Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Whisky and Wine

Q: Kvod HaRav,

Is single malt scotch whisky finished in wine casks kosher? Glenmoranige lists one of their single malts with this description: "Finished in Sherry butts after an initial maturation in ex-bourbon casks." No wine is added to the whisky, it only sits in casks that used to hold non-kosher wine.
If I am not mistaken yayin nesech is batel b'shesh. Obviously any wine left in the cask walls would be less than one in six. Do we hold by this and say the whisky is kosher or does ta'am k'ikar trump here and make the whisky non-kosher?

Kol tuv,
Aric K.

A: Dear Aric,

Your basic assumption is correct. The only caveat is that we must calculate based upon the dimensions of the cask itself and not our estimation of how much wine its walls absorbed. We treat the entirety of the cask as if it is non-kosher wine. Now, if we know for sure that the total volume of the casks is less than one sixth of the volume of the whisky that is finished in them, then that whisky is kosher.

By definition, the fact that we use the measurement "one sixth" rather than "one sixtieth" means that we are not concerned with taam k'iqar here. In other words, the possible or actual presence of wine flavor in the whisky would be irrelevant in this case.

Best Regards,

Rabbi Maroof

UPDATE: A good friend informed me via email that I overlooked an important halacha in the Shulhan Aruch that addresses this case. In reality, even if the volume of the casks is greater than one-sixth of the whisky inside, the whisky remains permissible. This is because of a special leniency regarding non-kosher wine - the halacha is that the absorbed wine taste is automatically nullified by any non-wine beverage that is placed in the non-kosher wine vessels. The one-sixth ratio is only necessary when actual non-kosher wine becomes mixed into a kosher beverage.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Direction During Prayer

Q: Rabbi Maroof,

Here in North America, the shortest distance from NY to Jerusalem follows a great circle (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_circle) which is an arc which starts its bearing at NE and eventually becomes SE. Therefore maybe we should face northeast. On the other hand the rhumb line ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhumb_line) has a constant bearing of SE. What is the definition of the halacha for where we are to face during davening?

Abraham B.

A: Dear Abraham,

The Aruch Hashulchan addresses this question and explains that the halacha does not require us to be precise when it comes to facing Jerusalem during prayer. As long as the general direction "East" is accurate, we need not be concerned with nuances of Northeast and Southeast - all variations are equally acceptable.

Best Regards,

Rabbi Maroof

Moment Magazine on "The Birds and The Bees"

As part of its bimonthly "Ask the Rabbis" feature, Moment Magazine asked me to respond to the question "When and how should Jewish parents talk to their children about sex?" My answer appears in the December 2006 issue of Moment and can be found here.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Singing Verses of Tanach


I took voice lessons for a year and a half many years ago and I plan on going back to take more lessons in order to become a chazzan. Many times I have sung at chupahs. I know that it is forbidden to sing pesukim (verses of Tanach). However, at many weddings people want the person singing at the chupah to sing Im Eschacheych etc. but I have never sung it because of my concern that it may be forbidden. Is a person allowed to sing these words at a chupah since its forbidden to sing pesukim?
Thank you,

Dear Elazar,

In his responsum Yoreh Deah (II):142, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein discusses the prohibition of singing verses from Tanach. It is based upon a statement in the Talmud that suggests that using words of Torah as lyrics for a song is inappropriate and disrespectful to their sanctity.

However, at the end of his letter, Rabbi Feinstein indicates that the prohibition of singing verses of Tanach applies only when it is done for frivolous enjoyment ("l'zimra ulis-chok"). In cases where there the singing serves to highlight the meaning of the words for educational and/or other constructive purposes, it may not be problematic.

We can corroborate this interpretation from another angle. Rabbi Feinstein applies the restriction on singing to the Oral Torah as well. This means that we are not allowed to sing blessings, Talmudic passages, etc. Yet, the Talmud criticizes a person who is "Shoneh Belo Zimra", i.e., who studies without singing, since chanting the words we are learning helps us to remember them. It is clear, then, that this prohibition is only relevant in situations where the singing is frivolous, and where the verses are being "used" to enhance the singing. When, on the other hand, the singing is done to intensify our focus on the verses, it is permitted.

It is difficult to see how the recitation of "Im Eshkachech" at a wedding, which is done to help us recall the destruction of the Holy Temple, could possibly be construed as frivolous song. If anything, it is a solemn tribute which is further enhanced through the use of melody.

Much success in your pursuit of a career in Hazzanut!

Best Regards,

Rabbi Maroof

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Drums on Shabbat

I am asking this question for my son, who is 20 years old, a soldier in the Israeli army and also – a drummer. He wants to know if he can play the drums on Shabbat – and if this is forbidden, the reasons why it is not allowed. Why this is any different than tapping one's fingers to a nigun sung at the Shabbat table? He adds that he can put special pads on the drums so that the sound is almost nil.

Thank you so much,
Mrs. Levy

Dear Mrs. Levy,

According to Halacha, one may not play a musical instrument on Shabbat. The Rabbis prohibited the use of musical instruments because they frequently require tuning. The Rabbis were concerned that people might tune their instruments on Shabbat. Tuning an instrument on Shabbat or Yom Tov is Biblically prohibited because it involves "fixing" or "repairing" a vessel.

As far as I know, concerns about tuning do not apply to a drum in the same way they apply to, say, string instruments. However, the Rabbis did not make any distinction in their broad ruling on this matter, and forbade the use of any and all musical instruments on Shabbat.

In fact, even clapping hands, slapping knees, snapping fingers, dancing and banging on tables are included in the Rabbinic decree. This is discussed explicitly in the Shulhan Aruch, Orah Haim, 338:1-4 and 339:3.

That being said, while not allowed on Shabbat, playing an instrument is a wonderful thing. Please extend my warmest blessings to your son for continued success in developing his musical talent.

Best Regards,

Rabbi Maroof

Communicating with the Dead

Hello Rabbi Maroof,

Please tell me if it is a wrong thing to be a medium; if I can form a link with a soul from the next world and relay information to the sitter, is that wrong?
Thank you,


Dear David,

In the Book of Deuteronomy, we are told:

There shall not be found among you one who passes his son through the fire; a diviner, an astrologer, one who reads omens or a sorcerer. One who charms animals, one who inquires of Ov or Yideoni, or one who consults the dead. For anyone who does these is an abomination of Hashem; and, because of these abominations, Hashem, your God, banishes the nations from before you.

The Torah clearly prohibits any attempt to communicate with the dead. Maimonides explains the reason for this law:

All of these things are matters of falsehood and lies, and they are the very means through which the idol worshipers fooled the nations of the world into following them. And it is not proper for the Jewish people, who are exceptionally wise, to follow after these vanities, nor to entertain the possibility that they have any benefit...Anyone who believes in these things and things like them, and thinks in his heart that they are true and wise but that the Torah has prohibited them; he is one of the fools and those lacking knowledge... But those who possess wisdom and sound mind know by clear demonstration that all of these things that the Torah prohibits are not things of wisdom; rather, they are emptiness and vanity that fools stray after, and all of the paths of truth have been corrupted because of them. Because of this the Torah states, when it warns us about these vanities, "Perfect shall you be with Hashem, your God."

In other words, we reject these practices because they encourage magical and mystical ways of thinking that contradict the wise paths of our holy Torah. There is no rational basis for them whatsoever.

Those who seek mediums are usually emotionally troubled individuals who have unresolved issues with loved ones who are deceased. Instead of attempting to gain insight into their internal conflicts and resolve them, these people turn to charlatans who offer to help them "reconnect" with their dead relatives - for a price, of course.

The best thing you can do is suggest that these unfortunate human beings seek professional help to deal with their emotional difficulties. This is the healthy, reasonable approach that is advocated by our Torah. Perhaps then they will no longer feel a need to chase after fantasy and will begin to appreciate the value of wisdom.

Best Regards,

Rabbi Maroof

Friday, October 20, 2006

Moment Magazine on Trick-or-Treating

As part of its bimonthly "Ask the Rabbis" feature, Moment Magazine asked me to respond to the question "should Jewish children Trick-or-Treat?" An edited version of my answer appears in the October 2006 issue of Moment and can be found here. The original response I composed is posted here.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Tefillin at Minha on Fast Days

Dear Rabbi Maroof,

Why do Sephardic/Mizrahi Jews wear Tefillin at Minha on the Fast of Gedaliah?



Dear I.M.,

Many Sephardic communities have the custom of donning Tefillin at the Minha (afternoon) service on all fast days (except, of course, Yom Kippur). This practice is mentioned by Rabbi Yosef Karo in his classic commentary, the Bet Yosef.

Three main reasons are offered for the custom. The first explanation relates to berachot (blessings). We are required to recite a minimum of one hundred blessings a day. A typical daily routine, including blessings on foods, etc., will satisfy this requirement almost "naturally". However, on fast days, the fact that we don't consume any food takes a toll on our "beracha count." Wearing Tefillin at Minha gives us the opportunity to make an additional blessing.

