to Judaism in Tannaic times (c.35-120 CE).
According to Jewish tradition, the content of Targum Onkelos was originally conveyed by G-d to Moses at Mount Sinai. However, it was later forgotten by the masses, and rerecorded by Onkelos.
Onkelos was a prominent Roman nobleman, a nephew of the Roman emperor. His conversion is the subject of a story whereupon he first consulted with the spirits of three deceased enemies of the Children of Israel to see how the Nation of Israel fared in the next world (Gittin 56b). The first was emperor Titus, who was blamed for the destruction of the Second Temple; the second was the seer Balaam, hired by Balak king of Moab to curse Jewish people; and the last was Yeshu (Jesus), false Messiah, who sought to lead Jews astray to idolatry, an idolatrous former student of Rabbi Joshua ben Perachiah in the Hasmonean period. Onkelos is said to have seen all of them subjected to humiliating punishments for harming Jewish nation.
After his conversion, the Talmud records a story of how the Roman emperor tried to have Onkelos arrested (Avodah Zarah 11a). Onkelos cited verses from the Tanach to the first Roman legion, who then converted. The second legion was also converted, after he juxtaposed G-d's personal guidance of the Jewish Nation in the Book of Numbers to the Roman social hierarchy. A similar tactic was used for the third legion, where Onkelos compared his mezuzah to a symbol of G-d guarding the home of every Jew, in contrast to a Roman king who has his servants guard him. The third legion also converted and no more were sent.
Targum Jonathan (×ª×¨×’×•× ×™×•× ×ª×Ÿ ×‘×Ÿ ×¢×•×–×™××œ) - otherwise referred to as Targum Yonasan/Yonatan is the official targum (Aramaic translation) to the Nevi'im (Prophets). Talmudic tradition attributes its authorship to Jonathan ben Uzziel. Its overall style is very similar to that of Targum Onkelos, though at times it seems to be a looser paraphrase.
In Talmudic times (and to this day in Yemenite Jewish communities) Targum Jonathan was read as a verse-by-verse translation alternatively with the Hebrew verses of the Haftarah in the synagogue.
Jonathan ben Uzziel (Hebrew: ×™×•× ×ª×Ÿ ×‘×Ÿ ×¢×•×–×™××œ) was one of the 80 Tannaim who studied under Hillel HaZaken (the Elder). He is also the author of a book of Kabbalah known as Megadnim.
The tomb of ben Uzziel is located in Amuka, Galilee near Tzfat, in the Land of Israel. Many unmarried men and women pray there for a match. Doing so is considered a segula (propitious remedy) for finding one's mate within the coming year.
These two Targumim are mentioned in the Babylonian Talmud as Targum dilan ("our Targum"), giving them official status. In the synagogues of Talmudic times, Targum Onkelos was read alternately with the Torah, verse by verse, and Targum Jonathan was read alternately with the selection from Nevi'im (i.e. the Haftarah). This custom continues today in Yemenite synagogues. The Yemenite Jews are the only Jewish community to continue the use of Targum as liturgical text, as well as to preserve a living tradition of pronunciation for the Aramaic of the Targumim (according to a Babylonian dialect).
The Babylonian Talmud also mentions Targum in the context of a personal study requirement: "A person should always review his portions of Scripture along with the community, reading the Scripture twice and the Targum once" (Brachot 8a-b). This too refers to Targum Onkelos on the public Torah reading and to Targum Jonathan on the Haftarot from Nevi'im.
Question: Why do Jews, when they meet the first time, shake hands?
Yisroel, Bridgeport CC, Bridgeport CT
In an address by the Lubavitcher Rebbe to disabled Israeli soldiers and Paralympics on Aug. 19, 1976, the Rebbe explained the meaning of a handshake and why he would be honored to greet each one individually and shake each of their hands.
When Jews meet, they take one-another's hand, expressing the fact that they are one. This is alluded to through Torah: When the Ten Commandments were given, five were engraved on one Tablet and five on the other. Likewise, when two Jews shake hands, the five fingers of one person meet the five fingers of the other.
Together, they reflect the Ten Commandments, and also the Ten Divine Utterances by which G-d created the world, which show G-d's Divine Providence over every single individual, wherever they may be.
The Power in a Handshake
The Hebrew word for hand-yad, has a numeric value of 14, (yud=10; dalet=4). This coincides with the 14 bones (phalanges) in the fingers of each hand. Thus, in the two hands there are twenty eight (2Ã—14) such bones, so that when two people shake hands they create a bond of 28, which is to say that they fortify each other, 28 being the numeric value of koach, power.
Question: In articles in Reaching Out and in your letters, I read the term Tzadik, can you please explain it?
Kevin, Federal Corr Institution, Atlanta GA
Answer: At times someone may call another a tzaddik, because he is an exceptionally good person.
Tzaddik is a form of the Hebrew verb TzDK, which carries the meaning of doing what is correct and just. "Tzedek, tzedek you shall pursue!" Meaning: that which was wronged should be righted, that which was stolen should be returned to its owner. Tzedek is making everything the way it should be.
So too, the personality of the tzaddik is one who embodies the Creator's primal conception of the human being. The tzaddik is a human being like all of us. Because, essentially, all of us are divine. The tzaddik feels pain and pleasure. He smiles, he cries and he laughs. He suffers bitterness of the spirit, and he dances with joy. At times his heart palpitates with love, and at others his veins burn with pain. He is frustrated by failure, exhilarated by success; he revels in the celebrations of life, and mourns when those he loves depart from it. Because all these things are included in the character of the human being as G-d made him, and so they too are divine.
Like all of us, the tzaddik must eat and sleep. He enjoys the company of others. But he does all in a higher way, a divine way. Because, to the tzaddik, there is nothing that "just is." Everything is with purpose; in all things he sees meaning. To the tzaddik, everything that exists is a means of connecting to an infinite G-d.
This, then, is a tzaddik: one in whom we see our true selves, who allows us to realize that each one of us is essentially divine. And so, just by being there, but especially by our bonding with him, he connects us to the G-d who breathes within each one of us.
Question: I read Reaching Out and realize that you believe strongly in Moshiach and his eminent arrival. Please explain how you have come to this conclusion?
Marvin, Federal Corr Institution, Milan MI
Answer: The Rambam (Maimonides Laws of Kings 11:1) states:
Any individual who does not believe in [the coming of Moshiach], or does not await his arrival, is rejecting not only the prophets, but the Torah and Moses, too-for the Torah promises us regarding his arrival (Deuteronomy 30:3-5): "G-d, your G-d, will bring back your exiles, and He will have mercy upon you. He will once again gather youâ€¦ Even if your exiles are at the end of the heavensâ€¦ G-d, your G-d, will bring you [to the land which your forefathers possessed]."
We await the coming of Moshiach because we look forward to finally having peace and reaping the rewards of our millennia-long exile toil. But the Messianic Era isn't all about us and our benefit-it's primarily about a world set right, a world that will be a reflection of its Creator, a world where the rights and wrongs of the Torah are self-evident truths. Until Moshiach comes, Judaism is simply a "religion," seemingly relegated to its houses of worship, the tomes which preach its laws and ideologies, and the lives of its faithful adherents. During the Messianic Era, however, the truths of the Torah will be as self-evident as the laws of gravity and mathematics.
In a deeper sense, belief in the Redemption is belief in the supreme truth of the Torah. The belief that the world was created by G-d who used the Torah as His blueprint, and that the day will come when this truth will be patently obvious.
Furthermore, as Maimonides mentions, it is not sufficient to merely believe in the coming of Moshiach, it is also of primary importance to "await his arrival." For it is clear that one who does not yearn for Moshiach's arrival is demonstrating a lack of belief too. Is it conceivable for one to believe that such a magnificent era will indeed be arriving and not eagerly await that day?
Yearning for the Redemption is of such importance that according to the Talmud(Shabbat 31a), one of the very first questions a soul is asked when facing the Heavenly Court is: "Did you yearn for the Salvation?" The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Psalms 736) says that "if the Jewish people have no merit other than their yearning for Redemption-they are worthy of being redeemed for that alone!"
The Jewish people have yearned for and awaited the Redemption for nearly 2,000 years now. Jews anticipate the arrival of Moshiach every day. Our daily prayers are full of requests to G-d to usher in the messianic era. We request Moshiach in our Shacharis (Morning) prayer, and if he has not yet arrived, we repeat our requests by Mincha (Afternoon) prayer, and if has not arrived by then, we request yet again by Maariv (Evening) prayer.
The anticipation, however, reached a high pitch in recent years, following the announcement by Rebbe MHM, 1991, that the Era of Redemption is upon us. We are actually greeting Moshiach by increasing in acts of goodness and kindness, and fulfilling more Mitzvos.
The Rebbe points to various global phenomena that are clear indicators that the process of redemption has indeed started, and asked that we prepare ourselves for Redemption by beginning to "live with Moshiach,"-living a life that is dominated by the values that will characterize the Messianic Era. One primary way this is accomplished is through studying about Moshiach and the Messianic Era. Studying about it makes it a reality in our lives, and allows us to live a life of redemption even in these last moments before we witness the complete and true redemption.
Question: I used to be on the Moslem Halal food program but realized that while kosher may be used for Halal, Halal itself is not kosher, as the Moslems eat Camel meat and we don't. But because the kosher meals are very small, I am currently not on the kosher diet. I don't eat pork or shell fish. Can I make a Blessing before I eat and do so with a clean conscience?
Burnam, High Desert State Prison, Susanville CA
Answer: What exactly is the purpose of making a blessing on food? Two basic answers are given for this mitzvah:
1. With the blessing we are acknowledging G-d, the Creator of the food, and thank Him for providing it for us.
2. According to Kabbalah, all matter exists because it contains within it a spark of G-dliness. When we recite a blessing over food, we activate and elevate this G-dly spark. Thus the food nourishes us both physically and spiritually.
So, with regards to reciting a blessing on food that is not kosher:
1. It's a mockery to bless and thank G-d for the un-kosher food that one is eating-in opposition to His will.
2. Although all of physical matter contains within it the G-dly sparks that give it existence, in some cases the Divine energy is accessible to us, while in other cases it is inaccessible.
The purpose of our existence on this world is to interact with the physical world in order to elevate the divine sparks within it. It therefore follows that when the Divine energy within something is not accessible, we have no business with it.
Since the purpose of the blessing is to release the Divine energy within food, one does not recite a blessing over food whose Divine energy is so tightly imprisoned, that we cannot access it and it cannot be elevated.
Question: Rabbi, My son will soon come out of prison, and expects me to take care of him. He is an adult, when do my obligations as a parent to help a son end according to the Torah's teachings?
Answer: Some parents think that when a child reaches the age of 20, the obligations of parenthood end. The son or daughter is now a mature adult who can, and must, learn to fend for his or herself.
However, we can learn from the conduct of Avraham (Abraham) that education never ceases. At this point, Yitzchak (Isaac) was 37 years old, and Avraham could have quite reasonably taken a "back seat," allowing Yitzchak to make his own choices about where to live and whom to marry.
In fact, Avraham did precisely the opposite. Instead of relaxing and enjoying his own life, he relinquished his life's savings and all his possessions, giving them to Yitzchak in an attempt to help him find an appropriate wife.
From this we can learn that parenthood never ends. Even when our children become mature adults, we should be willing to sacrifice everything that we have for their benefit.
(Based on the teachings of the Rebbe, Shabbos Torah Portion Chayei Sarah 5730)
Question: I'll be coming home from prison and would like to consider keeping a kosher home, but the leap seems too daunting to do all at once. My problem is that when I do it, I want to do it right, and anything short of a 100% kosher kitchen seems like a compromise. Can you give me some ideas how I can make the transition into a kosher home just a little bit easier?
Victoria, Federal Correctional Institution, Carswell, TX
Answer: Dividing a mitzvah into small steps makes the goal much more attainable. Taking things slowly also adds the important element of stability to your journey towards living a Torah lifestyle. But don't look at it as a compromise. Here's why:
Suppose an adult wishes to learn a new language. Would he be compromising his mission by beginning with basic simple words?
You would indeed be compromising if you believed that as long as you don't eat bacon or cheeseburgers you're eating kosher. And it would be a compromise to think that Tefillin really need to be put on only once a week. But to say the journey begins with the first step? That is the way we grow.
Regarding mitzvahs, there's an additional component: Torah is not all or nothing. Each mitzvah is a full-blown relationship with the One Above. Each time we eat kosher, each time we put on Tefillin, each time we observe Shabbat with lighting the Sabbath candles in time, something extraordinary occurs.
On a practical note, here's a three-stage plan I like to suggest (though you may wish to divide it up even further).
- Buy only kosher meat.
- Avoid eating meat together with milk.
- Buy only products that bear reliable kosher certification. You'll be surprised how many items on the grocery store shelves are kosher.
