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

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