Another explanation of the custom is based upon the laws of Tefillin themselves. Theoretically, Tefillin should be worn all day long on weekdays. This is problematic because wearing Tefillin requires a level of purity of thought and focus that is difficult to attain, let alone to sustain for an entire day of work, school, etc. Therefore, our custom is to wear Tefillin only during the morning service since, even during Minha prayers, we tend to be quite distracted. On Fast Days, though, our abstention from food and drink brings us to a higher level of spiritual awareness. As a result, we are capable of donning Tefillin at Minha time as well.

A third explanation of the custom points to the function of Tefillin as tools that enhance our kavanah (concentration). When we have Tefillin on our arms and heads, we remain more vigilant about the direction of our thoughts and more definite in our sense of purpose. On Fast Days, we wish for our prayers to be of an especially high quality. Therefore, we wear Tefillin at Minha as well as Shaharit, to help us engage our minds even more fully and intensely in the all of the services of the day.

Best Regards,

Rabbi Maroof

Monday, September 11, 2006

New Blog - Vesom Sechel

Please take some time to visit my new blog, http://vesomsechel.blogspot.com.

"Vesom Sechel" is dedicated to the study of Tanach, especially the weekly Parasha. For the next month or so, posts there will explore aspects of the upcoming Holidays from the perspective of Torah Shebichtav (the Written Torah). It is amazing how much depth one can add to one's understanding of the holidays merely by paying closer attention to the nuances of the Torah's text.

I hope to add a new installment to Vesom Sechel each week, and any feedback you leave in the comments section will be greatly appreciated!

Rabbi Maroof

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Evolution and God's Existence

Q: Hello Rabbi,

Until last night, the idea that life originated by itself without any of Hashem's guidance seemed very unlikly, considering that only to randomly assemble the proteins (enzymes) in a functioning bacterium, from already existing set of amino acids is a 1 in 10^40,000 chance (this is taken from "Origins: A Skeptics guide" by Robert Shapiro). However, my very good and skeptical friends, who would never pass a chance to argue, said that... he agrees with me that this is very unlikly however there is still, as small as it may be, a chance... and since the universe is endless (i agreed with him that the universe is endless), even the least likely things can occur. my question is- what do I tell a person who claims this, and tries to disprove, like you have said: "that the existence of matter and its lawfulness is the result of God's design"?

Thank you very much and Shabbat Shalom!


A: Dear RS,

First of all, I must say that I am impressed with your sincere pursuit of truth. Many people are satisfied with simple faith in God. Others will accept incomplete or flawed answers to their questions in order to avoid facing difficult realities. You, however, seek a solid rational basis to support your beliefs. This is not only an admirable characteristic, it is also a tremendous mitsvah.

Living organisms are remarkably complex entities that certainly appear to be purposefully "designed." The elegance and efficiency of their anatomy and physiology - the intricate systems, from the molecular level upward, that must operate in harmony with one another to sustain even the simplest creature - seem to bear the signature of a Creator. Indeed, the very phenomenon of "life" and the circumstances of its emergence are still poorly understood by scientists, and are ranked among the most tantalizing mysteries of nature. This is probably the reason why philosophers from time immemorial have regarded the "miracle" of life as the most compelling evidence for the existence of a Deity.

We may add that the genesis and evolution of life through a combination of random mutations and natural selection would have required a lot more than one fortuitous accident. The number of "accidents" that would have had to occur is practically incalculable. Consequently, the amount of time that would have been necessary for these accumulated mutations - slowly sifted through via the mechanism of natural selection over countless generations - to bring forth the species as we know them today makes the theory of evolution seem unrealistic, if not incredible. This fact leads many people to the conclusion that Creationism is a more parsimonious solution to the riddle of life than Evolution.

I would have to agree that, from our vantage point, the likelihood is slim that life came into existence by pure chance and then developed into the diverse forms we now observe. It is hard to imagine that the fantastically complicated and highly specific set of preconditions that are necessary for even the most primitive life form to emerge simply fell into place by coincidence, without the involvement of Divine Providence of some sort. It is similarly remarkable that the exact combination of physical conditions and constants that are required to sustain life on our planet "just happen" to be incorporated into the fabric of the cosmos. It is almost as if the Universe were "expecting us." In his book The Rediscovery of Wisdom: From Here to Antiquity in Search of Sophia, Professor David Conway addresses this issue briefly, in the course of an insightful discussion of the Argument from Design. You might also find The God Hypothesis, by Michael Corey, an interesting read.

Nonetheless, it is ultimately a bad idea to try and prove Hashem's existence from the presence of inexplicable and mysterious phenomena in nature. When we do this, we end up positioning ourselves against science and fiercely resisting intellectual progress. The reason for this is clear. If we base our belief in God on the fact that there are still things we are unable to comprehend, then the more things science can rationally explain, the less "room" is left for belief in Hashem. The truth is that matters that are incomprehensible to us today may appear perfectly reasonable in the future in light of new scientific discoveries and intellectual breakthroughs. It would be foolish for us ignore these developments or to go out looking for new "unexplained mysteries" each time science advances further.

For this very reason, in Judaism, we do not depend on the "unexplained" to justify our belief in God. On the contrary, it is precisely the intelligibility, beauty and sheer elegance of the Universe that commands our respect and points to the infinite wisdom of its Creator. The graceful consistency of the natural world, directed by scientific law of the utmost depth and precision, testifies to Hashem's existence more than any "miracle." As King David wrote, "the heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament recounts His handiwork." The intricate order of creation, with its unfathomable subtlety, reflects a Mind far greater than any of ours. Although physical events may be attributed to mere chance, the exquisitely formulated principles that govern our world cannot possibly have been the result of an accident. The laws of nature clearly emerged from a "Lawgiver" Who crafted the Universe in accordance with them. For more on this and related subjects, you might enjoy reading God and The Astronomers, by Robert Jastrow, or The Mind of God, by Paul Davies.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention one last important point. Scientific evidence of God's existence is extremely valuable, but it remains beyond the grasp of many ordinary people. This is why the Torah provides us with universally accessible "proofs" of Hashem's presence and providence - the Exodus from Egypt and the Revelation at Sinai. These unique events in human history were witnessed and recorded by an entire nation of men, women and children and, as such, could not possibly have been fabricated. Our knowledge of Hashem is firmly established upon the testimony of our ancestors who stood at the foot of Sinai, heard the voice of God, received His Torah and commandments, and transmitted a faithful account of their experiences to their children and grandchildren after them. I have posted briefly on this topic on my other blog, http://vesomsechel.blogspot.com.

Incidentally, I am not in favor of the idea that the Universe is endless. Although it is impossible for us to measure its dimensions at the present time, even something as vast as the Universe is still a physical entity which is by definition finite and thus limited in size. Our minds cannot really handle the concept of infinity anyway, so, in my opinion, trying to utilize it in thinking about the material world can only be counterproductive!

Best wishes for success in your quest for true knowledge of Hashem.

Rabbi Maroof

Friday, June 16, 2006

Chewing Gum

Q: Dear Rabbi,

Since I am not eating the gum--what difference does it make if the gum is not certified Kosher?
The gum in question is Koolerz watermelon gum made by Hershey foods, but is not certified by anyone. There doesn't seem to be any non-kosher ingredients--but some one said even gum is non-kosher.
But I am not eating it--what's the facts.

A: Dear Yehuda,

Gum does need to be kosher, because it contains flavoring that we swallow while chewing it. However, provided that the ingredient label does not suggest the presence of any non-kosher substances, rabbinical supervision would not be necessary.

I am not familiar with the specific brand of gum in question. If I can be of any assistance in evaluating the ingredient list, please feel free to email it to me and I'll be glad to review it. The main ingredient to be on the lookout for is probably grape juice.

Best Regards,

Rabbi Maroof

Indian Foods

Q: Good Morning Rabbi,

I was curious: I am interested in bringing a particular processed food into my kitchen, which are not supervised under kashrut authorities. However, they are under supervision of Indian national food authorities, which do have accurate labeling for vegetarian food items (denoted by a green dot, whereas foods with animal products have a red dot) as a significant portion of their population has dietary restrictions from eating animal products (Brahmin/priestly caste). Given the existence of an established supervisory body forfood products, is it permissible to bring them into a kosher kitchen? Or, is it considered permissible by some to bring them in to a kosher Sephardic kitchen, such as one that follows such guidances like those of Rabbi Abadi (http://www.kashrut.org, an example, he permits the consumption of certain "gelatin" products as truly non-problematic)?



A: Dear Tzahi,

The answer to your question depends on the reliability of the food classification system in India. If a company would be fined or otherwise penalized for falsely labeling an item "vegetarian", then we may assume that the classifications they assign to their products are accurate. If, on the other hand, there are no consequences attached to such misrepresentation, then there is no basis upon which to trust the labeling process. We would have to be concerned about the possibility that business owners will make fraudulent claims about their foods simply in order to increase their profits.

Even if a product is reliably certified as vegetarian, one would still need to be sure that it contains no grape juice or wine. Grape juice and wine are not kosher unless they have been prepared under rabbinical supervision.

In our country, the halachic reliability of ingredient labels is based upon this very principle; namely, we assume that a company will provide accurate information to the consumer for the purpose of avoiding law suits, fines and liabilities of various kinds. If not for the careful monitoring of the food industry here, we would continue to harbor a healthy skepticism toward the representations made on product labels.