- Divide your pots, pans, and cutlery into "meat" and "milk" groupings, even though you previously may have used the newly designated "milk" spoon for "meat." (You may want to mark your utensils with their new designations, so that you do not mix them up.) This is good practice for what's yet to come-practice that will help minimize messups once your kitchen is kosher.
- Invite a rabbi to your home to survey the kitchen. He'll advise you on how best to divide the "milk" and "meat" sections. He will also help you determine which utensils can be made kosher, and which will have to be replaced.
The big day:
The sinks, oven and utensils are koshered. You will now be eating in a kosher kitchen. May the fulfillment of this important mitzvah bring you and your family only blessings!
Question: Should the day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) precede the start of the New Year (Rosh Hashanah)? Shouldn't we atone for our sins for the previous year and then celebrate the New Year?
Ira, Federal Prison Camp, Lewisburg PA
Answer: On the first evening of Rosh Hashanah, after services, we exchange the traditional blessing, "May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year." Our sages explain that on Rosh Hashanah, we all stand in judgment before G-d â€” "like a flock of sheep before the shepherd." If we are worthy, we are "inscribed" in the "Book of Life." Ten days later, on Yom Kippur, the Book is sealed.
Through repentance, prayer, and charity, we can sweeten the decree, and merit G-d's blessings for health, wellbeing, and prosperity for the coming year.
Question: Please explain why is the lineage of a Jew determined by the religious ties of the mother, while in all of the Biblical history that I read (Adam, Moses, Joshua, etc) it is that of the father? This is quite confusing.
Robert, Medical and Reception Center, Lake Butler FL
Answer: All peoples of the world know who they are - they're forthright about it. Koreans are Koreans, Norwegians are Norwegians, and Hyphenated-Americans are Hyphenated-Americans. But what are Jews? "Who - or what - am I?" is a question every Jew has asked at least once in his lifetime. And sadly, they have reason to, because instead of definitions, they have doubt. Is being Jewish a race? Religion? Tradition? Ethnicity? Nationality? Geographic origin? None of the above? Here's what a Jew is: a Jew is a spiritual state of being. A Jew is any human being who has a Jewish soul, regardless of his or her race, lifestyle or professed religion.
This soul is possessed by any man or woman who was born to a Jewish mother or has converted to Judaism according to the dictates of Jewish law. You can be as hip as Jerry Seinfeld, as religious as Moses, as left-wing as Barbra Streisand or as conservative as your uncle Irving - you're still Jewish. You could be an environmentalist, an industrialist, a fundamentalist - you're still Jewish. You could try as hard as you can to be just like your neighbors - you're still Jewish. You could "convert" to Christianity, or run off to India to "become" Buddhist - you're still Jewish. You could even become an anti-Semite- you're still Jewish. You could be Caucasian, Hispanic, Irish, Norwegian, Hyphenated-American; whatever. No matter who you are or what you do, if you've got that Jewish soul, you're Jewish. And nothing you do or decide to be can destroy that Jewish soul.
Indeed, one's Jewishness is dependent on the mother, other genealogical factors important in Judaism, such as one's tribal affiliation, are contingent on the father. Thus, whether one is a Kohen, Levite, or Israelite depends on the father's lineage.
The reason for this is as follows. There are two basic components to a human being: (a) his essence, and (b) that which he projects forth, such as his talents and abilities. In Kabbalistic terminology, this second component is referred to as "revelations" of himself, as opposed to his essential self. The creation of a child requires both a man and woman, but for entirely different functions. The mother provides the essence, while the father adds the potential for what the child will eventually project - the revelations of his self. This is due to the different natures of male and female souls. The male soul emanates from G-d's emotive qualities, such as kindness, discipline and harmony - qualities that do not define G-d Himself, but rather are the means through which He relates to His creations. The female soul, on the other hand, originates in G-d's attribute of malchut, royalty. According to the teachings of Kabbalah, malchut is rooted in the essence of G-d that transcends all divine "revelations."
The essence of a Jew is his Jewish soul, his Jewish identity. This is inherited from the mother. His tribe - a revelation or projection, the way his Judaism is practiced and actualized - is begotten from the father.
Here is the source. The biblical inference for matrilineal descent: "You shall not intermarry with them; you shall not give your daughter to his son, and you shall not take his daughter for your son, for he will cause your child to turn away from Me, and they will worship the gods of others" (Deuteronomy 7:3-4). The implication is that children from such a union will be torn away from Judaism. Since the verse states "for he (i.e. a non-Jewish father) will cause your child to turn away . . . ," this implies that a child born to a Jewish mother is Jewish ("your child"), whereas if a Jewish man marries a non-Jewish woman, the child is not Jewish - and as such there is no concern that "she," the child's mother, will turn the child away from Judaism.
Question: As a Jew, am I allowed to lock hands with other men who are praying to another religion? The chaplain insists we do so.
Michael, Utah Corr Institution, Draper UT
Answer: A Jew cannot participate in prayers of another religion.
A non-denominational prayer would not pose an issue. And locking hands is not itself a particularly religious act. But to do so while the group is praying to J. or the like would be forbidden to a Jew.
Question: While in prison, if a person is getting anything more than me, I have problems with jealousy. Can you help me overcome my jealousy?
Lewis, Metropolitan Detention Center, Brooklyn NY
Answer: All jealousy boils down to the same thing. They have something you don't, and it's something you want.
Our Sages have a saying, "Who is wealthy? He who is happy with what he has." One who is satisfied with his lot in life does not struggle with jealousy, because he does not desire more than what he has.
Instead of "How can I overcome my jealousy?" the question really is, "How can I be happy with what I have?"
This question happens to be fundamental. We believe G-d is all-knowing and good. All knowing means He has full knowledge of what is best for you to have in life; and good means He will grant you what is best for you to have. If G-d has not seen fit for you to receive that which another seems to receive, this means that having what the other has, at this point in time is not in your best interests. So what's there to be jealous about?
Obviously, it takes a bit of work to make this line of thinking natural. There's no automatic mental switch. But the result is more than worth the effort.
Question: Does G-d forgive? I have done so much bad in the past and want to start anew, how?
Charles, South Division, Concord NH
Answer: Judaism teaches that a soul is never damaged. The body perhaps, the psyche perhaps, but the inner core of goodness that is the soul never. The essence always remains intact.
Although that is true, the damage that we do in our physical lives can create a ruin so big, so high, and so wide that it completely obscures the pure essence underneath.
And yet, Moses taught us that there is never a ruin so big that it can't be rebuilt; there is nothing that breaks that can't be mended.
After the sin of the Golden Calf, in his plea for forgiveness, Moses told G-d, "You created human beings as a flawed race who are bound to make mistakes. You must create a way for them to repair these mistakes. You must tell me that there is a way out, that there is hope."
In response, G-d told Moses, "I created the world in accordance with the laws of cause and effect. For every action there is a reaction. And sometimes the reaction is such that it can't be reversed. You're asking Me to change the natural laws that I myself created."
But Moses argued, "I'm not asking you to change the laws. I'm asking you to crack open just one door."
And G-d did.
This one door is called the "gate of tears." Tears are like the spout on a kettle that allows internal pressure out. They have the power to pry open any door. Moreover our Sages say that "tears bathe the soul." When we cry out to G-d with genuine sincerity, we wash away the muck that obscures our pure essence.
Question: What is the Jewish view on psychics?
Benjamin, Stafford Creek CC, Aberdeen WA
Answer: There is no doubt that there exist people who possess genuine supernatural powers. Good luck finding them. You don't need Judaism to tell you this (although it does); common sense informs you that the vast majority of self acclaimed psychics are either psycho or con artists. The type of person who possesses authentic supernatural powers does not sit on street corners, and neither is he "money hungry". So a simple rule: if you see a commercialized "psychic" business, it is probably just that: a business.
There are however, those who possess supernatural foresight. Such foreseers are divided into two categories: prophets, and psychics (or other forms of black magic). The former is divine, the latter is dark. We are commanded to heed the prophet's calling, yet prohibited from seeking the psychic's insight. What's the difference? The difference is both in the messenger and the message. For starters, the fact that one possesses an inborn tendency for metaphysical experience does not indicate that this person is inherently holy. A prophet must refine himself and live an extremely self controlled and holy lifestyle because his powers do not stem from within him. It is a Divine influx which comes from without, from above.
A prophetic experience occurs independent of the prophet; he is merely a conduit for it. The prophet cannot initiate a prophecy; the powers are generated and initiated by the will of G-d. The prophet can only, and must arduously, prepare himself to be an adequate vessel for divine emanation. The psychic's abilities, on the other hand, are from within. The metaphysical psychic intuition originates from within himself. A psychic is therefore not required to live a particularly holy lifestyle, and he can initiate a "vision" when he sees fit. In a sense, the innate psychic power is a talent like any other talent, much like a musical ability, an artistic sensitivity and the like. Being that it is an inborn talent, a natural gift and not a revelation from above, it is subject to the whims, as well as the negative traits, of man.
On the other hand, prophecy or any other form of Divine inspiration is a direct expression of spirituality, an emanation originating from above. Consequently, it is intrinsically divine and holy. Because of the dissimilarity, there exists a marked distinction of quality between the psychic and the prophet. While the prophet is distinguished as a man of extreme humility and humbleness, prevalent character traits of many psychics are self-centeredness, ego and at times, even arrogance. Different messengers naturally (or supernaturally) convey messages of different quality. Prophecy is a divine message, and is therefore always 100% accurate. Psychic experience, on the other hand, which is an innate metaphysical power, is never completely accurate, and some times it is actually completely inaccurate.
Question: In a recent article in Reaching Out it said that fish that have scales and fins are kosher. The National Geographic recently carried an article, that it was discovered that Sharks also have scales. Does this mean that Sharks are kosher?
Robert, Medical & Reception Center, Lake Butler FL
Answer: Though it is often translated as "scales", not all scales are included in the term of kosher. The Biblical commentator Nachmanides tells us that the scales must be able to be removed from the fish either by hand or with a knife, without ripping the underlying skin.
Practically speaking, if the skin underneath the scale would rip upon removing the scale, the fish could have "fins and scales", but not have the proper signs for kosher, and it would not be kosher.
There is no requirement that the scales must have a particular shape, color or texture. Any scale that can be removed without ripping skin would qualify as a the proper scales. The only limit discussed is the size of a scale, namely that it must be large enough to be viewed by the naked eye.
Question: What is the meaning of a â€˜Brocha' which the Rebbe Blesses?
Daniel, Menard IL
Answer: The giving and receiving of a Brocha (blessing) by the Rebbe, can be traced back to the times of our forefathers Abraham, Issac and Jacob, whom G-d ad blessed with the power of blessing and who blessed their children on solemn occasions. Since that time it has always been a custom. In the words of the Previous Lubavitch Rebbe, that the meaning of a Brocha is like rain (Gishmei Brocha).
Rain can accomplish its function and be useful only when preceded by the plowing and tilling of the soil, planting the seeds and preparing the soil for growing. However, should rain fall on unplowed and untilled soil, not only won't it accomplish its function but furthermore it may cause damage. The same applies to a Brocha, the body (actions and desires of the body) must be tilled and plowed (properly executing them according to the Torah). Only then will the Brocha be useful and help the blessed elevate himself to a higher standard.
Question: What's the reason for the black stripes on the tallit and tzitzit?
Dmitry, Metropolitan Federal Corr Institution, New York, NY
Answer: Firstly, it should be clear that the black stripes on the tallit and/or tzitzit are not mandatory. Many have other colors on their tallits, and many have completely white ones. Nevertheless, it is traditional in many communities to wear a tallit and tzitzit which sport black stripes.
Some suggest that the stripes are to remind us of the blue techelet. Indeed, some communities have the custom of using (dark) blue stripes, not black. For those whose custom it is to use black stripes, perhaps this is so that one should not erroneously believe that real techelet was used. (Because if we would have techelet we would use it to dye the tzitzit strings with it, not the garment).
Also, the Zohar explains that white represents chesed (Divine Benevolence) and the blue (black, dark) stripe represents gevurah (G-d's severity).
Furthermore, the mitzvah of reciting the morning Shema begins when it is light enough for one to distinguish between white and techelet. Since we no longer have the techelet, the black stripe in the cloth of the tallit can be used to ascertain whether the time for reading the Shema has yet arrived.
Question: Can you explain why G-d created each of us to have to sleep each day?
Larry, Federal Corr Institution, Fort Dix, NJ
Answer: The Lubavitcher Rebbe Explains it this way:
Every day, tens of billions of man-hours are slept down the drain. One might argue that slumbered time is our most wasted resource. Indeed, why spend 25 to 30 percent of our lives doing nothing? Why sleep?
