Originally published in The Jewish Chronicle.
Is it permitted to call a woman to the Reading of the Law?
Contrary to what is generally assumed, there is no objection to a woman who has her period coming near to the Sefer Torah (see Berachot 42a), so whatever reason there is to prevent a woman being called to the Reading of the Law this is not it. We find the following in the Talmud (Megilla 23a): “Our rabbis taught: All are qualified to be among the seven (called to, the Torah on the Sabbath), even a minor and even a woman, only the sages said that a woman should not read in the Torah out of respect for the congregation.”
(The Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 282; 3, quotes this verbatim.) If the sages say that a woman should not read in the Torah what is the significance of the first statement that all are qualified to be among the seven even a woman? This would seem to suggest that, while the sages frown on it, there is no actual legal objection to a woman being called to the reading.
What is the meaning of “out of respect for the congregation?” Some authorities understand it in this way. In olden days, it is well-known, those called to the Torah read the Torah themselves (not having it for them by the Reader as we do nowadays). Consequently, for a woman to read and thereby demonstrate her superior knowledge of Hebrew to that of the men in the congregation would be a source of embarrassment for the latter. Out of “respect for the congregation” we do not encourage a situation in which one could say that the learned woman shows up the unlearned men.
It is even possible that the apparent contradiction in our source between the first and last section can be solved by suggesting that where there is no option, i.e. where there are insufficient men who can read, then women may read. Indeed, some authorities in the Middle Ages ruled that in a congregation composed entirely of Cohanim the first aliya should be given to one of the Cohanim but all the rest should be given to women!
Consequently, the main reason why Orthodox congregations do not allow women to be called to the Reading of the Law is solely because it is untraditional, as it undoubtedly is. In some Conservative congregations in the United States women are called to the Reading of the Law (girls when they are Batmitzvah and other women from time to time) on the grounds that nowadays, when in any event the actual reading is done by the special reader, there is no objection to an aliya being given to women.
Some people imagine that it is in order for one to gabble through prayers as quickly as possible. This does not seem correct to me.
You are quite right. On the contrary, the Orthodox way of prayer is, as some of the great Jewish masters of prayer say, to recite the words as cautiously and as slowly as if one were counting pearls.
It is perfectly true that it is difficult to keep the mind concentrated on all the prayers, but the solution, again given by the Jewish teachers, is rather to say fewer prayers slowly and with proper devotion than to gabble through the service in order to get it over and done with.
Must a Jew be a subscribing member at a congregation to be able to worship or can he, if he so wishes, worship at any synagogue?
Of course every synagogue is open to non-members as well as members, except for the occasions when there are not enough seats to go round.
One does not belong to a congregation solely to have a permanent seat, but synagogues, like other institutions, have to be run and it is right and proper for those who can afford the fees to be paying members.
Who actually employs the rabbi, the congregation as a whole or a committee within the synagogue?
A committee within the synagogue functions as the representative of the congregation as a whole. It is the congregation as a whole which “employs” the rabbi in the sense of paying his salary, and his contract is with the congregation, not with part of it.
If you mean who has the right to appoint a rabbi, this surely depends on the procedures laid down tit the constitution of the particular synagogue.
Can a man in a wheelchair he called up for the reading of the Law?
Why not? The only possible objections I can seen are that the time spent getting him on to the bima might embarrass him and delay the smooth running of the service. But if he does not mind, surely the congregation will be prepared to put up with the slight inconvenience for the sake of a mitzvah!
We say in the Amidah: “Blessed art Thou who revivest the dead.” Surely the revival of the dead will take place only in the messianic age, so why does the blessing imply that God is constantly reviving the dead?
The simple answer is that the meaning of the blessing is: “Blessed art Thou who are a reviver of the dead,” i.e., in the messianic age.
Some have also read into it the idea of the immortality of the soul, God now reviving the dead in the sense that their soul is not snuffed out with the death of their body.
A delightful Chasidic saying has it that God’s truth and compassion are an illumination of the soul. He endows man with the capacity to see the truth and to practise mercy and so he constantly revives souls that would otherwise have been dead to truth and goodness.
According to which principle was the Torah divided up into the weekly sidra and its seven portions?
It appears from the Talmud that there was no official division into sidrot in talmudic times, but that it was left to the individual reader to pause where he saw fit. This is why there are, even today, differences between Sephardim and Ashkenazim on some of the seven divisions, though the division into sidrot is now universal.
The general guiding principle is that the ending should be on a “happy note” (not always adhered to; see the ending of Naso, Numbers 4: 20, and Pinhas, Numbers 25: 9) and, obviously, that the portion read on a particular week should be a complete unit.