Best Regards,

Rabbi Maroof

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Sephardic and Ashkenazic Customs

Q: Hi Rabbi Maroof,

I was asked to lead at "mincha" after school, which is organized by the Ashkenazi minyan. I did not know whether or not I had to modify certain prayers, or which Kaddish I should have said. Could you please tell me what I can keep Sephardic, and what I have to change to Ashkenazi tradition. Thanks a lot.

A: Dear Friend,

When you serve as the prayer leader, you accept the responsibility to act as a representative of the prayer group. Therefore, any part of the prayer that is "public" and that you recite aloud - such as kaddish, kedusha, etc. - should be performed in accordance with custom of the minyan. Anything you say to yourself privately (like the silent amida) should reflect your own personal custom.

Best Regards,

Rabbi Maroof

Monday, May 22, 2006

Opening Containers on Shabbat

Q: Rabbi Maroof,

When opening a can of tuna on Shabbat, am I making a keli (new vessel)? Same question for opening a bottle of soda with a plastic twist off cap. Is this a problem?

Steve K.

A: Dear Steve,

With regard to soda bottles, there is no problem at all. The cap is designed to be removed - this is why it has a perforated ring on the bottom.

Tuna cans are more complicated because there is no preexistent "opening." The most common approach to this problem is to puncture the underside of the can prior to opening it; this renders the can unusable and thereby ensures that one is not fashioning a vessel by removing its top. The top of the tuna can itself is definitely not considered a vessel.

Best Regards,

Rabbi Maroof

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Torah Authorship

Q: Rabbi Maroof,

I found your site from one of the local paper's article about it. I really liked what you wrote on your blog, you are very wise and knowlegeable. I have asked the following question to many Rabbi but they never have good answers. I have been bothered by the question of how Moshe could have written the last pesukeem in the Tora. I know there is an argument in the Talmud about whether he or Joshua wrote them but it seems to make more sense to say that Joshua wrote them. I am not bothered by Moshe writing about that he died. I could even imagine him being told in prophecy that the people mourned his death for 30 days just like Aharon and like the halacha says to do. But how could he be told that the people followed Joshua - do not the people have free will? What if they didn't follow Joshua?

Also, how can the Rambam say one must believe Moshe wrote the entire Torah? It seems so hard to understand how Moshe could have written those last pesukem. What about the Ibn Ezra who says certain verses were not written by Moshe - what would the Rambam say about him? I hope you do not think I am Kofare. I really want to understand these questions.

Thank you,
Yisrael Tawil

A: Dear Yisrael,

In essence, you are posing two separate queries. Let us distinguish between them and consider them one at a time. The first difficulty you raise pertains to the last eight verses of the Torah. These verses describe, among other things, the Jewish people's acceptance of Joshua's leadership after Moshe's passing. Now, the Jewish people possessed free will and thus their choice to embrace Joshua as their new guide was voluntary. So how could Moshe write about this decision in advance? Does that not rob the Jews of their ability to choose? Based upon this problem, you suggest that it is more reasonable to assume that Joshua wrote the last eight verses of the Torah.

Considered more deeply, though, this concern is intimately linked to a more general philosophical issue - the apparent conflict between God's foreknowledge and our freedom of choice. After all, what Moshe wrote in the Torah was precisely dictated to him by the Almighty and, therefore, it reflects Hashem's knowledge of future events, not Moshe's. If Hashem can be aware of our destiny without inhibiting the free exercise of our will, then there is nothing objectionable about the idea that He might have provided Moshe with some knowledge of the future actions of the Children of Israel (such as the fact that they would opt to follow Joshua into the Promised Land). In order to address your difficulty, then, we must grapple with a more basic theological question: If Hashem already knows everything we will do in our lifetimes, doesn't that mean that our actions are predetermined, i.e., that we have no freedom to choose?

Fortunately, the Jewish response to this question was already formulated for us by Rambam (Maimonides) centuries ago in his Mishneh Torah. Rambam explains that there is a fundamental difference between human knowledge and Divine knowledge. The only time that a human being can have knowledge of future events is when those events are absolutely predetermined. Otherwise, our predictions are purely tentative in nature. By contrast, Hashem's knowledge of the future is complete regardless of whether that future is predetermined or variable. Both the future motions of the material world (strictly determined by natural law) and the future actions of human beings (the results of their ever unpredictable freedom of choice) are revealed before the Almighty.

Although we cannot possibly fathom the true character of the Divine Mind, we can still appreciate that God's knowledge of things is qualitatively different from our own. Since God can have foreknowledge without precluding or undermining our ability to choose freely, it is quite possible that He could teach Moshe, through prophecy, about future actions of certain individuals without necessarily robbing those individuals of their moral freedom. We see a precedent for this in the Covenant Between the Parts, where God tells Abraham that the Egyptians will enslave the Jews and eventually be punished. Thus, the idea that Moshe could have written of his own death, the mourning of the Israelites and their acceptance of Joshua is not surprising at all, and would in no way have interfered with the free choice of the Jewish people at that time.

The second problem you raise is the conflict between the requirement to believe that Moshe wrote the entire Torah - as formulated by the Rambam in his Thirteen Principles - and the opinion of scholars such as Ibn Ezra, who allow the possibility that later prophets added words or verses to the Torah's text. Would Maimonides have condemned Ibn Ezra as a heretic for his beliefs? Furthermore, how can Maimonides disregard the rabbis in the Talmud who maintained views similar to Ibn Ezra?

Before attempting to answer this question, let us consider the purpose for which Maimonides introduced his "Principles of Faith". The Rambam understood that the Jewish people needed a philosophical framework that would give their religious practice deeper meaning. This demanded a simple, direct exposition of the core beliefs that lie at the heart of Judaism as a worldview and a way of life. In reality, most of the principles that the Rambam formulated involve profound philosophical and metaphysical concepts that are not even close to being fleshed out in the concise paragraphs he devotes to them. The brief descriptions that he provides were not meant to settle every point of contention in Jewish philosophy, nor were they designed to exhaustively treat any theological subject. On the contrary, they were intended to serve as a primer in 'no frills' Jewish philosophy for the uninitiated layman. This is why they are deliberately general and very basic, omitting mention of many of the subtleties of the issues they touch upon.

The Rambam encourages us to leave the detailed, in-depth study of these areas to the advanced student or, better yet, to the distinguished scholar. As laypersons, our learning should remain focused on the essential message of each principle rather than the complications associated with it. With this in mind, let us examine Maimonides' eighth principle more closely and attempt to clarify its fundamental point:

"The eighth principle is that the Torah is from Heaven. That is, that we should believe that the entire Torah that exists in our hands today is the same Torah that was given to Moshe, and that it is, in its entirety, from the Almighty...Everything is from the Almighty, and it is all the perfect Torah of Hashem - pure, holy and true. The only reason our Sages considered King Menashe the worst heretic and freethinker was the fact that he thought the Torah had a "core" and a "rind", and that the dates and stories of the Torah have no purpose, but that Moshe wrote them from his own mind. This is the concept of "One who says the Torah is not from heaven"- the Rabbis say that this refers to one who argues that the whole Torah is Divine except for one verse that the Holy One, Blessed is He, did not state; rather, [the heretics claim that] Moshe said it of his own accord....The verse in the Torah that instructs us regarding this fundamental principle is "By this you shall know that Hashem sent me to do all these things - that it was not from my heart."

We see almost immediately that the Rambam is not dealing here with the extent of Moshe's involvement in the Torah's composition. His emphasis is on the fact that the entire Torah came directly from the Almighty and that it is not the product of human artifice. When he wrote the eighth principle of faith, the Rambam did not address the authorship of specific verses of the Torah. His objective was to underscore the idea that the Torah is of Divine Origin and that it was transmitted to us through the greatest of all prophets - i.e., his primary focus was on the fact that the content of the Torah is the Word of Hashem. The Rambam does not, however, express an opinion on the question of whether Joshua was involved in the process of the Torah's transcription. The Thirteen Principles are not the place for the consideration and discussion of such nuances.

The fact of the matter is, though, that Maimonides did believe Moshe to be the author of all of the verses of the Torah. In several of his works, he emphasizes that the unique character of Moshe's prophecy was what enabled him to be the proper conduit for the direct revelation of Hashem's wisdom. It is reasonable to believe, then, that the singular and superior holiness of the Torah's text derives from the singular and superior status of Moshe's prophetic experience relative to that of other prophets. If this is indeed the case, it follows that Moshe must have written the last eight verses - since they, too, partake of the same level of sanctity as the remainder of the Torah.

In conclusion, there is no doubt that we should accept Maimonides' view that Moshe was the author of the entire Torah. The difficulties with this position are not strong enough to warrant a deviation from the teachings of the greatest Jewish philosopher of all time. However, it is not at all clear that Maimonides would condemn a genuine scholar like Ibn Ezra who attributed the last eight verses to Joshua - provided, of course, that the scholar agreed that these verses (like the rest of the Torah) were directly dictated by the Almighty.

Best Regards,

Rabbi Maroof

Thursday, April 06, 2006


Q: Dear Rabbi Maroof,

Does brandy need to be kosher and, if so, does it also have to be kosher for Pesach?


A: Dear Michele,

Regular brandy is made from grape juice or wine and therefore requires kosher supervision. Pure fruit brandy (plum, apple, etc.) doesn't require kosher supervision provided that it does not contain any wine or other problematic ingredients.