Perhaps this seems a pointless question. Why sleep? Because our body demands it of us. Because that is how we are physiologically constructed-that we require so many hours of rest each day in order to function. But to the Jew, there are no pointless questions. If G-d created us a certain way, there is a reason. If our active hours must always be preceded by what the Talmud calls the "minor death" of sleep, there is a lesson here, a truth that is fundamental to the nature of human achievement.
If we didn't sleep, there would be no tomorrow-life would be a single, seamless "today." If we didn't sleep, our every thought and deed would be an outgrowth of all our previous thoughts and deeds. There would be no new beginnings in our lives, for the very concept of a "new beginning" would be utterly alien to us.
Sleep means that we have the capacity not only to improve but also to transcend ourselves. To open a new chapter in life that is neither predicted nor enabled by what we did and were up until now. To free ourselves of yesterday's constraints and build a new, recreated self.
Question: My hand Tefillin accidently fell to the floor, the edges and corners were not damaged, what do I need to do?
Lawrence, Grafton State Prison, Grafton OH
Answer: The Tefillin should be handled with due reverence. Should the Tefillin accidentally fall to the floor, atonement is required by fasting or giving charity. In such a case a Rabbi should be consulted as to how the atonement should be made.
Said our Sages: He who carefully observes the commandment of Tefillin daily, merits long life and the World to Come.
Question: Can you please explain if there are differences in the Torah between Orthodox, Conservative and Reform?
Charles, Federal Prison Camp, Otisville NY
Answer: The Torah makes no difference at all, between one Jew and the other. Every Jew, even in the most remote corner of the earth, must remember that they are an important part of the entire Jewish nation. They are representatives of the entire Jewish people, one nation, since the Giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai until the end of time.
"Conservative" and "Reform" are artificial labels when applied to a Jew. All Jews have the same Torah, given by the same G-d, though there are more observant Jews and less observant Jews. To place a tag or a label does not change the reality of Jewish essence.
Love of G-d, Love of Torah and Love of a fellow Jew are one. One cannot differentiate between them, for they are of a single essence, where each one embodies all three.
When a person has a love of G-d but lacks a love of Torah and a love of his fellow, his love of G-d is incomplete. And the one who has only a love for his fellow must strive toward a love of Torah and a love of G-d. This love toward his fellows should not be limited to providing bread and water for the hungry, but bring them close to G-d's Torah.
Question: Why does G-d allow people to suffer?
Mark, Federal Corr Institution, Minersville PA
Answer: Everyone asks the
Question: philosophers, theologians, bakers and grocery owners. No one really answers it. The Bible devotes the 41 chapters of the Book of Job to the subject, offering several interesting explanations only to refute them all, the conclusion being that finite man cannot fathom the ways of G-d. And although this question has been discussed, debated and chewed over many a time, it remains unanswered.
It's probably the oldest question in the history of human thought. It's surely the most disturbing, the most frequently asked and the least satisfactorily answered: Why, oh why, do bad things happen to good people?
For most, the protest against evil is something that rises out of one's own encounters with the rough spots of life. To a true leader who feels the pain of his people as his own, it is a bottomless cry issuing from the seemingly bottomless well of human suffering.
But the question will remain unanswered until the revelation of Moshiach. And that is the way it should be. So you ask â€˜how' to move on? By not searching for answers! Let us not try to "justify" G-d, no! we don't want explanations; we want an end to pain. We are not searching for answers; we are demanding an end to the questions! Hashem: Ad Mosai? Till when? Even people who believe in G-d are not necessarily driven to confront Him. The true believer, knows that everything that happens, happens only because it is ordained from Above. He knows that G-d is the essence of good and that only good flows from Him. And he also knows that man can talk to G-d and expect a response to his entreaties. So he cannot but cry out: "My G-d, why have You done evil to Your people?!"
Dear friend, you must move on because we must bring Moshiach and end the questions. The only way to take away the question is by going forward, by doing all we can to bring a time of no pain and no questions. IF YOU HAVE QUESTIONS, ALL THE MORE OF A REASON TO MOVE ON! Don't stop asking, and don't stop working on the answer. Indeed, the question/protest/outcry, "Why have You done evil to Your people?!" can issue only from the mouth of a true believer. The non-believer, too, may be outraged by the cruelty and suffering our world abounds with, but just who is he outraged at? The blind workings of fate? The oblivious and a personal god of physical law and evolutionary process? The random arrangement of quarks that make up the universe?
Question: Can you explain afterlife?
Stanley, Federal Detention Center Los Angles, CA
Answer: The teachings of the Torah clearly explain that it is a basic tenet of Judaism, that after this worldly life, one moves on to another eternal lif the death of the body does not represent man's final demise.
Of course, Jewish teachings states that the afterlife is the better life. The soul, now free from the body, lives in eternal bliss. Consisting solely of pure spirit and basking in the glory of G-d the soul finds its eternal rest. Life in this world is has value-specifically in that it enables man to fulfill his duties concerning Torah and Mitzvot, and thereby earn his share in the World to Come. This life, states the Mishnah, is but an antechamber, a place where man may prepare himself for the palace.
Life after death has the additional dimension that it provides the arena for ultimate reward and punishment. It is there and then that man faces the heavenly tribunal to account for his actions, and to experience reward or punishment accordingly.
Now, it is true that a casual reading of the Torah would suggest that reward and punishment occur primarily not in the next world but in relation to material well-being in this life. The Torah states, to quote one of numerous examples: "If you will follow my decrees I will provide your rains in their time." Several times a day we say in the Shema: "And it will come to pass if you shall surely listen to my commandments . . . And I shall give the rainsâ€¦ Beware, lest your hearts turn â€¦ And G-d's anger shall be arousedâ€¦ and He shall bar the heavensâ€¦"
Nevertheless, Torah Sages throughout the ages have repeatedly emphasized that material comfort or its absence are neither ultimate reward nor ultimate punishment, respectively; these occur primarily in the afterlife.
What then is the function of material reward and punishment promised in Torah? To paraphrase Maimonides' explication of the roles of material and spiritual reward and punishment, i.e. reward in this life and in the afterlife, respectively: This life is merely corporeal, and the body is but contingent and temporary, eventually disintegrating. The soul is the eternal part of man. It has the capacity to merge with G-d. By sublimating itself, by elevating itself above the body and the mundane character of this world during the time it is moored here to this physical reality, the soul frees itself from the life-death cycle and assumes eternity as G-d Himself. If it fails to merge with the Divine whilst in this life, it is lost forever along with the body. Accordingly, ultimate reward amounts to spiritually merging with G-d in the afterlife; ultimate punishment, being cut off from this greatest of opportunities. What then is the role of material reward and punishment as promised by the Torah? These are, as it were, merely "working conditions." If man is found worthy, G-d improves his working conditions by granting him material comfort, thereby enabling him to continue along the good path and eventually reach that which is truly good for him-in the afterlife. If he is found wanting, the reverse occurs.
True good, then, does not occur in this temporary and mundane life, but in the subsequent eternal, spiritual life, unhindered by the wants and limitations of the contingent body. The afterlife is the ultimate reward, the ultimate life.
Question: Do Jews believe in Hell?
Mark, Federal Correction Institution, Beaumont TX
Answer: Jews believe in a type of Hell, but not the one Christians talk about, or found in joke books. Hell is not a punishment in the conventional sense; it is, in fact, the expression of a great kindness.
The Jewish mystics described a spiritual place called "Gehinnom." This is usually translated as "Hell," but a better translation would be "the Supernal Washing Machine." Because that's exactly how it works. When our soul departs our bodies it is cleansed in Gehinnom is similar to the way our clothes are cleansed in a washing machine.
Imagine if you were to be thrown into boiling hot water and flung around for half an hour, you might start to feel some pain. However, the fact is that only after going through a wash cycle that the cloths be worn again.
We don't put our cloths into the washing machine to punish them. We put them through what seems like a rough and painful procedure only to make them clean and wearable again. The intense heat of the water loosens the dirt, and the force of being swirled around shakes it off completely. Far from hurting your cloths, you are doing them a favor by putting them through this process.
So too with the soul, or as called in Hebrew, the Neshama. Every act we do in our lifetime leaves an imprint on our soul. The good we do brightens and elevates our soul, and every wrongdoing leaves a stain that needs to be cleansed. If, at the end of our life, we leave this world without fixing the wrongs we have done, our soul is unable to reach its place of rest on high. We must go through a cycle of deep cleansing. Our soul is flung around at an intense spiritual heat to rid it of any residue it may have gathered, and to prepare it for entry into Heaven.
This is also one of the reasons we recite Kaddish after the departure of the soul from this world. To make the cleansing less intense. Of course, this whole process can be avoided. If we truly regret the wrong we have done and make amends with the people we have hurt, we can leave this world with a clean soul.
That's why our Sages said, "Repent one day before you die." And what should you do if you don't know which day that will be? Repent everyday.
Question: Is the Satan the Devil?
Paul, RJ Donovan State Prison, S Diego CA
Answer: The idea of "selling one's soul to the devil"-meaning, becoming a slave of the devil in exchange for favors provided-does not exist in Torah. Jewish ethical works do describe instances where one can be somewhat "possessed" by evil drives. But even that state is always reversible.
Before addressing this, here's a bit on the nature of Satan in Jewish thought:
Satan is a Hebrew verb meaning "provoke" or "oppose" and is used several times in the Bible as a verb. The first instance is in the story of Balaam, when Balaam decides to take the mission of cursing the Jewish People:
"G-d's wrath flared because he was going, and an angel of the L-rd stationed himself on the road to oppose him [translation of [â€˜satan lo], and he was riding on his she-donkey, and his two servants were with him.
In other cases, the word appears as a noun, "a provocateur." Generally, the title appears with the definite article-"the satan"-which means that it is not a proper name, just a job description. For example, in the book of Job, the satan appears as a prosecutor before G-d:
"Now the day came about, and the angels of G-d came to stand beside the L-rd, and the satan, too, came among themâ€¦"
"Now the L-rd said to the satan, "Have you paid attention to My servant Job? For there is none like him on earth, a sincere and upright man, G-d-fearing and shunning evil."
And the satan answered the L-rd and said, "Does Job fear G-d for nothing? Haven't You made a hedge around him, his household, and all that he has on all sides? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his livestock has spread out in the land. But now, stretch forth Your hand and touch all that he has, will he not blaspheme You to Your face?"
Now the L-rd said to the satan, "Behold, all that he has is in your hands; only upon him do not stretch forth your hand." Now the satan left the presence of the L-rd."
From this passage, we see that G-d created an angel to play the role of provocateur; that he is a messenger of, and subservient to, G-d. He was not a fallen angel or sent to Hell, where he began fighting G-d; he was created to be Satan. Neither does Satan spend his days stoking the flames of hell with his pitchfork. He is a presence on earth with a mission: to provoke people to disobey G-d's will.
Indeed, the dualistic notion of a powerful anti-G-d figure that fights with G-d for the destiny of the human race is incompatible with Jewish belief. There is no power of evil independent of G-d; otherwise this would imply a lack of G-d's all-inclusive control and power. To quote the Book of Isaiah:
"â€¦from the place where the sun rises until the place where it sets, there is nothing but Me. I am G-d, there is nothing else. [I am He] Who forms light and creates darkness, Who makes peace and creates evil; I am G-d Who makes all these."
Obviously then, the satan is not an autonomous force who opposes G-d and recruits people to his militia. Rather, the satan is a spiritual entity that is completely faithful to its maker. For example, regarding the Biblical story of the satan's particularly aggressive attempt to seduce Job to blaspheme, Rabbi Levi declares in the Talmud:
"Satan's acted for G-d's sake. When He saw how G-d was so focused on Job, he said, "Heaven forbid that G-d should forget His love of (our forefather) Abraham!""
The Zohar compares the satan to a harlot who is hired by a king to try to seduce his son, because the king wants to test his son's morality and worthiness. Both the king and the harlot (who is devoted to the king) truly want the son to stand firm and reject the harlot's advances. Similarly, the satan is just another one of the many spiritual messengers (angels) that G-d sends to accomplish His purpose in the creation of man.
This is not the satan's entire job description. The Talmud sums it up saying that the satan, the impulse to evil ("yetzer hara"), and the angel of death are one and the same personality. He descends from heaven and leads astray, then ascends and brings accusations against humankind, and then carries out the verdict.
However, the above-mentioned passage in Zohar concludes that if one does succumb to the urging of the evil inclination, he is "giving energy to the other side". This means, that an act defying G-d's will grants those forces that hide G-d's presence-at His bidding-additional strength to hide G-d from us even more. This presents itself as even greater internal and external challenges for one to experience and identify with the truths of G-d and His Torah.
One extreme example of this would be Pharaoh, who enslaved the Jewish people in Egypt. Though G-d told Moses to command Pharaoh to free the Israelites, He stated that, "I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants" in order to ultimately punish the Egyptians with the ten plagues. As a consequence for his earlier oppression and abuse of the Jewish nation, his ability to abandon his evil ways was made even more difficult, to the point that he seemed to have lost free choice, and his vision and ability to repent was completely impaired.