Incidentally, as we have noted before in this column, the chapter divisions—eg, Genesis, chapter one—now found in our Chumashim are not Jewish at all, but were first introduced in order to facilitate references to the Bible in disputations and the like with Christians. One could not say to a Christian, “It is a verse in the sidra ‘lech lecha’” because he would not know what one was talking about.
It is a curiosity of Jewish history that these chapter divisions were ever adopted by Jews (even by the most Orthodox) since some of them have Christological significance.
There is no Jewish reason why Genesis, chapter 2, should begin where it does, detaching the account of the Sabbath from the Creation narrative. The original and obviously correct ending is where we end in the synagogue reading on Simchat Torah (Genesis 2: 4). Nor is there any Jewish reason why the narrative is interrupted at Genesis, chapter 3, with a new beginning regarding the serpent and the Fall of Man.
The current pagination of the Talmud was also introduced by non-Jewish printers, but there it is purely a matter of convenience, unlike the biblical chapter divisions, which frequently have doctrinal significance and are, in fact, a kind of Christian exegesis of the Bible.
In the last century, efforts were made to abandon this undignified deference to what is after all an un-Jewish exposition of the Torah, but the use of the standard chapter divisions had become so deeply rooted and so widely accepted by the great Jewish teachers, their origin overlooked, that it was found to be impossible to do anything about it.
Most authorities who considered the matter seem to have held that, like the talmudic pagination, it is a purely external, conventional matter, not a doctrinal one.
29 May 1970:
Being in a strange town one major festival I was refused admission to the synagogue as I did not have a seat. Would you say this is justified? I cannot imagine a church turning away someone like this.
I can imagine a church turning away visitors when a special service was being held where seats were in short supply. If the church dd give preference to visitors over regular congregants it would surely be guilty of privilege in reverse. But I am not defending the practice of turning people away. Generally speaking synagogues do keep aside a few seats for visitors, but it is hardly fair to descend on a synagogue without warning on a major festival. The correct thing to do if you intend to be away from home on these festivals is to write in good time to the rabbi or the officers of a synagogue in the town you intend to visit and it is very unlikely that you will be other than welcome.
11 September 1970:
By what law may women not take part in the conduct of synagogue services? Why do they have to sit in a separate gallery?
The present practice of separating the men and women during the synagogue service, adhered to by Orthodoxy but not Reform or Conservative Jews, is undoubtedly based on ancient tradition. But the noted Israeli scholar, Samuel Safrai, has argued convincingly that the evidence we have goes to show that there was no special ladies’ gallery or section in the synagogue in talmudic times. It would seem, in fact, that there is no special synagogue 1aw demanding that the sexes be separated during worship. It is rather that before the modern period men and women never sat together at any gathering so that they would automatically be separated during public worship. The passage generally quoted from the Talmud (Sukkah 51b-52a) in this connection by Orthodox rabbis states that at “the rejoicing of the water-drawing” on the festival of Tabernacles a huge partition was set up in the Temple in order to divide the men from the women. The verse is quoted: “And the land shall mourn, every family apart; the family of the house of David apart, and their wives apart” (Zechariah 12, 12).
Now, it is argued, if in a time mourning, when the “evil inclination” (= in this context the sex urge) has no power, nevertheless men and women are to be separated, how much more so when they are engaged in rejoicing and the “evil inclination” has sway over them. Reform and Conservative rabbis, on the other hand, argue that since nowadays men and women do sit together at public gatherings there is no special reason for them not to do so during worship. On the contrary, there is much to be said for all the members of the family worshipping together. An able defence of the Orthodox view is provided by Rabbi Norman Lamm: Separate Pews in the Synagogue in A Treasury of Tradition, New York, 1967, pp. 243-267.
6 November 1970:
Which prayers can be said only with a minyan and why?
The word minyan means “number”” and refers to the quorum of ten required before certain prayers can be recited. The number ten is found frequently in the Jewish tradition as a kind of sacred number, e.g., in the Ten Commandments.
The basic idea is that ten adult males form a “congregation” and certain prayers of special sanctity require a “congregation.” The Jerusalem Talmud bases this rule on the verse: “That I may be sanctified in the midst of the children of Israel” (Leviticus 22, 32).
Now the minimum number of persons referred to as the children of Israel is ten, as in the verse: “Thus the children of Israel were among those who came to procure rations” (Genesis 42, 5). Thus “prayers of sanctification” can be recited only when ten are present. These prayers are: the kaddish, the kedusha, barechu, the reading of the Torah.
13 November 1970:
By what law may women not take part in the conduct of synagogue services?