With regard to Passover, it is easiest to purchase brandy that is specifically approved for Pesah use. Brandies are often mixed with other spirits during processing in order to facilitate their distillation, and these added substances may be grain-based and therefore hametz. However, if you are able to confirm that the brandy is totally unadulterated, it need not have special supervision for Passover.

Best Regards,

Rabbi Maroof

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Passover Items

Q: Rabbi Maroof,

I enjoyed your lecture last night and saw your responses on the blog.

Here's another question: Do lemon jice, ketchup or toothpaste need special labels for pesach.

Chag Sameach.

Abe Akresh

A: Dear Abe,

Toothpaste and other inedible items do not require any supervision for Pesah, unless of course you plan on eating them!

100% Pure Lemon Juice does NOT require any special Passover label.

With regard to ketchup - it is hard to generalize about such products without addressing specific brand names, since every company's formula is somewhat different. Some brands of ketchup may contain vinegar, modified food starch, or other ingredients that could be hametz.

I can tell you that regular Heinz Ketchup is kosher for Passover even without a Passover label.

Hag Kasher V'Sameah,

Rabbi Maroof

Seder Questions

Q: Dear Rabbi Maroof,

I attended your recent lecture on the Seder and was impressed by your knowledge and insight. I thank you for all I learned.

If I may, I would like to ask some Passover Seder related questions:

1. Why are there 3 Matzot at the Seder table? One is for the afikomen, but why the 2 others? (My children always ask me that one). And why is the afikomen matzah broken in two?

2. What is the traditional Sephardic way to say the 10 plagues?
In my tradition, a little wine from a glass, and water from another, are poured together into a bowl at the mention of each plague emptying both with the 10th plague.

Ashkenazim however, dip a finger in the wine and sprinkle it away. Over the years I've heard the following explanations:

Sephardic style (2 cups): water represent justice and water represents mercy. Justice should not be meted out without some mercy (from the kabbalah).

Ashkenazi style (finger dipped in wine): diminishing our pleasure (wine) at the suffering of our enemies.

Does the Talmud or hachamim say anything about this?

3. What to do with Elijah's cup? Drink it or throw it away?

Thank you and hag sameakh.

Jeff Malka

A: Dear Dr. Malka,

Thank you for your kind words. I will do my best to answer your questions:

1. Contrary to popular belief, the use of three matsot on Passover night serves a legal rather than a symbolic function. The Talmud in Masechet Pesahim and Masechet Berachot teaches that we must break one of the "loaves" of matsa at the Seder in order to show that it is the "bread of affliction". A poor person does not necessarily have the luxury of enjoying a complete loaf of bread on a regular basis; more often than not, he sustains himself with the crusts of bread he has preserved from previous meals or with the leftover food that his wealthier neighbors have discarded. We incorporate this concept into our meal through "yahatz", i.e., breaking one of the pieces of our matsa at the Seder.

From a halachic (Jewish legal) standpoint, however, this custom poses a problem. After all, on other holidays and on Shabbat, we are obligated to recite the blessing "hamotsi" over two whole loaves of bread. Why should Passover be any different? For this reason, several Talmudic commentators ruled that three matsot must be used - two to fulfill the general requirement of "lehem mishneh" (blessing over two loaves) , and a third that will be broken to emphasize the concept of "bread of affliction". This prevents the shattering of the matsa from diminishing the honor we render to the holiday through using two whole loaves for the blessing. So, in reality, the three matsot do not form one cohesive group; rather, two of them substitute for the usual "two challot", and the third, broken one exemplifies the concept of affliction. This reasoning forms the basis for the use of three matsot on the night of the Seder.

It is interesting to note that, according to Maimonides and some other authorities, only two matsot should be used at the Seder. In the view of these scholars, the whole point of breaking one of the matsot is that we SHOULDN'T recite the blessing over two complete loaves. In other words, they argue that the notion of affliction or deprivation is expressed through our purposeful downgrading of the "lehem mishneh" to one-and-a-half pieces. It is by way of this disruption of the usual mitsvah of "twin loaves" that the concept of affliction becomes manifest. From this perspective, the introduction of three matsot is not only superfluous, it is inappropriate - because the very existence of "lehem mishneh" stands in direct contradiction to the theme of affliction.

2. The prevalent Sephardic custom regarding the ten plagues is for the leader of the seder to spill ten drops of wine from his cup into a bowl, or, in some cases, into a broken earthenware vessel. The wine in the bowl is subsequently discarded. We do this, rather than dipping our fingers into the cup, in order to avoid the problem of creating a "kos pagum", an unsavory cup. Placing our hands into the wine undoubtedly detracts from its appeal.

The custom of removing some of the wine from our cups upon mention of the Ten Plagues has its roots in a beautiful Midrash of our Sages. The Midrash teaches that, after the Jews crossed the Sea of Reeds to safety and the Egyptians perished, the angels in Heaven wanted to recite God's praises. God rebuked the angels with the now classic phrase "My handiwork is drowning in the sea and you wish to break out in song?"

The Egyptians were a corrupt and oppressive group who subjected the Jewish people to terrible hardships. Many Jews may have experienced a sense of satisfaction as they watched their enemies drown in the sea - a response we would expect from one who, after years of painful struggling, finally triumphs over his opponents. The Rabbis teach us that this attitude is not endorsed by our Creator. Instead of gloating in our victory over the Egyptians, we should temper our joy, mourning the fact that the struggle between Egyptian and Israelite had to end in the destruction of so much human life - life that was filled with unlimited, albeit unactualized, potential for goodness. We should solemnly consider the thought that things could have worked out differently; that, had the Egyptians made wiser, more enlightened choices, acknowledging the Divine will and the demands of morality of their own accord, the tragic consequences that they suffered could have been averted.

What you mentioned about water and wine - the relationship between the Divine Attributes of justice and mercy - is represented through the addition of a few drops of water to the Kiddush wine on Shabbat and Holidays year round. This practice is not limited to Passover in the Sephardic traditions with which I am familiar.

3. Elijah's cup is generally not a Sephardic custom. It was adopted by the Sephardim from their Ashkenazic neighbors. There is nothing objectionable about it, but it was not originally a part of our traditions.

Whether you drink or discard it is purely a matter of preference. Each family has probably adopted its own policy in this regard.

I hope you find these explanations helpful.

Hag Kasher V'Sameah,

Rabbi Maroof

Anussim II

Dear Friends,

I have received several responses, in comments as well as emails, to my statement regarding anussim. I would like to clarify my position on this topic a bit further, responding to all of the contributors simultaneously.

First of all, I must emphasize that I am ignorant of the specific histories of the communities that some of you have described, so I am in no position to determine the personal status of their members. A comprehensive and thorough investigation of all relevant facts - an investigation which, I understand from your comments, is already underway - would have to be completed before any competent rabbinical decision could be rendered. My remarks about the subject of anussim in the posts on this blog have been, and continue to be, purely hypothetical in nature.

When it comes to matters of Jewish law, we must adhere strictly to the principles of the Written and Oral Torah, applying them to the evidence available. The halacha, or Jewish law, only recognizes a person as Jewish if we have proof that his or her mother is Jewish. Otherwise, that person must undergo a conversion. Our sympathy with the plight of the anussim communities cannot overrule the standards that the Torah has established.

Although the original anussim were forced to convert against their will, the fact remains that, in some communities, the converts or their descendants later intermarried with non-Jews and their offspring may not be Jewish according to the Law.

Of course, as I mentioned in my first post, it all depends upon the facts of the case. If a community, aware of its anussim status, preserved its identity and never intermingled with the local non-Jewish population after their "conversion", there would be no doubt as to their status as Jews. This may be the case in the communities of which you speak, and this would be the reason why some Sephardic rabbanim may have endorsed their Jewishness.

Again, it is not the Jewish identity of the original converts that is in question. The original converts remained Jewish no matter what. A Jew who converts to Christianity or Islam or any other religion is still a Jew, and does not need to undergo any process to return.

The only issue is whether the descendants of the converts intermarried because, as generations passed, they began to forget that they were originally Jewish. This is the problem faced by the Spanish individuals of Jewish descent who subsequently assumed fully Catholic identities and lost all connection with Judaism, except for a few isolated rituals whose meaning they no longer remembered.

So, in conclusion, if a person has clear proof that his maternal line is 100% Jewish, he or she does not require conversion.

I hope this clarifies my position. I wish all of you the best of success in your study and observance of our Torah.