There is nothing that can ultimately stop one who truly seeks to return. Pharaoh, too, was therefore still capable of overcoming this block, and ultimately repenting, as discussed at length in Why was Pharaoh Punished? Thus, even when someone seems to be completely possessed by the satan-as divine retribution for his earlier misdeeds, not by choice of negotiation with the devil-he is still not sold, and can overcome his instinct and impulse to act satanically. To become completely sold with no hope of redemption would be counter-productive of G-d's intent, and could not exist.
Regardless of where you've fallen, you are never sold to these impure forces, and your soul can wrestle free and recommit to serve G-d with sincerity and passion. The axe of earnest remorse can bring down any wall, whether preexisting or created by your actions, clearing the way for you to come home to your true self.
Question: From prison to prison, at each chapel, they pronounce the words differently. In one it is Ashkenazic, in another Sefardic, how am I to pronounce the words?
Matthew, Centralia Corr Institution, Centralia IL
Answer: With reference to the question of the pronunciation, Ashkenazi or Sefardi, surely you know that there is also Yemenite pronunciation and others. The adherents of each pronunciation of course claim that theirs is the right one. As a matter of fact, in recent times there has been a growing opinion that the Ashkenazi pronunciation is a more authentic one than the Sefardi. At any rate, if you want my opinion as to which pronunciation you should use personally, my answer is that you should not mix pronunciations, at any rate not during the same prayer, or better still not even during the same day.
In view of the force of human habit, and especially inasmuch as prayer requires concentration and heartfelt devotion, it would be well to get used to one pronunciation, and to abide by it, at least insofar as prayer is concerned.
Question: You mention in your letters a "Jewish soul"? Can you explain the difference between a Jewish and non-Jewish soul?
Gary, Federal Correction Institution, Coleman FL
Answer: The idea, that all souls are the same, is one of the biggest mistakes of modern spirituality. We are so used to thinking, that definitions create barriers, and barriers cause hatred; that we are convinced, that to be spiritual, means to have no borders.
From a Kabbalistic perspective, this totally misses the point of existence. Before the creation, G-d had unity. G-d was all there was; there were no borders, definitions or distinctions. If unchallenged unity is what G-d wants, He had it already. He would not have needed to create the world.
Creation was an act of making borders. From unity, came multiplicity. Ours, is a world of divisions: body and soul, male and female; as well as the divisions of nations, families and individuals.
Why did G-d create multiplicity? Doesn't that go against the oneness of G-d?
No, it doesn't. Because the deepest unity, is unity found within diversity. If we are all the same, then unity is no big deal. So G-d gave us all particular souls, each with its unique and diverse characteristics. When each individual as an individual, and each nation from within its own culture and perspective, but nevertheless, recognizes the same G-d, that is real unity.
In other words, a unity that is challenged by diversity, yet emerges from that very diversity, is an invincible unity. That is something G-d "couldn't" have accomplished, without a world like ours.
To blur the boundaries between nations, genders and individuals, is to avoid facing the challenge, which lies at the very heart of G-d's purpose in creation â€” to find unity, in our differences.
For the unity of humankind, we need one G-d; but for G-d's unity to be complete, we need human diversity.
Jews should be Jews, non-Jews should be non-Jews, men should be men, and women should be women. And every individual has to be himself. Only then can we learn from each other, the wisdom that we ourselves lack.
The majesty of G-d is revealed, when each individual and community, connects with Him, from his/her/their unique vantage point. There is a contribution, that only you can make, to G-d's master plan.
That's why you were born as you are â€” a Jew, a male: and all the other distinctive spiritual characteristics, that make you "Gary."
Question: My life has fallen apart, I have lost everything in my life. Does G-d forgive?
Joseph, Gouverneur Corr Facility, Gouverneur, NY
Answer: We feel for you, in what must be a huge test of your character. Your whole world has been shattered to pieces. There is a name for your situation; the Kabbalists call it Ayin Baemtza - "transitional nothingness." Between any two states of being, lies an intermediary state, of non-being.
Like a seed, that becomes a tree, it must first decompose, nullify itself, and rot into oblivion. Just as it reaches the verge of complete nonexistence, it starts to sprout, and reinvents itself into a new being. Only by losing its being, as a seed, and becoming nothing, can it then reach a new being, a much greater being, a tree.
It has to be this way. To truly reinvent oneself, there must be a true and complete break from the past, a real nothingness, to make room for the new self, to emerge. You are presently going through an Ayin Baemtza (nullified) stage in your life. The life that was, is gone; and the life that will be, is yet to blossom; but you are left in a big black hole, of confusion, pain, and darkness.
That is a very hard place to be, because even though this transitional nothingness, is just a temporary state, a step between two stages in life; for you, the nothingness is real. It is hard - maybe impossible - for you to see, any bright future ahead. So what can you do to survive the transitional nothingness? What will keep you going, until you transform, into the you of tomorrow?
In your current state of nothingness, you need to hold on to something higher than yourself. Now, you need faith, not philosophy. Say to yourself: "My life is in disarray, I don't know what's happening, I don't know what will be, but I am in G-d's hands. This is a process, that for whatever reason I must go through. And with G-d's help, I will get through it."
When in an Ayin (empty) state, it is not the time to be changing belief systems, or making important life choices. The ground you are standing on, is too unstable, for you to be able to think clearly. It would be sad - no, it would be tragic - if in your frustration, you made choices that you will later regret.
My friend, I offer no solutions to your predicament, but I do offer you one piece of advice. Just hold on to G-d, He is the one thing, that even in your nothingness, you haven't lost.
You will get through this black hole, and your life will grow even stronger than before. The seed is planted, have faith, and G-d willing, your new tomorrow, will blossom soon.
Question: Can you please explain the reason some Jews put on two pairs of Teffilin at morning services? I have had two pairs for some time, but the prison now wants to take it away from me, claiming that one is enough. I need the proper words to explain that there is a need for two.
Mendel, State Correctional Institution, Somerset, PA
Answer: Indeed, many Jews - not only Chabad - wear two pairs of tefillin. The reason for this is that since Gaonic times (6th-11th century CE) there have been differing opinions regarding the arrangement of the four Biblical passages inserted in the tefillin boxes.
The four biblical passages written on a parchment scroll (or in the case of the head tefillin, on four different scrolls) and inserted into the tefillin boxes are:
- "Kadesh" (Exodus 13:1-10);
- "V'haya ki y'viacha" (Exodus 13:11-16);
- "Sh'ma" (Deuteronomy 6:4-9);
- "V'haya im shamoa" (Deuteronomy 11:13-21).
These are the four biblical passages that mention the obligation to wear tefillin.
In what order are these passages placed in the tefillin?
Well the Talmud (Menachot 34b) records the tradition on this matter: "Kadesh and V'haya ki yeviacha to the right [of the individual opposite the tefillin wearer]; Shema and V'haya im shamoa to the left." Furthermore, the Talmud says, if the passages are not in their proper order, the tefillin are not kosher.
The interpretation of this Talmudic rule, however, has been hotly debated.
One opinion is that "Shema and V'haya im shamoa to the left" starts from the center of the tefillin and extends left-wards. This is the opinion championed by Rashi, an eminent 11th century sage.
- "Kadesh" (Exodus 13:1-10);
- "V'haya ki y'viacha" (Exodus 13:11-16);
- "Sh'ma" (Deuteronomy 6:4-9);
- "V'haya im shamoa" (Deuteronomy 11:13-21).
The other opinion maintains that "Shema and V'haya im shamoa to the left" starts from the left edge of the tefillin and extends inwards. This is the opinion supported by Rashi's grandson, known as "Rabbeinu Tam."
Rabbeinu Tam's Tefillin:
- "Kadesh" (Exodus 13:1-10);
- "V'haya ki y'viacha" (Exodus 13:11-16);
- V'haya im shamoa" (Deuteronomy 11:13-21);
- "Sh'ma" (Deuteronomy 6:4-9).
The Code of Jewish Law sides with Rashi's opinion. Nevertheless, it says that "all G-d fearing individuals" should have two pairs of tefillin and wear both each day.
In chassidic circles it is especially common to wear two pairs of tefillin, this because according to kabbalah it is important to wear both pairs, each one representing a different divine flow of energy.
Rabbeinu Tam's Tefillin are donned after the morning prayers, without the recitation of a blessing. While wearing them, it is customary to recite the three passages of the Shema, as well as the Kadesh and V'haya ki y'viacha passages.
Question: Can you please tell me how many letters are in a Torah and what is the Torah printed on?
Joshua, Waupin Corr Institution, Waupin WI
Answer: These days a full size Sefer Torah is between 18 and 19 inches, top to bottom. Cow or calf skin is used in making the parchment for the Torah. Each calf produces 1 sheet of parchment. Each individual sheet of parchment can hold 4 columns. A complete Torah scroll is composed of 245 columns of 42 lines each with a total of 304,805 letters. As a result, a herd of approx. 62 cows is needed to produce a full-size Torah scroll.
Question: What's behind the custom of eating dairy products on Shavuot? Is there a connection between the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai and eating milk products? I'm not complaining, I love cheesecake - I'm just looking for a deep spiritual excuse to eat more.
Robert, Federal Corr Institution/Allenwood, White Deer PA
Answer: Milk is actually refined blood. In a complex and wondrous process, the mammary glands transform blood into pure white milk.
There's something supernatural about that. To take a liquid as pungent and distasteful as blood, and convert it into a nourishing and drinkable food is nothing short of miraculous. We can simulate this miracle in our own lives. Blood represents raw animalistic passion and untamed instinct. Milk is a symbol of refinement and purity of character. Making milk out of blood - refining our lower instincts - is our life goal.
The Torah introduced a radical new path to achieve this goal - the divine commands. Through engaging in simple acts of goodness and sanctity, we can tame our animalistic instincts and align ourselves with the divine. With each individual act we elevate ourselves and our world another step, gradually transforming a rough and untamed existence into a home for G-d. We can turn our blood into milk.
I also love cheesecake. But this year as we eat it, let's remember the message behind it - that the Torah was given to transform our selfish appetites into an appetite for giving; to turn our blood, which is just for ourselves, into milk, the one thing the body produces just to give to another.
Question: In discussions amongst other men, a question comes up often and we seek your guidance. Now that we have a Camp David agreement signed, sealed, and delivered, don't we have to live with it? Would it be legally and morally right to abrogate it unilaterally?
Aaron, Federal Corr Institution, Petersburg VA
Answer: There are two major answers to this question. First of all, an agreement is binding on either party only as long as the other is carrying out its part. As a matter of record, the Egyptians have not acted in good faith and have broken, and are breaking, many of their pledges under the agreement. (To cite one more glaring example, which should have created a much greater public shock than the tiny ripples it started: By their own admission, once the fact was discovered, the Egyptians had been reporting to other Arab nations, as well as the PLO, on the negotiations conducted with the representatives of Eretz Yisrael under the Camp David accords). In view of the systematic violations of the agreement by the Egyptians, the other party need not feel either legally or morally obligated to abide by it.
The second answer, which is equally valid, is that the Camp David accords were based on a presumption that invalidated them in the first place. Clearly, no government official has the right to sign away the very security of the people and country he represents, nor the security of the next generation and subsequent generations, for no person can possibly have such a mandate, actual or implied. Certainly, in the present case, no such mandate was given - on the contrary; there is an explicit and expressed unanimity that the security of the Land of Israel and its five million Jews is not negotiable. Since the Camp David agreement does indeed jeopardize the security of the people and land of Israel, no signature, or even ratification, can be binding.
Incidentally, it has now been publicly admitted by a high-ranking member of the government of Eretz Yisrael and leading representative in the negotiations, that the Camp David agreement was a mistake, and that the terms, at any rate, should have been reversed, namely, that Egypt should have been made to comply with its obligations before surrendering to it the Sinai and all that went with it.
Question: The prison allows Books but insists on removing the hard cover. I understand that the covers of Holy Books are also holy. Can you please explain?
Brandon, CSATF State Prison, Corcoran CA
Answer: The ultimate sign of respect for books, is how they are treated when they wear out. Holy books, like the people who used them, are buried, usually sharing the grave with a deceased Torah scholar (following Talmud Megillah 26b). This serves both to honor the books and to prevent further degradation.
Question: Can you please tell me what does the Torah teach about depression, which I experience at times.
Scott, Pinellas County Jail, Coldwater FL
Answer: There's nothing good about depression. Passion can be turned to good, jealousy can drive a person forward, even anger can be redeemed as righteous indignation. But depression? What can be good about going nowhere?