In the Talmud (Megilla 23a) we find the ruling: “All are qualified to be among the seven (who are called to read the Torah), even a minor and a woman, only the Sages said that a woman should not read from the Torah out of respect for the congregation.” This latter clause has been understood by some to mean that in Talmudic times, when those who were called up actually read from the Torah, to call up a woman to do the reading might suggest that there was not sufficient men in the congregation versed in Hebrew.
Some medieval authorities ruled that in a congregation composed entirely of cohanim, a cohen should be given the first aliya and women the other six. For a woman to act as cantor, on the other hand, would probably offend against the traditional law that a woman’s voice should not be heard while reciting the Shema, etc. As for a woman preaching, there would seem to be no legal objection to this.
On the whole, therefore, it is hard to point to any actual law against women taking part in the conduct of synagogue services. None the less, well-nigh universal practice has been against this until recent times, when in some Reform and Conservative congregations, women are called to the reading of the Torah. Women cantors are unknown. The late Hon. Lily H. Montagu served as a minister in the Liberal Synagogue, preaching sermons and conducting services. The two main considerations governing most congregations in this matter are traditional practice and emotional feelings of propriety.
It should be added that in the Middle Ages there were well-authenticated cases of women conducting services for women, or rather repeating the cantor’s words for the women, confined to a separate room, to hear.
15 January 1971:
Is there any halachic ruling about the playing of musical organs in synagogues during services?
There is a vast literature on this subject since this was one of the issues between the early reformers and the Orthodox rabbis. All the Orthodox rabbis declared that it was forbidden to have an organ playing in the synagogue even though there is a good deal of evidence that an organ-like instrument was used in the Temple.
Three reasons are generally given for the prohibition: it is forbidden to play an organ on Sabbaths and festivals; it is aping Gentile worship; and it is forbidden to “rejoice” in this way after the destruction of the Temple. A discussion of the legal questions involved is to be found in W. Gunther Plaut: The Rise of Reform Judaism, pp. 166-169.
16 April 1971:
A rung above the once-a-year synagogue-goer is the “Yizkor Jew”—that occasional visitor who slips surreptitiously into the shool between shachris and musaf to say a prayer for a departed parent, only to leave just as quietly but with slightly more speed, lest he be trapped by the sermon.
What is the origin of the Yizkor service and why do congregants whose parents are not dead absent themselves during Yizkor? To get the answer we “asked the Rabbi.”
The practice of reciting prayers for the dead is ancient, being referred to as early as the second Book of the Maccabees (12, 44) The Midrash known as the Sifre, dating back to the second century, states (209) that “the dead require atonement.” The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 621: 6) rules that it is customary on Yom Kippur to vow to give charity on behalf of the dead and to make intention of the souls of the dead since they, too, require atonement on Yom Kippur.
This gives us little enough to go on in trying to trace the origins of the Yizkor prayer. The generally accepted view among authorities on the liturgy is that the custom grew out of the practice at the time of the Crusades of mentioning the names of the martyrs during the service. This was extended to include other pious folk and, eventually, prayers for parents by their children.
Yom Kippur was obviously an occasion for these prayers, since the Torah reading for that day (Leviticus chapter 16) begins with the words, “After the death of the two sons of Aaron.” At a later period, in some communities, the Yizkor prayer was also recited on the last day of Passover, Shavuot and Succot, because on these days there is a reference in the Torah reading to a man “giving as he is able,” understood in this context as giving alms on behalf of the dead.
The more elaborate Memorial Service printed in the Singer’s prayer book and the Routledge machzor arose under Reform influence in the last century.
The evil eye
According to custom, a person whose parent had died in that year does not recite Yizkor because his grief is still fresh and he may be moved to tears and so disturb the other worshippers.
Two reasons have been given for the custom that those whose parents are still alive leave the synagogue before Yizkor. The first is that if they remain in the synagogue they may subconsciously recite Yizkor and this may bring about the death of their parents. The second is that the other congregants, seeing that they do not recite Yizkor, may envy them in that their parents are still alive and this may cause the evil eye to be put on them.
Both reasons are highly superstitious and the mass exodus is hardly decorous, so that in some Orthodox synagogues the custom has been abolished. The rabbis and ministers of such synagogues sometimes advise those whose parents are still alive to offer quiet thanks for it while the rest of the congregation is reciting Yizkor.
The incongruity of reciting memorial prayers on festive occasions is obvious, yet it may not be too far-fetched to see in the custom the idea that the Jew’s tragic history and with it his optimism has made him near to tears, even when he rejoices, and near to sing, even when he mourns.