Rabbi Maroof

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Rabbinic Judaism

Q: The more deeply I study Jewish history and Tanach, the more I become convinced that we have been in a period of "hester panim" since the time of Ezra and Nehemiah and the construction of the Second Temple, when the Shechina did not return to Bnei Yisrael. As a believer in the Blessings and Curses and being impressed by the ready mapping of the Tochaicha from the 4th century B.C.E through the Holocaust, I am drawn to the conclusion that the cause of our distress as "The People of the Book" has been a basic violation of the Torah in the emergence and domination of Rabbinic Judaism (over Levitical Judaism), notwithstanding the supposed intent of Rabbinic Judaism in its infancy to preserve the Torah. As the agrarian lifestyle of Bnei Yisrael during the First Temple period (with its concommitant need for Levites supported by the surrounding community and dedicated to teaching the Law and enforcing it as judges) gave way to the advent of urban life after the return to Israel of the exiled, the free time of urban life permitted study of the Torah and a growing distaste for the Kohanim and their Levitical brethren, finally resulting in a "French Revolution," but really culminating in a new religion devoid of God's earmarking of the tribe of Levi as his ministers and the teachers of His Laws to Yisrael...Could this be so? Have we lost God's active presence in Am Yisrael's fate (aside from HIS always maintaining a remnant) so that we will continue to be under the gun, so to speak, with the absence of peace and the other Blessings until we as a people RETURN to God's Levitical Teaching (the Torah), and not the constructed one of rabbinic making? Thank you in advance for your response....Yerachmiel

A: Dear Yerachmiel,

I agree with your observation that we live in a period of time during which God's providential influence is not apparent to us. However, your explanation of the reason for this phenomenon seems to be based upon several ideas that don't stand up to serious scrutiny. First of all, you state that the Bible indicates that only the Levites and Priests are entitled to serve as the spiritual leaders of the Jewish people. Without a doubt, the Bible reflects an expectation that the Levites will be especially devoted to the study of Torah and will dedicate themselves to teaching its commandments to the masses. However, the fact remains that the majority of the prophets in Jewish history, from Joshua on, were not Levites. It is evident that the most gifted prophet in a given generation was acknowledged as the religious leader of that period and was deferred to by layperson and priest alike. When the Second Temple was rebuilt, we find prophets educating the Priests about the performance of the Temple Service and the laws of ritual purity. Furthermore, we see that the prophets never hesitated to criticize the Priests, quite harshly at times. Their moral authority - based, as it was, upon their knowledge of God's Torah - empowered them to supervise, instruct and even castigate the Levites. Thus, the prophets, by virtue of their knowledge and moral perfection, were consistently regarded as the ultimate religious authorities of the Nation of Israel. The Torah itself alludes to this when it states, "And you shall come to the the Priests, the Levites, AND the the Judge who will preside in those days," implying that the Judge may not be a Levite or a Priest!

You also seem to suggest that the Talmudic Rabbis invented a new brand of Judaism that did not exist before the destruction of the Second Temple. The first difficulty with this belief is that it involves a serious misconception about the nature of the Oral Tradition in Jewish thought. To speak of Rabbinic Judaism as "constructed" is to imply that it is a creation of the rabbis that exists independently of the Written Torah. In reality, the relationship of the Oral and Written Torahs is comparable to the relationship that obtains between theoretical paradigm and empirical observation in science. In the scientific realm, abstract constructs and principles that exist in the mind of the scientist provide a framework through which he or she interprets data, makes predictions, etc. In a similar vein, the Oral Torah is a conceptual prism that resides in the Torah scholar's intellect and through which he interprets, analyzes and draws conclusions from the written text. Scientific formulae do not add anything tangible to the empirical data; rather, they serve to further integrate and develop our understanding of the data. Similarly, the formulations of the Oral Torah don't add content to the Torah; they simply provide a conceptual framework for reading and comprehending it. I would encourage you to listen to a lecture I delivered on this topic a couple of months ago, at http://magen-david.net/TXXO.wav.

In the lecture, I discuss how the notion that the text of the Torah could possibly be interpreted or applied without some preexistent intellectual 'context' is ultimately untenable. A couple of brief examples will clarify my argument (listen to the audio class for more). The Torah commands us not to engage in "melacha" (frequently mistranslated as "work", probably better rendered as "craft" or "creative activity") on the Sabbath. What is the precise definition of the term "melacha"? If we expect to derive such information from the text alone, we find ourselves in a serious predicament. Every Jew will interpret the word for him or herself, and what is included under the heading of "melacha" in the eyes of one reader may be excluded by another. Indeed, the Torah's definition of melacha does not seem to correspond to our "common sense" perspective - the Sabbath violator mentioned in Leviticus was executed for gathering sticks, an activity that sounds inocuous to most. We must ask ourselves - would it be fair for a judge to distinguish between a Sabbath observer and a Sabbath violator based upon his own subjective sense of the Torah's meaning? Would the judge feel sufficient conviction in his personal intuition to impose the death penalty for Sabbath violation in light of it? Clearly, God must have had a very specific concept of "melacha" in mind when He commanded us to abstain from it. The definition of this term and its abstract formulation is found exclusively in the Oral Torah as transmitted from Moses down to the Talmudic Rabbis. Again, the traditional Torah scholar's ideas don't add new information to the Torah any more than the scientist's theoretical understanding adds new information to the physical world. The rabbinic Jew simply reads the words of the text on a deeper, more sophisticated level in light of the framework provided by the Oral Torah.

Allow me to cite one more example - there are many! The Torah tells us in Deuteronomy that if a defendant is found guilty and is worthy of lashes, the judges should administer them. However, nowhere in the Written Torah does it describe who is "worthy of lashes". Are the justices expected to make the criteria up as they go along? Clearly, the definition of this category must have been transmitted orally - it is a part of the conceptual framework that forms the basis of our reading and interpretation of the Biblical text.

It is important to note that the Torah is not unique in its dependence upon an oral tradition for proper rendition. Countless other works of law, science and literature can be completely misunderstood if the reader lacks the proper background knowledge, including an accurate definitions of technical terms, a sense of historical setting and context, etc. Groups who have rejected rabbinical tradition and attempt to observe Judaism based on the text alone have generated an unlimited range of interpretations of Torah yet possess no reliable criteria for choosing between them. Are we to maintain that God bequeathed to us a text whose language is deliberately ambiguous and whose true sense is inaccessible to us? Is it reasonable to believe that God would present us with a written document that is subject to multiple interpretations without providing us with the tools to grasp its intended meaning? We must assume that the prophets and judges of Israel possessed an orally transmitted set of principles that allowed them to interpret the Torah's ideas and commandments accurately. This body of knowledge was ultimately vouchsafed to the rabbis.

Incidentally, the most beautiful illustration of the integration of Written and Oral Torah is the comprehensive and majestic Mishneh Torah of Maimonides, the study of which I would highly recommend to you.

The second problem with this critique of rabbinic Judaism is a theological problem. The prophets have promised us that, despite the trials and tribulations the Nation of Israel faced and will face, authentic Torah Judaism will never be forgotten from their midst. If we admit that the Torah was never 'lost' at any point in history, then there must have been an unbroken chain of individuals who mantained proper Torah teaching and observance throughout the generations. An analysis of Jewish history reveals that the only group of people who have observed the Torah in a consistent manner since the destruction of the Second Temple are the rabbinic Jews, who must perforce have inherited their perspective and understanding from the prophets before them. There is no doubt that alternative sects of Judaism have made appearances on the world stage from time to time. However, not one of these groups can boast of an uninterrupted chain of religious observance linking them all the way back to Moses at Sinai. Thus, assuming that the promise of the prophets was fulfilled, we must conclude that the genuine inheritors of the Torah tradition are the Rabbis and their students.

I fully agree with your assessment that the Jewish people have strayed quite far from the proper study and observance of the Torah. As long as our infatuation with the hedonistic and materialistic values of modern culture persists, this tragic reality will remain unchanged. The key, however, is not to reject the instruction of the rabbis, but to return to it. With their guidance, we can find in the Torah all of the wisdom we need to pursue a meaningful and truly satisfying life.

Rabbi Maroof

Monday, April 03, 2006

Purchasing Milk for Passover

Q: Hi Rabbi,

I saw the article about you in the Jewish Week. Do I need to get kosher for Passover milk?

Steve K.

A: Dear Steve,

Plain milk does not need special rabbinical supervision in order to be kosher for Passover. The same applies to raw vegetables, meat, chicken and fish that are plain/unseasoned.

Hag Kasher V'Sameah,

Rabbi Maroof

Sunday, April 02, 2006


Q: Dear Rabbi Maroof,

First of all, I would like to thank you for providing this space to address Jewish matters. My question is related to the afterlife, a subject in which Judaism contains a variety of opinions. From my understanding (please let me know if I am misunderstanding any concept), according to some bilblical references, more specifically, Job and Ecclesiastes, there's a place called "Sheol", an underground abyss where all souls -whether good or evil, go.
There's also the concept of Gan Eden (heaven) and Gehinnom (hell), but ultimately all souls go to heaven after they purge their sins and wrongdoings, except the extremely wicked and evil, whose soul will be either ceased from existence or be eternally under suffering -this is another topic that has different interpretations.
So, are Sheol and Gehinnon equivalent? Also, after the resurrection of the souls in the World to Come (in a physical form), will there be death again?
Thank you,
Carolina Castellanos

A: Dear Carolina,

These are weighty and complex questions. Let me begin by emphasizing that the concept of a soul entering a "place", whether under or above ground, is not a part of Jewish theology. The soul is not a physical object that can travel in space or be situated in a specific location. Whenever a reference is made to a soul 'going' somewhere, it is intended in a metaphoric, not a literal, sense.

The Biblical term "Sheol" simply refers to the grave, the final resting place of the physical body.