When a person is happy, he's healthy. True happiness is when every faculty, every sense, every neuron and every muscle is in tune and functioning harmoniously. When happy, a person can fulfill his purpose in life, all of him, all of his purpose. Which is why depression is so despicable. Because depression is a surrender of purpose, of meaning.
Yet it's indisputable that there are people whose upbringing and life story give them every reason to be happy and carefree, and yet suffer horrible depression from the earliest years. They can fight it, and there are plenty of strategies that can hold depression at bay-like good friends, good doctors and lots of willpower. But there's no doubt there's something there inside these people that make them far more prone than others to this illness. So your question is a valid one: Why would an omniscient Creator place some fault inside His creatures that fights against the very purpose for which they were created?
If our Creator put it within us, there must be a place for it. A place where it provides a valuable function and contributes to healthy living. If it's hurting you, it must be that it's just not in that right place. Solomon the wise said, "From every sadness there will be an advantage." Meaning that the sadness itself has no advantage, but an advantage comes out of it, when it's over and done with. But is there any advantage that comes out of depression?
Yes, one thing: A depressed person feels very small. That's good.Smallness is good. Especially when breaking out of your cell. Because once small enough, you can fit between the bars of any prison cell and escape. Especially the prison cells in which we lock up our own selves.
The prison of all prisons is the ego. A person obsessed with his own self-worth can never find happiness. First of all, because most of happiness is in small things-and when you're very big, small things are too insignificant to deserve your interest. Secondly, because once you feel important, there is no limit to how important you are-and therefore no limit to what you feel you deserve.
Depression argues that you're a worthless, hopeless scum in whom nobody would ever take interest. So agree with it. Tell it back, "You're absolutely right. I'm even less than that. I was created with a purpose that I have not lived up to. I've messed up again and again. And yet, nevertheless, I have a G-d who has put up with me despite all my failures, who continues to ask me to be His agent in His world, eagerly awaiting my mitzvahs, looking forward to me sharing my concerns with Him three times a day. My purpose still lies before me, and whatever of it I can fulfill, even for a moment, is worth more than all the pleasures of the Garden of Eden."
I didn't make that up. I ripped it off from chapter 31 of that classic of chassidic thought, the Tanya. To be fair, I should present you with the retort suggested there:
"True, without any doubt, I am very distant from G-d, as distant as you can get, despicable and disgusting as I am. However, all this is me myself as I stand on my own-meaning my body-self and the life-giving soul it contains. But within me, in a very real sense, there is a bit of G-d. It is there even in the shallowest person. She is the G-dly soul with a spark of real G-dliness invested within her to give her life." "It's just that she is there in a kind of exile. And if that's the case, then I need to turn my thinking around: The more I am completely distant from G-d, the more disgusting and despicable I am, the greater the exile of my G-dly soul and the greater compassion she deserves." "Therefore, I will make it my entire goal and desire to release her and pull her up from that exile. I will bring her back to her Father's house as she was in her youth, before she was invested within my body, when she was absorbed within His light and completely united with Him. Now as well she will be absorbed and united with Him as I make Torah and mitzvahs my entire ambition, when I will invest all her ten faculties within them. Especially in the mitzvah of davening, when I will let her cry out from her pain of exile in my despicable body-self, pleading to be released from imprisonment so that she may be bonded with Him once again."
Perhaps the entire drama can be summed up in a single anecdote:
The Rebbe looked at the young man standing before him and said, "A Jew has to serve G-d with happiness!"
The young man replied, "Rebbe, what is there for me to celebrate?"
"Celebrate about the mitzvahs that you do!"
The young man paused. "Rebbe, I haven't done any mitzvahs for a long time."
"Then celebrate that you have a G-d who waits every moment for your mitzvahs!"
Against such an argument, depression has nothing left to say. We call this "transforming darkness to light." When light pushes away darkness, darkness only waits in the corners for its time to return. But when the darkness itself is transformed to light, it is a light that no darkness can oppose.
Question: What explanations can you give on why G-d created evil?
Samuel, Mid State Correctional Facility, Wrightstwon NJ
Answer: Our sages taught that G-d created the world out of sheer benevolence. He wanted to bestow goodness upon humanity. Because He is perfect He wanted to bestow perfect goodness. In other words, G-d wanted to bestow Himself.
He could have made a perfect world with people who emulate their Creator perfectly. But such people would have been a poor emulation of G-d. They would not have been inherently good; their goodness would have been bestowed from Above. It would have been a borrowed perfection.
Thus G-d created a world in which goodness and evil are equal options, and He created humanity with the freedom to choose. Our penchant for goodness is not greater than our proclivity for evil; we are evenly balanced. If we want to embrace goodness we must make a choice, and choices reflect who we are. We are not forced into goodness by powers beyond ourselves. We are moved by our choice, by an inner conviction that goodness is right. This inner resolve reflects the goodness within our souls and comes as close as humanity can possibly come to being inherently good.
G-d did not create evil so that we could indulge it, but so that we could avoid it. If evil did not exist, choosing against it would not be possible, and perfection would slip from our grasp. Evil, as a viable option, makes it possible for us to choose against it and affirm our inherent goodness.
Question: Please explain the "Shechinah" to me. I have come across several variations recently in my studies.
Zev, Columbia Corr Institution, Lake City FL
Answer: The following is a free translation of a letter by the Rebbe dated Nissan, 5724 (March-April, 1964):
In answer to your query, in which you ask to explain the concept of shechinah (the divine immanence; lit. "indwelling"), which is mentioned many times in the teachings of our sages:
The concept is extensively expounded upon, particularly in the books and discourses of chassidic teachings-you can look it up in the indices published in the back of Tanya, Torah Ohr, Likkutei Torah and other works. Here I will offer a brief explanation, obviously not a comprehensive one, as space does not allow.
Since G-d is the ultimate perfection and is free of all limitations and definitions, it is self-evident that, in the words of the Alter Rebbe, "The fact that He creates universes does not express what G-d is." At the same time, He is, as Maimonides writes in his Laws of the Fundamentals of Torah, "the one who brings every existence into being; all existences exist only as derivatives of His ultimate existence" and the one whom "all existences are utterly dependent upon Him." It is also obvious that just as no creature can comprehend the nature of G-d's creation of reality ex nihilo, so, too, no creature can comprehend the nature of G-d, even the nature of G-d as the creator of the world and the source of every existence.
In the words of the great Jewish philosophers: "If I knew Him, I would be Him."
So though a person realizes and understands that no thing can create itself, and that one must therefore conclude that the created reality has a source that generates its existence, this is only proof of the existence of the Creator, not an understanding of what He is, even as "Creator."
Nevertheless, G-d desired that the divine influences upon creationâ€¦ and the divine immanence in the world should also include elements that the human mind can comprehend. In the words of the sweet singer of Israel, "When I see Your heavens, the work of Your fingersâ€¦" Indeed, this includes an instruction to man regarding the service of his Creator: "Lift your eyes upward, and see who created theseâ€¦" (As the Alter Rebbe elaborates on this verse in a discourse that is also the basis of Sefer Hachakirah, authored by his grandson, theTzemach Tzedek.)
This aspect of the divine reality-that which pervades our world to the extent that it can be discovered by G-d's creatures-is what is meant by the term shechinah, i.e., that which dwells within and enclothes itself.
It is important to emphasize that one cannot categorize the divine reality into various aspects or areas, G-d forbid; it is only that from the perspective of the contemplating creature, there are things that he can comprehend and things that he cannot comprehend. In truth, however, there are no categories, in the plural, but a singular, utterly abstract reality.
Consider the soul of man: obviously, it is not divisible into 248, 365 or 613 components; nevertheless, the observing eye differentiates between the vitality of the foot and the vitality of the brain, though both are of a single essence-the soul that vitalizes the body. How much more so (to distinguish ad infinitum) is it so regarding the divine reality. Thus, when we say that theshechinah is present in the Holy Temple, this is not to say, G-d forbid, that only that "aspect" of the divine that is called shechinah is there, but to stress that there the divine reality is present in such a way that it "dwells within" and "clothes itself" to the extent that it is observable with our physical eyes, in the fact that "the space of the ark did not take up space," in the ten miracles that regularly occurred in the Holy Temple, and so on.
As we said, the above is but one approach to explain the concept of shechinah; many other approaches, and many other points in this approach itself, are elaborated in a number of books and discourses of chassidic teaching.
My hope is that you have set times for the study of the teachings of chassidutevery day, and to an even greater extent on Shabbat, the day sanctified to G-d.
With esteem and blessingsâ€¦,
Question: I know, that a Jew is supposed to always be joyous, but when I look at myself and my life, I see no good reason to be happy. On the contrary, I have plenty of reasons to be miserable. Am I supposed to be able to just switch on happiness, at will?
Kevin, Rolling Plains Detention Center, Haskell TX
Answer: Yes, we face some heavy challenges in life, and feelings of despair are understandable. But we can turn our situation around. Happiness, is never beyond our reach. That's because, happiness is a natural human state. Just look at a young child. Children don't need to learn strategies for positive living, and they don't need a reason to be happy.
They need a reason, to be sad. If a child cries, we ask, "What's wrong?"
If a child laughs, and plays and dances around the room, we don't ask, "What's the big celebration about? Why are you happy?" A child is happy by default; if they aren't happy, there must be a reason, like: they need to be changed, they are hungry or thirsty or tired, or need attention. But as long as nothing's wrong, a child is happy for no reason at all.
Somewhere along the line things change. We grow older and become more demanding, harder to please, and we lose this childish contentment. As we become jaded by life's disappointments, we feel that we need a reason to be happy. If you see an adult walking around with a big smile, you ask, "What's wrong with you, why are you smiling?"
The difference is, a child is not self-conscious. They are free to be happy, because they are not yet aware of themselves.
It is only when we mature, and become more self-aware, that we also become more self-absorbed. We have worries and concerns, unfulfilled desires, and unrealized dreams.
None of us can honestly say we have it all, and we can always find reason to be upset. But a child isn't bothered by what he is "missing," so he does have it all. The child's lack of self-consciousness, leaves her free to enjoy life and be happy.
The more we are concerned with our own happiness, the farther we are away from achieving it. As soon as we forget about what we need, and instead focus on what we are needed for-(the good we can do for others, rather than the good we can get for ourselves)- our childlike joy comes flowing back, and we are happy again.
Even in the darkest times, (by becoming mission-focused, rather than self-focused), we can access our inner joy.
Happiness is not somewhere out there; it rests within; in that part of us that is forever young, and forever giving-our happy soul.
Question: It seems that there is the apparent contradiction between the omniscience of G-d and man's free will (or choice of action).
Richard, Hagerstown State Prison, Maryland
Answer: There is much writtebn about this, so here is a very brief response:
G-d's foreknowledge is no contradiction to man's free choice. What could be a contradiction to free choice is compulsion, not knowledge. Hence, a foreknowledge that is not compelling or forcing is in no way a limitation on one's free choice of action.
Here are two illustrations. First, assuming that there are men with prophesizing knowledge, their forecast concerning certain people does not compel them to act in a certain way and does not rob them of their free choice of action.
Secondly, as you know, G-d is not subject to time, and the past, present, and future is all the same to Him (He was, is, and will be, all in one). It follows that G-d's future is like the past, and as knowledge of a past action is no contradiction to free choice, so is His knowledge of a future action. In other words, G-d knows the thoughts of man and his decisions, and man's knowledge does not rob man of thinking and deciding how to act.
Question: What is the difference between a rabbi and a Rebbe?
Chaya, Secure Federal Prison, Bruceton Mills WV
Answer: There are many answers, here is one:
A rabbi answers questions, a Rebbe answers people. A rabbi hears what you say with your mouth, a Rebbe hears what you are saying with your soul.
I'll explain. A teenage boy once asked the Rebbe, "Do we believe in reincarnation?" The Rebbe's answer was short and cryptic: "Yes we do believe in reincarnation. But don't wait until then."
Seems a puzzling response. The boy asked a simple question, which could be answered with a yes or no. What did the Rebbe mean by "don't wait until then"?
The Rebbe is responding to something more than the technical question. The Rebbe knows how to answer the person, not the question. Most of us respond to a question posed to us. The Rebbe responds to the person behind the question.
When this boy asked about reincarnation, he was not asking about the abstract theological concept. He wanted to know if this lifetime is all there is, or if there is more. The possibility of reincarnation changes the way we look at life. We were here before, and so some of the events that happen to us now may be leftovers from a previous life. And we may live again, which means that we get another chance to complete unfinished business from this lifetime in the next.
This is what the Rebbe was warning the young boy. Reincarnation doesn't mean procrastination. Don't use it as an excuse to put off to your next life what you need to achieve in this life.
This is the power of a Rebbe. A regular rabbi, when asked such a question, would start quoting mystical sources and explaining complex doctrines. But the Rebbe, in this brief exchange with a teenage boy, taught a practical and comprehensive worldview.
