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