Maimonides teaches that the Afterlife is a metaphysical state of blissful existence that ensues after the separation of the soul from the body. This state can only be achieved by an individual who has perfected his or her soul through the acquisition of knowledge and positive character traits and the performance of good deeds. Because the soul has developed a spiritual, transcendent aspect, it is able to survive physical death and partake of the greatest reward imaginable - namely, an unadulterated and fully satisfying perception of Hashem's wisdom.

It is important to remember that, since we exist in a physical body during this lifetime and all of our knowledge is based upon our experiences of the material world, we cannot possibly imagine what it would be like to exist metaphysically. This is the reason why our Sages are compelled to employ metaphor and analogy when speaking about these profound matters. Unfortunately, because we are generally much more comfortable with concrete imagery than abstract ideas, many people latch onto the metaphoric depictions of the rabbis as if they are literal facts. Thus, they develop sensual concepts of the World to Come that are of necessity inaccurate. We must accept the reality that the true nature of the Afterlife is not something that we have the ability to comprehend during our sojourn on this Earth.

Wicked people whose entire existence in this world revolves around material gain and bodily pleasure have not actualized the metaphysical dimension of their souls. As a result, their souls perish with their bodies at the conclusion of their physical lives. They suffer the ultimate punishment - the loss of the opportunity to experience the pleasure of true knowledge and understanding.

In the Messianic era, the righteous will be revived from the dead and will participate in the establishment of a utopian society that will be fully aligned with God's wisdom. Their ressurection will also afford these great men and women the benefit of living in an enlightened world community - something they did not have the opportunity to do before their deaths. In the end, though, the laws of nature will continue to reign, and the righteous - like all other mortals - will eventually pass away once again, allowing their souls to return to a blessed state of metaphysical existence for eternity.

I would like to add two important points before concluding this post. The first point is that our service of Hashem in this world is inherently rewarding and fulfilling. Any additional reward is really superfluous to the wise person who enjoys truth and justice for their own sake. Similarly, living a materialistic, unenlightened life is its own punishment. Such a lifestyle frustrates human beings, denying them the actualization of their intellectual and spiritual potential while offering them an endless array of unsatisfying substitutes that fail to address their uniquely human needs.

Those who believe that the ultimate reward for study and righteousness is endless physical pleasure necessarily maintain that the pleasures of the body are the ultimate good for human beings, and that living wisely is a means to the end of material self-indulgence. Similarly, the belief in eternal physical torment for the wicked stems from the assumption that bodily suffering is worse than the pain of living without wisdom. Both of these suppositions are contrary to the core teachings of Judaism. The devoted Jew does not need the promise of extrinsic reward nor the threat of extrinsic punishment to entice him or her to live by the dictates of the Torah. Pleasures and pains of the body are simply incomparable to the contentment the soul derives from its pursuit of knowledge and virtue. By way of analogy, imagine that a wealthy individual offered you one million dollars cash, with no strings attached. Would you ask "well, what's in it for me? What's my reward for accepting the money?" Any additional reward would pale by comparison to the receipt of the funds themselves. In the same way, wisdom is its own reward, and anyone who asks "what's in it for me" has not yet experienced its beauty - a beauty so rich and overflowing that it causes all temporal enjoyments to seem base and worthless by comparison.

The second point I'd like to emphasize is that the common notion of "Divine Punishment" is derived from the theologies of other popular religions, and not from the teachings of the Torah. In these religions, God is portrayed as an angry humanlike being who cannot tolerate the disregard with which human beings treat Him and His laws. His thirst for vengeance is so all-consuming that the only way He can quell his rage is by condemning sinners to everlasting torment in Hell . This idea is, of course, based upon the assumption that God takes pleasure in our morality and religiosity and that He becomes frustrated and aggressive when we fail to placate Him with our worship. Advocates of this notion seem to maintain that God finds comfort in torturing violators of His commandments for all eternity.

By contrast, the Jewish view is that righteousness and wickedness - as well as reward and punishment - are exclusively for human benefit. God does not become 'angry' when we sin, nor does our goodness provide Him any satisfaction. When we make the right choices, then, God may assist us in furthering our development so that we more fully actualize the potential for genuine happiness that He implanted within us - not because He needs us to continue, but because it is His will to provide the best for His creatures.

At the same time, when we choose to act immorally, we do a disservice to ourselves alone. God, in His infinite mercy, may punish us to correct us and steer us back onto the proper path, but not because He takes some sinister, vengeful pleasure in our suffering. We can see this from the fact that God only intervenes to punish individuals whom He knows are sufficiently close to Him to respond appropriately to censure, as King Solomon wrote, "The ones God loves, He rebukes." If a person is so far from God that there is no hope that he will repent as a result of Divinely imposed punishments, then God will not implement them. Hashem does not mete out consequences to make us suffer for our sins; His purpose in chastising human beings is to educate and uplift those of us who are at least potentially receptive to His message.

From this standpoint, it is clear why subjecting human souls to everlasting torment in the Hereafter would be meaningless. Once our lives are over, all hope of repentance is lost - so what use would punishment serve after death? Only a religion that views God in human terms - as a sadistic father-figure who is insatiably angry with his children and needs to 'vent' - could possibly embrace such a concept.

I should mention that there are some Rabbis, such as Nachmanides, who subscribe to the concept of 'Gehinnom'. 'Gehinnom' is understood here as a process of purification of the soul - metaphorically denoted by a 'place' to which it goes - that occurs before that soul enters its final state of spiritual existence. We all have ties to the material world that serve as obstacles to our spiritual growth, interfering and even tampering with the proper development of our souls. The idea of Gehinnom is that a profound experience of self-awareness and intellectual clarity after death - revealing, as it would, that any attachment to the realm of the physical is utterly meaningless - may enable a person to become freed from some of these limitations and thus to enjoy a more complete and gratifying metaphysical existence in the Next World.

For a more detailed and in-depth discussion of these ideas, I would encourage you to read Maimonides' "Introduction to Helek", which can be purchased in English translation from Moznaim Publishers (It appears as an appendix in the volume of the Rambam series entitled "Pirkei Avot").

Rabbi Maroof

Friday, March 31, 2006

Cemetery Visits During the Month of Nisan

Q: I know there is a general prohibition of hespedim (eulogies) during the month of Nisan. I was wondering if there is also a minhag (custom) not to visit a bet kevarot (cemetery) this month. I was told that there might be, at least in Israel. Is this true? If so, is there any exception for bnei Hutz Laaretz (Jews who live outside of Israel) who might only be in Israel for the Pesach season?

M. W.
Riverdale, NY

A: Delivering eulogies on a holiday - such as Pesah, Purim or even Rosh Hodesh - is halachically prohibited. As such, we avoid visiting the cemetery on these days so as not to encourage eulogizing, weeping, and other behaviors that might detract from the spirit of the holiday in violation of Jewish law. By contrast, the restriction on eulogizing during the month of Nisan is only a custom. Since the prohibition against delivering eulogies throughout the month of Nisan does not have the force of law, the rabbis did not broaden it to include an additional restriction on cemetery visits. Visiting a cemetery is permitted, then, throughout the month, with the obvious exception of the eight days of Pesah.

The individual who suggested that one is not permitted to visit cemeteries in Israel during Nissan may have been confused by another Israeli custom - namely, the common practice of visiting graves on the day before Rosh Hodesh Nisan. This may have been taken as a sign that such visits are prohibited during the upcoming month; however, this is clearly not the reason for the custom. Indeed, this practice is also observed on the day before Rosh Hodesh Elul - a month which includes no restrictions on mourning whatsoever!

Rabbi Maroof


Q: Are fresh or frozen soybeans considered legumes?

A: Yes! They are only acceptable for use by Sephardim on Pesah.

Rabbi Maroof

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Ethiopians and Anussim

Rabbi Maroof,

Let me preface this by asking that you kindly correct any misinformation I may be working with in my question, or further elaborate where necessary.

Rav Ovadia Yosef's psak (ruling) that the returning Ethiopians can be married and need not have any conversion, returned them to their status after more than a thousand years. (This time could maybe be viewed as less of a gap since it was based on Radbaz's opinion that was issued hundreds of years ago, so it is as if they are returning to their status after only hundreds of years of uncertainty). Why is it then that for the case of the anoosim, who have a similar situation in attempting to return (as it may be argued, even in a shorter span of a verifiable gap in their status, and a more close, or at least traceable link) require at least giyyur l'humra as ruled by Rav Mordechai Eliyahu? Where does this difference arise from in their rulings? Couldn't the ruling for anoosim have similarly drawn upon a 17th or 16th century posek like Rav Duran, who was ruling that returning anoosim should be welcomed back without test?



Dear J.D.,

For the benefit of the readership, allow me to clarify the meaning of your question a bit. R' Ovadiah Yosef ruled (for example, in Yabia Omer Vol. 8, Section E"H #11) that the Ethiopian Beta Israel community was Jewish according to halacha and, therefore, required no formal conversion to join the mainstream of the Jewish people. Anussim, or people of Jewish descent whose ancestors converted to other religions under duress and have rediscovered their roots, are only accepted into the community after a process of conversion in order to make sure that they are Jewish. Your question is why we don't apply the same standards to both cases and allow Anussim to reenter the Jewish fold without undergoing a conversion.