We may have had past lives, and we may have future lives, but don't wait until then.
Do the mitzvah today.
Do it now.
Question: In Reaching Out each month you bring us the teachings of the Rebbe. The Rebbe's energy so instrumentally helps us serve G-d properly, how is it possible that we still have free will?
Hilel HaCohen, United States Penitentiary, Tucson AZ
Answer: The Rebbe once explained this topic in the following manner: To understand this from a worldly view: when a commoner has an appointment to speak with the king, it is such a momentous occasion that in preparation for even a brief audience, the commoner dons brand new clothes and buys new shoes. He will need to know in advance what to speak about and, more importantly, how to speak to a king.
How does such a person prepare himself? He contacts an official or a lawmaker who is intricately familiar with the royal laws and customs, and who will advise him on how to get a message across to a king.
The same applies spiritually: G-d intended that you get involved in a specific type of business through which you became, thankfully, wealthy. Now your task is also to give charity. There are times during the year, like Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when a Jew can communicate more directly with G-d. However, reaching G-d on your own on a regular basis is very difficult. You go to a holy man, who knows how to speak to G-d, and this person communicates on your behalf.
Regarding your question of free will: A wealthy and respectable person who wants to build a house still needs to find a contractor to actually do the work, an architect to make the blueprints etc.; he will have to find someone specific for each detail. In building a house one person cannot do everything.
True, there may be some wealthy people who are themselves contractors and can thus build a house on their own, but they are few. Just because the average wealthy person relies on various different people, with different professions, doesn't mean that his respectability is diminished. Rather, he needs money to pay other professionals to do the various tasks, and without this money, he indeed would not get anywhere.
The same in spirituality: a Jew who is occupied with business and with giving charity still needs a holy man for help. On his own, a Jew does not have sufficient merits; he therefore needs the special person to elevate him.
For example: how do you connect a Jew here in Brooklyn who gives money to free a Jew in Russia? How a can a Jew in Russia give someone a part in a mitzvah? The same thing regarding a Jew from here who gives money, enabling a Jew in Tel Aviv to don tefillin â€” how are those two people connected?
The fact that the local Jew connected to me and the Jew in Russia is also connected to me, and that I know how to speak to the Above, means I connect both of these Jews together. I am a physical human being like you. It is just that G-d gave me the strength to help them.
Question: How can one understand the fact that precisely the present, orphaned generation should be found worthy of witnessing the Redemption?
Daniel, Federal Correction Institution, Forrest City AR
Answer: This question provides its own answer. Only from ultimate concealment can one arrive at ultimate revelation. The Rebbe explains that light, for example, is at its most resplendent when it shines forth from dim obscurity. In the same way, it is the initial distance from the light of G-dliness that empowers teshuvah (repentance) to transform darkness into light - since, for the penitent, "his sins become like virtues." Our generation's very distance from G-dliness inspires in us the sublime, inner power of the soul. (The righteous individual, by contrast, repels evil, rather than transforming it into good.)
Furthermore, goodness and holiness are eternal. Hence, when a Jew fulfills a mitzvah, "in the upper spheres this union [between the soul and G-d] is eternal."
Evil, by contrast, has no true existence; it is no more than a concealment of the Divine light. Hence, when the blemish of the sin is cleansed, such as when the person repents, the evil ceases to exist.
Since good is eternal, all the accumulated good of all the past generations still exists. This is why now, specifically, we will soon be privileged to witness the coming of Moshiach, even though superficial appearances might indicate that "the generation is unworthy."
Question: I am a college student, young and now in prison for under a year. When I leave prison, I will return to college. I come from a small community, so I never had a Jewish education. I find Reform Judaism too simplified and liberal, but I cannot follow the Orthodox services. What should I do?
Larry, Holmes Corr Institution, Bonifay FL
Answer: Someone once asked the Rebbe a similar question and this is what the Rebbe said. The stories in the Bible and Talmud apply to every generation. When the Talmud relates that Rabbi Akiva was forty years old and supporting a family when he started with "Alef-Bais," and yet became one of the greatest rabbis of all time, it is to teach us that even with no previous Jewish education, one with a determined will, can achieve even more than those who started before him. The mishna in Avos states: "Lo alecha hamalacha ligmor," you are not expected to learn everything at once. A little bit each day, as long as you stay on the right track. Begin with the English translations of the Chumash, Kitzer Shulchan Aruch (Jewish laws), and Ain Yaakov (legends of the Talmud). Avoid the complacency of thinking you have attained the summit of your spiritual endeavors, but be constantly aware that there is more to strive for tomorrow, and G-d will give you strength. My major objection to Reform and Conservative Judaism is that they compromise their ideals; they make it easy for one to attain the pinnacle of Judaism, precluding further self-improvement. Orthodox Judaism requires continued spiritual progress, a little bit each day of one's life.
Question: Regarding animal sacrifices for our sins. I understand that after the destruction of the second Temple we don't sacrifice animals for our sins, so what is done now?
John, United States Penitentiary, TX
Answer: The Torah is eternal. Its laws and even its stories can provide Jewish men and women of every generation with guidance relevant to their everyday life. This also applies to the laws regarding the sacrifices and the other aspects of the Beis HaMikdash ( Holy Temple ).
Our sages tell us that nowadays prayers take the place of the sacrificial offerings offered in the Sanctuary. At the beginning of the Second Temple Era, when the sages instituted the daily prayers, they included one prayer for each of the regular communal sacrifices.
A sacrifice symbolized the subjugation of the person's natural traits and habits. Sometimes prayers contain a confession and other aspects of the offering. Primarily, prayer addresses the fulfillment of a need. One must realize, then, that one lacks something, and what, quantitatively and qualitatively, it is that one lacks. A petition for a trivial need cannot be compared to the depth and feeling of a supplication for a need that touches one's soul.
Similarly, one must be cognizant of the authority and stature of the person to whom the plea is directed. Making a request of a minor official is quite different than pleading before one vested with power over life and death. Therefore, a person must know the scope of authority and the degree of power wielded by the one to whom the petition is addressed.
Though prayer is the expression of the heart's innermost depths, it must satisfy certain conditions: self-appraisal i.e., awareness of the petitioner's own character, is he worthy enough? If not, is he improving himself to attain worthiness?; understanding of the importance of prayer, and meditation on Him to Whom one is praying.
Question: What is the the connection between sprinkling of water for purification versus immersion in a mikvah. What are the specifications for a mikvah are and what the laws were pertaining to it.
David, Otago Corr Facility, New Zealand
Answer: Immersion in the mikvah has offered a gateway to purity ever since the creation of man. The Midrash relates that after being banished from Eden, Adam sat in a river that flowed from the garden. This was an integral part of his teshuvah (repentance) process, of his attempt at return to his original perfection.
Before the revelation at Sinai, all Jews were commanded to immerse themselves in preparation for coming face to face with G-d. Immersion in the mikvah has offered a gateway to purity ever since the creation of man.
In the desert, the famed "well of Miriam" served as a mikvah. And Aaron and his sons' induction into the priesthood was marked by immersion in the mikvah.
In Temple times, the priests as well as each Jew who wished entry into the House of G-d had first to immerse in a mikvah.
On Yom Kippur, the holiest of all days, the High Priest was allowed entrance into the Holy of Holies, the innermost chamber of the Temple, into which no other mortal could enter. This was the zenith of a day that involved an ascending order of services, each of which was preceded by immersion in the mikvah.
The primary uses of mikvah today are delineated in Jewish Law and date back to the dawn of Jewish history. They cover many elements of Jewish life. Mikvah is an integral part of conversion to Judaism. Mikvah is used, though less widely known, for the immersion of new pots, dishes, and utensils before they are used by a Jew. The mikvah concept is also the focal point of the taharah, the purification rite of a Jew before the person is laid to rest and the soul ascends on high. The manual pouring of water in a highly specific manner over the entire body of the deceased serves this purpose.
Mikvah is also used by men on various occasions; with the exception of conversion, they are all customary. The most widely practiced are immersion by a groom on his wedding day and by every man before Yom Kippur. Many Chassidic men use the mikvah before each Shabbat and holiday, some even making use of mikvah each day before morning prayer (in cities with large populations of observant Jews, special mikvahs for men facilitate these customs).
To the uninitiated, a modern-day mikvah looks like a miniature swimming pool. In a religion rich with detail, beauty, and ornamentation â€” against the backdrop of the ancient Temple or even modern-day synagogues â€” the mikvah is surprisingly nondescript, a humble structure.
Its ordinary appearance, however, belies its primary place in Jewish life and law. The mikvah offers the individual, the community, and the nation of Israel the remarkable gift of purity and holiness. No other religious establishment, structure, or rite can affect the Jew in this The world's natural bodies of water â€” its oceans, rivers, wells, and spring-fed lakes â€” are mikvahs in their most primal form way and, indeed, on such an essential level. Its extraordinary power, however, is contingent on its construction in accordance with the numerous and complex specifications as outlined in Halachah, Jewish Law.
The world's natural bodies of water â€” its oceans, rivers, and wells, â€” are mikvahs in their most primal form. They contain waters of divine source and thus, tradition teaches, the power to purify. Created even before the earth took shape, these bodies of water offer a quintessential route to consecration. But they pose difficulties as well. These waters may be inaccessible or dangerous, not to mention the problems of inclement weather and lack of privacy. Jewish life therefore necessitates the construction of mikvahs ("pools"), and indeed this has been done by Jews in every age and circumstance.
Briefly: A mikvah must be built into the ground or built as an essential part of a building. Portable receptacles, such as bathtubs, whirlpools, or Jacuzzis, can therefore never function as mikvahs. The mikvah must contain a minimum of two hundred gallons of rainwater that was gathered and siphoned into the mikvah pool in accordance with a highly specific set of regulations. In extreme cases where the acquisition of rainwater is impossible, ice or snow originating from a natural source may be used to fill the mikvah. As with the rainwater, an intricate set of laws surrounds its transport and handling.
The casual observer will often see only one pool â€” the one used for immersion. In reality, most mikvahs are comprised of two, sometimes three, adjoining pools. While the accumulated rainwater is kept in one pool, the adjacent immersion pool is drained and refilled regularly with tap water. The pools share a common wall that has a hole at least two inches in diameter. The free flow, or "kissing," of waters between the two pools makes the waters of the immersion pool an extension of the natural rainwater, thus conferring upon the immersion pool the Halachah stipulates that one must be scrupulously clean before immersing legal status of a mikvah. (The above description is one of two methods sanctioned by Halachah to achieve this goal.) Modern-day mikvah pools are equipped with filtration and water-purification systems. The mikvah waters are commonly chest high and kept at a comfortable temperature. Access to the pool is achieved via stairs.
The mikvah as an institution is the victim of a popular misconception. Immersion in water is naturally associated with cleansing. To further complicate the issue, Jews historically were often barred by the authorities from using rivers in their cities for bathing. In response they built bathhouses, many with mikvahs in or near them. Together, these factors forged an inextricable link between the idea of mikvah and physical hygiene. But the mikvah never was a monthly substitute for a bath or shower. In fact, the Halachah stipulates that one must be scrupulously clean before immersing. To facilitate this requirement, preparation areas â€” with baths and showers, shampoos, soaps, and other cleansing and beauty aids â€” are a staple of the modern mikvah.
Today it is not just a Jewish metropolis that can boast a mikvah. In remote, even exotic, locations- Anchorage, Alaska, and Bogota, Colombia; Yerres, France, and Ladispoli, Italy; Agadir, Morocco, and Asuncion in Paraguay; Lima, Peru, and Cape Town, South Africa; Bangkok, Thailand, and Zarzis, Tunisia; and almost every city in the C.I.S. (former Soviet Union) â€” there are kosher and comfortable mikvahs and rabbis and rebbetzins willing and able to assist in their use.
Question: Can you please explain what is reincarnation? We are studying some Kabalah and have come up with this and would like to understand it.
Victoria, Federal Corr Institution, Tallahassee, FL
Answer: One avenue in which Kabbalah refreshes our faith is in its presentation of reincarnation and soul migration. Although no overt reference is made in the scripture to the subject, however the greatest Kabbalists-notably the Arizal as quoted in the work Shaar HaGilgulim (Gate of Reincarnation), expound clearly its principles.
The soul is eternal, a spark of the Divine, or as the prophet Job calls it "a part of G-d above." The soul exists before it enters the body and it lives after the body is laid to rest. Though the soul's place of origin is in the higher worlds, there is something that the soul can achieve in a body that it cannot achieve in the heavenly realms. It has already been explained that the purpose of creation is to make an abode for the Divine in this world. Although higher worlds are glorious in terms of revelation and offer the best reward for a soul after it has achieved its earthly mission, the heavenly realms are not the purpose of creation. It was G-d's desire to create a world where His presence would be acutely concealed and darkness and evil would prevail. He charged his children with the task of creating a home in this world, and the soul fulfills that mission by its adherence to Torah and Mitzvot.
