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.