In order to understand the answer, we must consider a key difference in the Jewish identities of the Ethiopians and the Anussim, respectively. The reason why the Ethiopian Jews lost their connection with the Jewish people for so long was, according to the theory accepted by R' Yosef, simply a result of their physical isolation from us. The Ethiopians never lost their own sense of identity and never intermarried with the surrounding peoples, but they had no contact with other Jews outside of their community. Thus, assuming that their Jewish status was authentic to begin with - a premise that R' Yosef and many other Gedolim have accepted - there is no reason to cast doubt on it now. The fact that they were separated from the rest of world Jewry for several centuries or even millenia does not take away from their Jewishness.

Modern Anussim, on the other hand, have typically identified as Catholics for several generations. Remarkably, their families frequently maintained unusual traditions that are not characteristically Catholic, such as soaking and salting meat before cooking it, not eating pork, not going to church, or lighting candles on Friday night - customs that they now realize are based upon an historical connection to Judaism. Meanwhile, though, the parents, grandparents and great grandparents of many of these Anussim may have intermarried with other Catholics, making it difficult for us, in retrospect, to determine whether their children were halachically Jewish or not. Remember that we receive our status as Jews from our mothers, not our fathers, and our mothers were Jewish because of their mothers, and so on. So there must be an unbroken chain of Jewishness on the maternal side of our families for us to be considered halachically Jewish. Thus, for a member of one of the families of Anussim to be accepted as Jewish nowadays, we would need to have proof that none of the individual's male ancestors on his or her mother's side ever married a non-Jewish woman, so that his or her mother, maternal grandmother, etc., were all Jewish. Understandably, proving this is close to impossible in the majority of cases. As a result, we require the Anussim to go through a conversion process to ensure that their Jewish identity is established beyond any doubt.

In your question, you mentioned how several illustrious rabbis in the 16th and 17th centuries wrote responsa in which they advocated accepting Anussim without any problem, i.e., without any process of conversion whatsoever. However, the situations to which those rabbis referred were different from the Anussim cases of today. In the circumstances they were discussing, the very same people who converted to Catholicism - not their descendants - are now returning to Judaism. We are not faced with the complexities of their Jewish ancestry; we know that they are Jewish, but they have defected, at least temporarily, from their religion. The rabbis argued that, despite the fact that these individuals were wrong to have converted to Catholicism, we should still accept them now that they have repented and wish to rededicate themselves to Jewish tradition. Had the same rabbis been dealing with the great-great-great-grandchildren of Anussim who reemerged from complete assimilation in the Catholic community centuries later, their rulings would have been much different.

In summary, it is not the quantity of time that has passed since a person's separation from the Jewish people that is the decisive factor in these rulings. It is true that, the further back in history we must go to establish an individual's Jewish identity, the more difficult it is to ascertain the facts about his or her heritage, whether his or her ancestors intermarried, etc. However, in cases where extensive historical research is not necessary because of the presence of other evidence, these conclusions can be made more easily and definitively. Thus, isolated Jewish communities who have maintained an identity that is distinct from any neighboring gentiles but have lived apart from the mainstream of Jews for many generations may be accepted as halachically Jewish without conversion. Since they have not intermarried with non-Jews, we need not suspect any 'dilution' of Jewish status among them - thorough background checks are not required. By contrast, the Anussim of today are the descendants of converts to Catholicism who had completely lost any conscious identification with Judaism and may have affected the Jewish status of their children by intermarrying with other Catholics. Since developing an accurate picture of their personal histories is overwhelmingly difficult, we cannot avoid having questions about their Jewishness. Thus, the contemporary Anussim must undergo what is called 'giyur l'humra', a process of conversion to resolve the doubt that surrounds their Jewish heritage. Finally, Jews whose Jewish identity is well established but who have converted to other religions under duress may, after they have renounced their conversions, be reinstituted in the Jewish community without compunction.

Rabbi Maroof

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Evolution and Intelligent Design

Q: What is the Jewish view of the theory of Evolution? Is it proper for a religious Jew to accept evolution, being that it contradicts the Biblical story of creation? Shouldn't we support the Intelligent Design approach instead?

A: There are multiple aspects to your question. First of all, let me emphasize that the Torah is not a science book. It is not designed to present us with a comprehensive account of physics, biology or chemistry. The primary objective of the Torah is to teach that the entire Universe is nothing but an expression of the Divine wisdom and that human beings have the unique capacity to comprehend at least some of that wisdom. These are theological principles that have no specific implications for scientific theory. In other words, we subscribe to the idea that Hashem created all that exists and that the material world operates in a lawful, harmonious manner that reflects His knowledge and providence. This general concept neither proves nor disproves any specific scientific hypothesis.

Many modern readers of the Bible are troubled by its apparent inconsistency with contemporary scientific knowledge. These readers have unfortunately been influenced by a fundamentalist approach to Biblical interpretation that is prevalent among Protestant Christians. This approach insists that the words of the Bible are meant to be taken at face value and leads to a wholesale rejection of the scientific method. By contrast, the Jewish view, as represented in the Talmud and in the writings of classic rabbinic thinkers such as Maimonides and Nachmanides, has always been that the first two chapters of the Book of Genesis are not to be taken literally. This assumption was part and parcel of Jewish thought long before anybody had an inkling that there might be 'contradictions' between the Torah and science. The study of the Mystery of Creation has traditionally been reserved for a small elite group of accomplished scholars who are prepared to delve into its secret, metaphoric meaning. A simple literal reading does not do justice to the complexity or the depth of the Torah's presentation of Genesis. The value that we, the common people, draw from it is the knowledge that the Universe is God's creation - no more and no less.

Keeping in mind that the Torah doesn't mean to describe the process of Creation in a literal vein, there is nothing in the Torah that can be used to refute the theory of Evolution. Although the adoption of a completely materialistic, atheistic outlook on the world is often associated with evolutionary theory, this need not be the case. We can easily maintain that God created the Universe in such a way that its various components unfolded through a gradual process of evolution. Indeed, there is a magnificence and a beauty to the concept that God - with one, singular act of creation - set such an unimaginably complex chain of events in motion that culminated in the breathtakingly intricate world we see around us today.

At the same time, though, the Torah does not confirm Evolutionary theory. No scientific theory should attempt to claim Biblical endorsement because, as mentioned above, specific scientific principles cannot be derived from the Bible. Any scientific approach is acceptable to Judaism as long as it is based upon the fundamental assumption that the existence of matter and its lawfulness is the result of God's design, and provided that it is compatible with the idea that the human soul is not a purely physical entity. Beyond this, all scientific concepts are the result of fallible human thought and must necessarily be criticized and reevaluated regularly to ensure that they are not erroneous. A review of the history of scientific thought confirms the importance of a constant process of critical review.

Finally, with regard to Intelligent Design: I do not see what the notion of Intelligent Design adds to scientific knowledge. It is a broad metaphysical or theological conviction, not a specific explanation of any phenomena in the physical world. Intelligent Design answers the question of "Who" rather than "How", placing it outside the realm of science. Indeed, it seems to involve an abdication of our responsibility to pursue true knowledge of God's creations because, instead of working to understand God's natural laws, proponents of Intelligent Design theory simply fall back on "it's the way it is because God made it that way." This belief does not bring us to a more complete appreciation of God's wisdom as revealed in nature.

As Maimonides teaches, the highest level of love of Hashem can only be attained when one perceives the profundity of Hashem's knowledge that is revealed in the abstract laws that govern the Universe. This requires us to seek the simplest, most elegant and most accurate account of the way in which our world operates and how it came to be. Honest scientific inquiry enables us to see how the infinite complexity and detail we encounter ultimately derive from One Source and the laws of physics He has established.

On the other hand, assuming that God needs to fashion or to guide each and every element of His Universe separately detracts from our sense of His grandeur and perfection. An artist who can produce a masterpiece with a thousand brushstrokes is no doubt inferior to an artist who can produce the same artwork with a single brushstroke. Thus, through attributing everything around them to miraculous Divine intervention, Intelligent Design theorists do not honor God, they underestimate Him.

In conclusion, there is no religious objection, from a Torah standpoint, to the theory of Evolution per se. We cannot confirm or deny the theory based upon the text of Genesis, which is understood in our tradition as an esoteric theological work, not a scientific treatise. In fact, the theory has many attributes that recommend it, even from a religious perspective - such as, for example, the elegance of its reduction of the complexity of our world to a simple, natural mechanism. All things considered, though, our belief in the Torah does not require us to embrace or to reject any particular scientific hypothesis. The Torah teaches us about the Source of the physical world and how we should relate to Him, but it stops short of providing us with a specific set of beliefs about how the world operates or how it came into existence. It is up to us as human beings to seek the answers to these questions to the extent of our ability.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Gifts to the Poor

Matanot La'evyonim

Q: Can one fulfill the mitsvah of Matanot La'evyonim (gifts to the poor) on Purim by contributing to a charity that distributes money to needy families in Israel on Purim day?

A: Most of us live in places where Purim is celebrated on the fourteenth of the Jewish month of Adar. In our neighborhoods, the commandment to rejoice on the holiday can only be fulfilled on the fourteenth of Adar. However, there are some cities in the land of Israel, such as Jerusalem, in which Purim is observed on the fifteenth of Adar rather than the fourteenth. For individuals living in those cities, celebration on any day other than the fifteenth of Adar would not 'count'.