Kabbalah explains that the soul is comprised of 613 channels, which parallel the 248 limbs and 365 blood Vessels of the body. These 613 channels attain eternal elevation when all 613 Mitzvot are fulfilled by a soul in its earthly descent.
Usually a soul does not manage to fulfill all the commandments in one descent, and the Arizal writes that every soul must be repeatedly reincarnated until it has fulfilled all 613 Mitzvot in thought, speech, and action. In the previous chapter, the notion of purification through Gehinom was introduced.
Here the soul is cleansed in order to be elevated to the Garden of Eden. How is this concept reconciled with the possibility of reincarnation and a return to our world? The Kabbalists explain that when a soul returns to this world, the part of the soul that was elevated by its Torah learning and Mitzvah performance is not reincarnated, rather it is only the other parts of the soul that were not affected by the first incarnation that return. The possibility of a soul being divided and part of a soul being reincarnated is discussed at length in Kabbalah. The original idea stems from the fact that the soul of Adam was composed of all future souls, and the soul of Jacob was comprised of 70 parts which were then further subdivided into the 600,000 souls of Israel. These 600,000 were then subdivided further into another 600,000. Through various reincarnations all parts of the soul are elevated and once the entire soul has been elevated the soul is no longer reincarnated. This explains the strange phenomena of why certain people engage in a specific Mitzvah in which they excel. It could be that the person's soul descended again for sake of that specific Mitzvah.
Souls may also be reincarnated to complete a certain task, repay a debt, or rectify a sin. In fact the concept of reincarnation as rectification for sin is well documented by the Kabbalists.
Most fascinating is the study of soul migration, which is how a soul from a previous generation is reincarnated in a later generation into a specific set of circumstances which are tailored to engineer a rectification of a previous sin. Of the hundreds of examples, we shall quote one here which is documented in the book Shaarei Teshuvah (Gates of Repentance), written by Rabbi Dovber of Lubavitch, Second in the line of Seven Chabad/Lubavitch Rebbe's, a foremost Kabbalist and Rebbe. When we take a look at the period in history of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, we stand perplexed as to why that generation had the awesome task of deciding between apostasy and burning at the stake. Why was it at this particular junction of Jewish history, Jews had to endure such horrible torture and exile at the hands of the Inquisition?
Rabbi Dovber writes the following:
In the times of the first Temple, they served G-d and did not cast from themselves the yolk of heaven, except in certain idolatrous practices for which they had tremendous desire, so much so that there were only left 7,000 people that had not succumbed to Baal worship in the days of Ahab. All the Kings who served these idols were great men, and they were tainted with this heinous sin of idolatry. All these generations, who were most elevated souls, did not receive their rectification and elevation until the times of the philosophers in the time of Rashi and the Rambam until the time of the Arizal, which was from the year 4856 (1096) in the days of Rashi until the expulsion of Jews from Portugal in the year 5252 (1492), and until the time of the Arizal in 5333 (1573). The Arizal explicitly stated that in his time, the period of destruction that had swept the Jewish world for the last nearly 500 years had ended. All those who had sacrificed their lives in sanctification of G-d's name in their thousands, and tens of thousands in each generation, all of them were souls of the first Temple. Their sin was that they had previously served idols and had nourished the Kelipot and therefore their rectification was to give up their lives in sanctification of G-d's name with simple faith which transcended any logic or philosophy.
Imagine a soul that entered the heavenly realms in the days of the first Temple that had been tainted by the grave sin of idolatry. The soul would greatly anticipate and appreciate an opportunity to descend once again to rectify its mistake. Any momentary pain involved, including the murderous moment of being burned alive is worth it to gain eternal elevation. Hence the soul descended to a body in a later generation for rectification.
Although the body of the Spanish Jew could not comprehend why he was being hauled through this torture, what was happening was essentially a kindness for it was the key to eternal elevation. In fact, the Kabbalists point out that the Hebrew word for "reincarnation"-Gilgul-has the same "numerical value" (gematria) as the word Chessed-"kindness." Such presentations however have their limitations. Could one explain the Holocaust with reincarnation? The present (Seventh) Lubavitcher Rebbe has the opinion that although the concept of reincarnation may be a component in explaining the events of the Holocaust, one could not possibly think of such a hideous crime that would warrant such atrocities. It would be arrogant even to suggest a reason for such merciless extermination and brutality. Rather, one must take the humble position that such tragedy is beyond us. In the words of the prophet, "My ways are not your ways and My thoughts are not your thoughts says G-d."
Though not all sufferings can be explained by reincarnation, there may however, be help in explaining tragedies such as the deaths of people taken suddenly in accidents, illness, or war. It could be that their souls needed to return to this world for a certain amount of time in order to fulfill a certain purpose, and when that purpose had been achieved, the soul could return to its eternal abode. This may also give comfort to some couples who are devastated by infertility. It could be that a couple has already fulfilled the Mitzvah of procreation in a previous incarnation, and is therefore not required to have a birth child to fulfill the Mitzvah. It must however be noted that calculations of reincarnation should never deter one from doing all that is necessary within the parameters of Jewish law to procreate.
"The hidden matters are for G-d, and the revealed aspects for us and our children." One should walk simply before G-d, and it is beyond the vision of mere mortals to figure out whose reincarnation one may be. However, in times of challenge and specifically when we feel out of control, it is good to know that all has been meticulously planned and executed in the Divine kaleidoscope.
A Final Comforting Word:
There is a verse in the book of Samuel: "For die we must, like water flows on the ground and that cannot be gathered up again; and G-d favors not a soul, but He devises means that he that is banished be not cast away from Him" (Samuel 2:14). Citing the closing phrase of this verse as an assurance that no one banished from G-d by his sins will remain banished, Rabbi Schneur Zalman, First Chabad/Lubavitch Rebbe and author of the Tanya and Code of Jewish Law, writes that every Jew will eventually return to G-d, either in this incarnation or another.
Question: Although I was raised in a traditional home, I have never had any faith or "religious" belief. I am now aged 34, and would describe myself as an atheist. I have no wish to be buried in a Jewish cemetery (and my Will will also make this clear) and have married a non-Jew in a civil ceremony. My question is, can I consider myself officially non-Jewish, by my effective opting-out, or do I need some sort of form or dispensation to be officially no longer Jewish?
Michael, Mule Creek State Prison, Ione CA
Answer: I would like to help you, but I feel there's nothing I can do. According to your question, you have done everything possible to negate your Jewishness: in practice you do not keep Jewish tradition; in belief you are an atheist; in family life you have married a non-Jew and thus won't have Jewish children; and even in death you are determined not to be buried in a Jewish cemetery. One would think that all this would be enough to confirm your un-Jewishness.
But no! For some reason, you are still unsatisfied: you still feel Jewish! So much so, you feel you need official dispensation! And so, being an atheist, who do you turn to in order to solve this problem? A doctor? A psychiatrist? The civil celebrant that married you? Noâ€¦ You turn to a rabbi!
I'm reminded of the child who ran away from home, but ended up just going around and around the block because his parents told him never to cross the road by himself. I'm sorry. There is nothing more you can do. You are as Jewish as Moses, Ariel Sharon and the Chief Rabbi of Wales!
In fact, it seems that being Jewish is the most dominant factor of your personality. It is even influencing the place you want to be buried! (Why would an atheist care about where they are buried?)
Jewishness is not a belief, a feeling, a conviction or a lifestyle. It is a state of being. We can either celebrate it or fight against it. But it will always be there. So why not celebrate it?
Question: Rabbi, what is the difference between the regular Shabbat end time and Rabeinu Tam time?
Albir, Federal Corr Institution, Fort Dix NJ
Answer: This is discussed at great length in various sources in Jewish literature. There are differing opinions on the halachic definition of sundown, and the 12th century French Talmudic scholar Rabbeinu Tam is renowned for his opinion in this matter. The following is a short synopsis of the debate:
According to Jewish law, "shkiah" (sunset) is the cut-off time for all mitzvot associated with daytime hours, and nightfall is the starting point for all mitzvot associated with the following day. However, as aforementioned, the exact definitions of sunset and nightfall are the subject of debate amongst the greatest halachic authorities.
The commonly held custom follows the opinion that sunset occurs when the sun totally sinks beneath the horizon, and nightfall is when three medium sized stars appear in the sky. This is shortly after sunset, but the exact timing depends on the location and time of year.
Rabbeinu Tam was of the opinion, however, that sunset is actually at a later time. He based his opinion on what appears to be contradictory statements in the Talmud regarding the length of the period between sunset and nightfall. In one place Rabbi Judah says that the length of this period is the same as the time it would take an average person to walk four mil (approximately 72 minutes), whereas Rabbi Judah is elsewhere quoted saying that the time between sunset and nightfall is the same amount of time as takes to walk Â¾ of a mil (13.5 minutes). Rabbeinu Tam reconciles these two statements as follows: Nightfall is 72 minutes after the sun disappears beneath the horizon; however, the halachic sunset (which marks the end of the day) is only 13.5 minutes before nightfall. Although the sun sets beneath the horizon earlier, in Rabeinu Tam's opinion there is still some light visible for another 58.5 minutes, therefore rendering it day and not night.
According to this opinion, those areas in halachah that depend on nightfall, such as the end-time of Shabbat and holidays, must wait until 72 minutes after the sun sets below the horizon (approximately half an hour later than the commonly observed "nightfall"). And those mitzvot that may be done until sunset can be done until 13.5 minutes before this nightfall, (58.5 minutes later than what is commonly considered sunset).
Many other great authorities reconciled this seeming contradiction quite differently, and therefore maintained that the end of the day is marked by the sun's complete disappearance beneath the horizon, and night fall when three medium-sized stars appear.
Although in pre-war Europe there were many communities who followed the opinion of Rabeinu Tam in all instances, today it commonly accepted to follow the latter opinion. However, some people extend the Shabbat at its conclusion on Saturday night in order to be sure that Shabbat is over even according to the opinion of Rabeinu Tam. In some communities his opinion is also relied upon with regard to the latest time for praying mincha, the afternoon service.
Question: Can you please explain what Tefillin is and if Tefillin has anything that is 8 or 10 inches.
Chaplain S., Dept of Corrections, Monroe, WA
Answer: Your request for an explanation on what Tefillin are and how long the straps should be and if there is anything 8 or 10 inches about it.
Tefillin is one of the most important Mitzvot(precepts) of the Torah. It has been observed and treasured for thousands of years, right down to the present day. The Torah (Bible) mentions it more than once, but most explicitly in Deut. 6:8 "You shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they should be for a reminder between your eyes."
Tefillinconsists of two small leather boxes attached to leather straps. The two boxes each contain four sections of the Torah inscribed on parchment. These passages cite:
- The Shema(Deut. 6:4-9) - pronouncing the Unity of The One G-d.
- Vehayah (Deut. 11:13-21) - expressing G-d's assurance to us of reward that will follow our observance of the Torah's precepts, and warning of retribution for disobedience to them.
- Kadesh(Ex. 13:1-10) - the duty of the Jewish people to always remember the redemption from Egyptian bondage.
- Vehayah (Ex. 13:11-16) - the obligation of every Jew to inform his children on these matters.
One of the boxes (the "hand Tefillin") is placed upon the left arm so as to rest against the heart - the seat of the emotions, and the suspended leather strap is wound around the left hand, and around the middle finger of that hand. The other box (the "Head Tefillin") is placed upon the head, above the forehead, so as to rest upon the cerebrum. In this manner our attention is directed to the head, heart and hand. It teaches us to dedicate ourselves to the service of G-d in all that we think, feel and do. It is also to teach us not to be governed solely by the impulse of the heart, lest that lead us into error and transgression. Nor are we to be governed by reason alone, for that may lead to harsh materialism.
Placed on the arm opposite the heart, and on the head, the Tefillin signify the submission of one's mind, heart and actions to the Almighty, as well as the rule of intellect over emotion.
The hand Tefillin have a strap that is supposed to go around the arm seven times and a few more loops higher and lower. There is nothing about Tefillin that is 8â€³ or 10â€³. The head Tefillin has two straps hanging down from the loop around the head which reach the legs.
A fundamental principle of Chabad Chassidic philosophy is that the intellect must control the emotions. Unfortunately, there exists a schism between the mind and the heart. Moreover, often the emotions control the mind, and the intellect is utilized merely to provide justification, rationalization, and excuses for this "instinct-emotion centered" existence. The Mitzvahof Tefillin and its practice facilitates the attainment by the individual of unity of mind and heart, intellect and emotion.
Most of life's regrets, sorrows and pain could be avoided if we would but learn this important lesson - the application of head and heart to our every day problems. Besides, such wholesome balance constitutes the very first step on the road to self-assurance, courage, hopefulness and inner peace; those eternally precious soul values the Jew must develop, the better to serve G-d and mankind. Tefillin will cultivate these blessed characteristics, if observed in a spirit of true reverence.
The Tefillin are very holy items. They are supposed to be handled with special care, never to be placed on the floor. Most prisons in America allow the inmate, unless he is in a restricted area, to keep the Tefillin in his cell near him.
Question: Judaism doesn't do it for me. To be honest I don't understand what you see in it. I've been there done that, and it's not for me. What do you say to people like me who simply are not inspired by Judaism?
Robert, Federal Prison Camp, Duluth MN
Answer: You remind me of the story of the poor man's cheese blintzes.
A poor man was once walking the streets, feeling hungry, when he was struck by a delicious aroma. From out of the kitchen window of a huge mansion wafted the smells of a rich man's breakfast. Looking through the window, he watched carefully as the cook mixed the ingredients and prepared a pile of cheese blintzes. He had never seen or smelled anything so appetizing in his life.
He ran home and told his wife, "We must have some cheese blintzes for breakfast. They are delicious. Can you make me some? All we need is French pancake mix, milk and eggs, some butter to fry them in and cheese for the filling."
"Certainly my dear husband," the kind woman replied. "I will whip up the best cheese blintzes anyone ever tasted."
But when she looked into her pantry for the ingredients, she was greeted by empty shelves. An industrious and resourceful woman, she wasn't phased. "We will have to be a bit creative," she thought to herself. "I haven't got any French pancake mix, but a little potato flour should be just as good. We are a little low on milk. I'll just use water. Eggsâ€¦ I don't have any eggs, but I can throw in a few potatoes. We certainly can't afford butter for frying, but I have some old oil that I used last week, I am sure it can be used again. And cheese costs a fortune these days. We will have to settle for some mashed potatoes instead of cheese, that will be close enough."
In no time the delicious breakfast was ready, a pile of homemade cheese blintzes. The good wife brought them before her excited and grateful husband, who eagerly bit into the first cheese blintz he had ever tasted in his life. After chewing for a while on the first blintz, his face turned from eager anticipation to bitter disappointment.
"I have to be honest," he said, "I don't really get what those rich people see in cheese blintzes. They really are nothing specialâ€¦"
The Judaism you have tasted is about as authentic as those cheese blintzes. You may think you have been exposed to the Jewish way of life. After all, you sat through a year of bar mitzvah classes, crept into the back row of a synagogue on Yom Kippur every a year and even gave some charity to a Jewish organization.
This is all very nice. But these are not the ingredients for a true Jewish experience.
If you have never racked your brain over a page of Talmud; if your soul has never been touched by the deeper meanings of the Torah; if you have never felt the embrace of a warm and spiritually committed community; if you have never experienced the peace and holiness of keeping a Shabbat fully and correctly, then you have never had a taste of real Judaism.
Enough of the cheap imitations. Go eat a genuine cheese blintz.
Question: Please explain the existence of G-d and prove the creation of the earth. Science has proven by various means that it was caused by natural phenomena-for instance, the "Theory of the Expanding Universe" or "Evolution."
Burt - Clinton Corr Facility- Dannemora NY
Answer: You do not need proof. Do you have a printed book or paper? Would you say it came into being by accident or that it had a cause-a purpose? You say a printer printed it. Why do you accept it? Because it makes sense. You see by the system of words, sentences, phrases, etc., that person-intellect caused or assembled the letters.
In the same way there is no need to prove the earth's origin. It is not a cause but merely a description of creation, and the time elements derived by such means as the study of rocks, the study of decay of radioactive metals, the study of thermodynamics which do not coincide.
These hold true only if pressure, temperature and atmospheric conditions were like they are today. The "Expanding Universe" is merely a theory, and theories in general merely explain the existence of various phenomena, but do not necessarily constitute proof that the same are accurate.
(In the beginning it was believed that the earth was the center of the universe, and the sun, stars, etc. rotate around it.)
There was once a man named Copernicus, who observed several phenomena on the basis of which he formed certain theories that the earth rotates around the sun. Copernicus had no proof of this, but formed this theory simply because it explained these phenomena and this then became an accepted theory. About sixty years ago Einstein formulated his theory of relativity in which he states that in a system of two or more bodies in movement it is impossible to determine which is the stable. Thus we see that men of science contradict each other.
Getting back to the various methods of determining, the opinions differ greatly and contradict each other-for according to geology we obtain a figure of one billion; according to radioactivity a figure of one half billion; and according to the study of thermodynamics a figure of two billion. This is a difference of not merely one million or two million, but a ratio of one billion to two billion to four billion. Thus, we observe again that scientists contradict each other. However, all this "Expanding Universe Theory" is based upon the assumption that the universe was filled with uniform particles. What if we were to assume rock?
Now, if you see a simple system of two objects, you might say a child constructed it; if you saw a more complicated system you might conclude that a simple man or peasant constructed it; (when you observe a more complicated machine you might say that a person of still higher intellect constructed it); when you observe a highly complicated intricate machine, such as a robot or an electronic brain, which calculates differentials, integrals, etc. it follows then that an extremely powerful intellect must have constructed it.
Let us take the human body. It consists of various intricate systems such as blood vessels, etc., which could have been constructed only by an extremely powerful intellect. Take this pen, for instance-it consists of protons, neutrons, and atoms moving around regularly. It follows, that the world, which is a system so complicated, could have been created by a most powerful intellect.
Question: How do we know that the Torah is the truth after all the other religions say the same about theirs?
Mark - Federal Corr Institution - Fort Dix NJ
Answer: How do you conduct an experiment? You accept results of an experiment which was witnessed by 1, 2, 20, or 200 people but usually not more. The Divine Revelation on Mt. Sinai is an experiment witnessed by millions. In our generation, there are a million Jews who believe and bear witness to the fact that in the generation before there were one or two million Jews who believed and bore witness to the fact that the generation before them there were one or two million Jews who believed, and so on, for a period of 25-30 generations. We therefore have an unbroken chain of witness to the fact of the Divine Revelation on Mt. Sinai.
The Mohammedan religion, for instance, bears the witness of only one man. Mohammed came to his tribe (from the desert) and told them that Al-lah revealed Himself to him and told him to write the verses of the Koran. Hence, the whole belief is based upon the word of one man; one person came from the desert; one person may have hypnosis, hallucination, or be in a trance.
The Christian religion is based on the fact that J- came to his ten or twelve disciples and told them that the holy spirit revealed . . . . all this being based on the word of one man.
The Jewish religion, on the other hand, was witnessed by two million people from all walks of life. There were males, females, children and old men, middle-aged and youths, skilled laborers and lawyers, men of medicine and rabbis; in the presence of two million people of all walks of life G-d revealed himself to the Jewish people.
Question: Why may we eat meat of a cow and not of a pig? Chemically they are the same.
David - Federal Corr Institution - Herlong CA
Answer: The difference is one proportion. You learn in chemistry that two materials contain the same elements in different proportions. One is a benefit and the other is a poison. Strychnine, for instance-the same materials are found in sugar, bread, etc. Yet if you eat bread and sugar it will benefit the body, but if you take a pill of strychnine it will harm the body.
Question: Why is non-Kosher food not harmful to non-Jews?
Norman - Federal Medical Center - Lexington KY
Answer: Food is for the stomach (beneficial for the body) and unfit for the lungs. On the other hand, air is fit for the lungs (beneficial for the body) and unfit for the stomach. In a like manner, what can be good for one person can be harmful for the other ..air injected into the bloodstream.
Question: I never realized that the Resurrection of the Dead is a Jewish concept. Can you explain it?
Perry, Federal Correctional Institution, Lewisburg PA
Answer: The Zohar teaches that the Resurrection will begin after Moshiach has become revealed, forty years after all Jews have returned to the Holy Land, in the and will continue intermittently until all are restored to life. According to the Talmud, those buried in the Holy Land will be restored first, then those of other lands. The Zohar writes that the righteous and the Torah scholars will be first. However, everyone will be resurrected eventually, for everlasting life.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe MHM, basing his remarks on the teachings of our sages, explained that there will be exceptions to this schedule. Certain individuals will return to life at once, at the advent of Moshiach.
The soul will return to the body in the Land of Israel. The bodies of those buried in other lands will roll through the earth until they reach the Holy Land, where they will return to life. The righteous, however, will be spared this ordeal.
The story is told of Andrayanus, who asked Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya, "How will G-d restore the body in the future?" The Rabbi answered, "From a tiny bone in the spinal column called â€˜luz.'"
"How do you know [the bone will not rot away till then]?"
"Bring me the bone and I will show you," the Rabbi said.
The bone was brought and ground in millstones but was not damaged. It was thrown into fire but was not burned. It was soaked in water but did not dissolve. It was placed on an iron anvil and struck with a hammer until the anvil split in two and the hammer broke. The bone, however, remained unharmed.
This bone takes nourishment only from food eaten at the Saturday night Melave Malka meal; death and decay are unable to touch it.
The Zohar writes that at the time of Resurrection, G-d will soften this bone with the "Dew of Resurrection," forming a clear and pure liquid. Any other parts of the body remaining at the time will be united with this softened bone until they are one mass. It will then congeal, expand and take shape. Onto this form will be drawn skin, flesh, bones and blood vessels. Finally, G-d will imbue the complete body with a living spirit.
Our Sages teach: "As the person was before passing away, so shall he be when brought back to life. If when he went he was blind, he shall return blind; if deaf, he shall return deafâ€¦; the garments he wore then he shall wear when he returns. Said the Holy One blessed is He, â€˜Let them arise as they were before, then I shall heal them.'" This G-d will do by removing the "sheath" surrounding the sun, permitting the sun's more intense rays, with their Divine healing powers, to reach earth, healing all those who have a share in the Future World.
Question: How would you define Judaism in a nutshell?
AR, NJ State Prison
Answer: Judaism is not something abstract, detached from ordinary everyday activities. Judaism must concern the Jew twenty-four hours a day, in every environment and in every activity. The Jew proclaims, "G-d is One!" Not only did G-d create the world but He also constantly maintains it so that nothing happens by mere coincidence. His is the Divine systematic pattern of the universe into which every one of us fits so that we may accomplish our mission in life.
Question: What is the inter-relationship between Torah and the secular sciences?
GL, West Virginia Federal Prison
Answer: Everything in creation is included in the unity of G-d. One object of scientific discovery is to find unity in all matter, in all phases of life; to correlate electronics, chemistry, acoustics, physics, and mathematics. Einstein's achievement was to unite energy with matter; the unification of electricity with gravity will be an even greater accomplishment. All spheres of knowledge are all one entity. The formulas of their unification already exist - they are merely awaiting discovery. But we can utilize the consequence of these formulas even now to strengthen our monotheistic belief, for the Talmud states, "Heder yedia ano meakve": ignorance doesn't preclude performing the precept.
Question: How do you explain "Oseh shalom uboray re-aw," that G-d creates evil?
JB, NY State Prison
Answer: Divine Unity is concealed in a mask of evil and temporary material pleasures. The mission of the human being is to lift this mask of the universe through "nisoyon," by withstanding temptations. This is the special power of free choice: it is part of the Divine Pattern of the universe. For example, if one has the possibility to give charity, and this would be the right thing to do, he also has the choice of keeping the money in his pocket, the wrong thing. However, this possibility of error elevates the achievement of one's purpose in life, and explains why there are so few tzadikim, for there is only one right road and many wrong ones.
Question: How can I overcome the feeling of apprehension when confronted with great responsibility?
HW, CA State Prison
Answer: There is no need for despair or frustration. System and order are inherent in the universe; consequently, no one gets more responsibility than he can handle. This clear knowledge strengthens man's ability to complete his tasks, as he knows that there is a solution for every problem that confronts him. He must endeavor to use all the emotional and intellectual powers that G-d has endowed him with, in order to arrive at the correct solution. This is part of G-d's perfection - that He has given every Jew the potential to fulfill every precept that is incumbent upon him.
Question: How can G-d direct the universe according to a definite pattern without contradicting man's freedom of choice?
JK, FL Federal Prison
Answer: Although G-d directs the universe in a systematic, compatible fashion, there is no contradiction to free will. For example, let us say that by some miraculous power a fortune-teller can accurately predict far into the future. He is only seeing what will be done by someone of his own volition. The fortune-teller's foreknowledge does not influence the other's freedom of choice. This freedom is the basis for reward and punishment. So that there be no chaos and confusion in the world-system, the Almighty has a prescribed plan wherein man may choose between many possibilities, but only one is the right way.
Question: What can be the relationship of science and religion?
IK, North Carolina State Prison
Answer: The latest scientific discoveries have shown that all the molecules in the universe fit into a definite united pattern. Wherever you observe order and system you must assume that there is some force or power maintaining this system.