As mentioned in another post, the mitsvah of Matanot La'evyonim (gifts to the poor) is a dimension of the general commandment to rejoice on Purim. Thus, it must be performed at the time when that mitsvah is applicable - in some areas, this means on the fourteenth of Adar, and in other areas, this means on the fifteenth. Now, for those of us who live in the Diaspora: If we can be sure that our contributions will be distributed to the poor in Israel on the fourteenth of Adar, this would certainly qualify as a fulfillment of the mitsvah of Matanot La'evyonim. However, if the money is set aside to be distributed on the fifteenth of Adar, then the charitable giving no longer has any connection to our celebration of Purim on the fourteenth, and will not 'count' as far as the mitsvah of Matanot La'evyonim is concerned.

This being said, though, let's keep in mind that the giving of charity - whether locally, in the Land of Israel, or anywhere else - is always meritorious. We should not think exclusively in terms of the technicalities of fulfilling our Purim obligation. On the contrary, as Rambam states, "there is no greater and more wondrous joy than bringing happiness to the poor, widows, orphans and converts. For one who brings joy to the hearts of the less fortunate is compared to the Divine Presence." This applies at all times and in all places.

Gifts to Friends and the Poor

Mishloah Manot and Matanot La'evyonim

Q: Regarding the mitsvah of sending gifts to friends and to the poor on Purim - can this mitsvah be fulfilled at night, or must it be performed during the daytime only?

A: Both the mitsvah of Mishloah Manot (gifts to friends) and Matanot La'evyonim (gifts to the poor) are halachically viewed as component parts of the mitsvah to rejoice on Purim. Through sharing food with our friends and providing for the needy, we add a dimension to their happiness as well as our own. The mitsvah to celebrate on Purim applies only during the day, not at night; this is why the festive Purim meal, for example, is specifically held on Purim day. Thus, if the mitsvot of Mishloah Manot and Matanot La'evyonim are to accomplish their objective of enhancing our Purim joy, they must be performed when the mitsvah to celebrate is in effect - namely, during the daytime.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Hand Washing

Hand Washing
Q: Why do we only say the blessing of Al Netilat Yadayim on handwashing when we eat an egg's volume (kabetza) of bread, but not when we eat an olive's volume (kezayit)?

A: The basis for the washing of hands before eating bread is the practices of ritual purity that were observed in Temple times. Part of the routine of the Kohanim (priests) was that they washed their hands before consuming Terumah (holy food) in order to prevent the food from becoming impure. In order to perpetuate this concept, the rabbis instituted hand washing for all Jews whenever they eat bread. Now, according to the laws of purity that were observed in Temple times, only a piece of food that has the volume of an egg (or more) is capable of contracting ritual defilement. Since our practice of handwashing is derived from the laws of ritual purity, then, it would seem that it should also only apply to bread that is at least a kabetza in size.

At the same time, though, handwashing is part of our routine at every meal. Other aspects of our meals, such as, for example, the recitation of Birkat Hamazon (Grace After Meals) are totally unrelated to ritual purity. Eating as little as an olive's volume of bread is sufficient to obligate you in Birkat Hamazon.

In the mitsvah of handwashing, then, we have the convergence of two systems - the laws of purity and the laws of blessings - each of which has its own quantitative standards. On one hand, the rabbis made washing hands a part of the average person's eating routine and, in that framework, an olive's volume of bread is significant. On the other hand, the practice of washing is rooted in the laws of purity and, in that context, only an egg's volume of bread would 'count'.

More simply, we might ask the question: Is the law of handwashing meant to be related to the purity of the bread, as it was in its original context? Or did the rabbis, when incorporating handwashing into the daily routine of the Jewish people, adapt its standards to that new context and disregard the legal status of the bread?

Since we are unsure of the exact formulation that the rabbis had in mind, we only recite the blessing on handwashing when we are sure that it is obligatory, i.e., when we are eating at least an egg's volume of bread (approximately 54 grams).

If we plan to eat only an olive's worth of bread (approximately 28 grams), we wash our hands without a blessing. Some authorities recommend washing even for less than an olive's volume, but this is not required. For more details, see Shulchan Aruch Orah Hayim 158, as well as the commentary of Mishna Berurah.

Rabbi Maroof

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Kemach Yashan II

Rabbi Dr. Rubin posed a follow-up question regarding kemach yashan in the "Comments":

Q: If I want to follow yashan, where can I buy grain products that are yashan?

A: The answer to this question is somewhat complicated. First of all, it is important to emphasize that the law of yashan only applies to the "five grains". So fruits, vegetables, rice, etc., are not subject to this rule.

Proper observance of yashan requires some "know-how". The easiest case to handle is when a bakery or establishment advertises that it uses kemach yashan, or when a product's label indicates that it is made from kemach yashan. More often than not, though, we need to investigate more thoroughly to determine what is or is not problematic vis a vis the prohibition. Here are some rules of thumb:

- All products manufactured in Israel under ANY rabbinical supervision are always made from kemach yashan.

- 'Cake flour' may be presumed to be yashan. If you are shopping in a bakery that offers a selection of cakes and cookies, ask for items that are made with cake flour only (no bread flour).

- Products made from matza meal only (as long as it is not whole wheat) are presumed to be yashan.

- When it comes to oats, when in doubt one can be lenient. The reason for this is that the status of oats as one of the five grains is a matter of dispute (Maimonides, for example, does not recognize oats as one of the five grains). We are stringent on Passover about avoiding oats, and, if we have definite information, we should be stringent regarding yashan too. However, if information about a specific product containing oats is not readily available, the oats can be assumed OK for yashan purposes.

The best advice I can offer you is to order the "Guide to Chodosh", a resource booklet on the laws of yashan that is distributed each year in three installments. The cost is minimal ($15). The rabbi who prepares the guide also manages a "Chodosh Hot Line" where updated information is made available and detailed questions may be asked.

In addition to a general overview of general concepts and issues relevant to yashan, the Guide gives information regarding specific products and their "cutoff dates" for yashan. For example, it tells you how to read a given box of cereal or pasta and determine when it was made and, by extension, whether it poses any problems. Overall, it is an excellent source of information, extremely helpful.

Observing yashan may seem overly difficult because it imposes an additional restriction and limits our freedom to enjoy food. However, with the help of the data that it provides, the Guide enables us to purchase almost any kind of product at any time of the year and to remain faithful to the mitsvah. It makes adherence to the law of yashan much more accessible and user-friendly.

It should be noted that the Guide is also interspersed with halachic rulings and opinions that represent the author's view or that of his rabbis. So, while the Guide is a reliable source of factual information, it is still important to consult your own rabbi regarding halachic principles and applications.

Rabbi Maroof

Chalav Yisrael and Kemach Yashan

Q: Is it correct to say that Sephardim in the US do not have to keep Chalav Yisrael (as Moshe Feinstein says) but do have to keep yashan?

- Harpaul Kohli

A: As a matter of clarification for the readership, let me define the terms you used. Chalav Yisrael means milk produced under Jewish supervision, as opposed to milk which, though it may be from a kosher animal, was not supervised. Kemach yashan literally means 'old grain'. The Torah tells us that we must not eat grain from the current year's harvest until Passover. A simple way to remember this is to imagine that newly planted grain must celebrate Passover at least once before it becomes permitted. So we are told to continue to eat grain that was planted before last Passover until the next Passover comes around and permits the 'new grain', or 'chadash'. Some later halachic authorities maintain that this prohibition applies only in the land of Israel and that, therefore, it would not hold in the US.

In response to the first part of your question: It is more accurate to say that Chalav Yisrael is not a specifically Sephardic issue. The requirement to eat chalav Yisrael is equally applicable to everyone, but it is up to our poskim (rabbinic decisors) to determine the parameters of the prohibition. As you mentioned, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein maintained that the reason for the institution was purely practical - we needed to make sure that the farmers were not mixing, say, pig milk into the cow's milk they were selling. Since nowadays government regulations serve to keep the dairy industry in check and protect us against the occurence of fraud and/or tampering, Rabbi Feinstein argued that we need not demand actual Jewish supervision anymore. This is not a matter of Sephardic vs. Ashkenazic practice, it is simply a question of the interpretation of a concept in Jewish law. Some Ashkenazic rabbis may take a more conservative approach, viewing the Jewish-supervision requirement as absolute and not subject to change, and some Sephardic rabbis may agree with Rabbi Feinstein's more lenient position. So one should follow one's personal rabbi regarding this matter.

Regarding kemach yashan, the answer is simpler. The hallmark of Sephardic tradition is our acceptance of the rulings of Rav Yosef Karo, also known as the Bet Yosef. In his classic code of Jewish law, the Shulchan Aruch, the Bet Yosef unequivocally states that the law of kemach yashan applies both inside and outside of Israel. See Shulchan Aruch Orah Hayim 489:10 and Yoreh Deah 393

Monday, January 30, 2006

Ask The Rabbi

E-Mail Address for Questions
Please send your questions to askrabbimaroof@yahoo.com. They will be read and posted by one of the contributors, and an answer will appear in the "comments".

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Kaddish Question

Dear Rabbi:
I can't get to synagogue for all the prayers, how many times a day do I have to say Kaddish. The first month, the entire year and during the week of Azkara, and on the ''Yahrtzei"