Originally published in The Jewish Chronicle.
Some of our religious leaders have now come out against discrimination on colour grounds. Can you give me precise references from the sources that this is abhorrent to Judaism?
When Miriam and Aaron criticise Moses for marrying an Ethiopian (= dark-skinned) woman they are sternly rebuked by God (Numbers 12, 1-9). The prophet Amos says: “Are ye not as the children the Ethiopians unto me, O chidren of Israel? saith the Lord” (Amos 9, 7). The Mishna (Sanhedrin 4, 5), commenting on the Genesis narrative of the creation of Adam, remarks that all men are descended from the same ancestor so that no man may say: “My father was greater than your father.”
But in addition to individual texts the whole tenor of Jewish teaching is surely directed against racial discrimination. Judaism teaches that God is the Father of all men and that consequently all men are brothers; that justice is a Divine imperative and injustice an abomination ; that man is created in God’s image; and that moral worth does not depend on such external characteristics as colour of the skin. In an oft-quoted Midrash (Tanna De-Be Eliyahu, 9) it is said: “I call heaven and earth to witness: whether one be an Israelite or a non-Israelite, man or woman, everything depends on the deeds he does; thus the Holy Spirit rests on him.” It has been said that religion is colour-blind!
Why are some ministers of synagogue called reverend and others rabbi?
In Anglo-Jewry it is to distinguish those who possess rabbinic ordination—semicha—and those with Jewish learning who have not graduated to the full rank of rabbi. Unless I am mistaken, it all goes back to Chief Rabbi Hermann Adler, who saw himself as the only rabbi for Anglo-Jewry, so that his ministers were known as “The Reverend Mr Blank.”
The word “Reverend” is an adjective not a noun, so that it is a solecism to address someone (as is often done) as “Reverend” in the sense “Reverend! Will you officiate at my daughter’s wedding?”
Why is shaving against the Halacha? Why can beards be clipped or trimmed with scissors? What other methods for removing hair are permitted by Orthodox laws?
The two Biblical passages on which the prohibition is based are: “Neither shall thou mar the corners of thy beard” (Leviticus 19, 27) and “Neither shave off the corners of their beard” (Leviticus 21, 5). According to the rabbis (Makkot 21a) the prohibition is only incurred when the removal of the beard involves both “marring” (hashchata) and “shaving off” (giluach). This is taken to mean when the beard is removed by a razor and not by other means.
The razor has only one cutting blade against the skin whereas scissors and, nowadays, electric razors, have more than one cutting blade. The use of a hair-removing powder ointment is also allowed.
A family with whom I recently had dinner poured a few drops of water over their fingers before Grace after meals. What is the reason for this?
In addition to the ritual washing of the hands before meals the Talmud (Hullin 105a-b) refers to washing the hands after the meal (mayim aharonim). The reason given for this is to remove any particles of a certain “salt of Sodom” which if placed in contact with the eyes can damage them. The famous medieval scholars, the Tosafists (Hullin 105a, mayim), remark that “we do not follow the custom of washing the hands after meals because the salt of Sodom is not found among us.” Although this opinion is mentioned in the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 181, 10) the view favoured there is that nowadays, too, there is an obligation to wash the hands after the meal, particularly since elsewhere in the Talmud (Berachot 53b) the verse: “And be ye holy” (Leviticus 11, 44) is applied to the washing of the hands after the meal. The idea of “holiness” in this context is explained by the commentators to mean that it is unfitting to recite Grace while particles of food adhere to the hands. The mystics in particular set great store by the second ritual washing of the hands. A good deal depends upon one’s custom. A prominent Leeds rabbi of the old school in a previous generation is said to have followed the Tosafists and to have neglected this second washing of he hands.
Whence derives the custom for a Jew to cover his head at all times?
The Talmud tells us (Sabbath 118b) that, as an act of special piety, some teachers would refrain from walking four cubits with uncovered head since to cover the head is a mark of reverence for God. This is the basis for the custom of covering the head at all times even for those who would not pretend to be specially pious. Indeed, some later authorities argue that since Jews have adopted the custom of covering the head to defect from it now is to be guilty of chukkot Ha-goy (copying Gentile practices). On the other hand the Vilna Gaon (Biur Ha-Gra to Orach Chayim 8, 2) remarks: “According to the strict letter of the law it is permitted even to pray and to enter the synagogue without head covering. There is no prohibition against baring the head. But in the presence of distinguished persons and at times of prayer it is fitting that the head be covered as a mark of correct behaviour. And for holy men who stand constantly in God’s presence it applies at all times.”
There is an immense literature on this whole topic. If you are interested you should consult the following three lengthy essays: J. Z. Lauterbach: “Should one cover one’s head when participating in Divine worship?” (Year book, Central Conference of American Rabbis, Vol. 38, 1928, pp. 589-603); Samuel Krauss: “The Jewish rite of covering the head” (Hebrew Union College Annual, Vol. 19, 1945-6, pp. 121-68); Isaac Rivkind: “A responsum of Leo de Modena on uncovering of the head” (Louis Ginzberg Jubilee Volume, New York, 1945, Hebrew Section, pp. 401-124).
29 May 1970:
How does Hebrew come to be written from right to left? Should we not modernise the script and bring it into line with almost universal usage?
The question why the Hebrew language came to be written from right to left has been asked before in this column. I replied then, and I am no wiser now, that I did not know. However, whether or not this was the original reason it has been suggested that “right” in the Jewish tradition symbolises such concepts as justice, mercy and righteousness.
As to whether we should modernise the script. No, no, no! Why should Hebrew (or for that matter Chinese) be “brought into line with almost universal usage”? Variety is the spice of life. The effort required to read the present Hebrew script is little in comparison with the difficulties of learning the language itself, and is in any event a small price to pay for preserving the tradition and the beauty of the ancient script. For most of us, to “modernise” the Hebrew script in this way would be an act of Philistinism akin to the practice (adopted fortunately in very few congregations) of substituting the “modern” instrument of a trumpet for the shofar, the oldest musical instrument known to man.
12 June 1970:
It seems extraordinary to me that we have no observance to commemorate the manna in the wilderness. Surely this is one of the greatest miracles of all?
The simple answer would seem to be that observances of the kind you mention only commemorate which took place at a particular season of e.g., the crossing of the Red Sea, the giving of the Torah, the oil of Chanucah. (Tabernacles is an exception, but why this feast should fall in the autumn has in any event been widely discussed.) Thus the manna, which fell during the whole stay of the Israelites in the wilderness, is not commemorated. However, in later Jewish practice it was the custom for pious Jews to recite the Scriptural portion dealing with the manna after the daily service (see Singer’s Prayer Book, new edition, pp. 97-99). One explanation given for the two loaves at the Shabbat meal is that these remind us of the manna of which a double portion was provided on Fridays for the Sabbath.
3 July 1970:
What is the law on lending money at interest? Does it distinguish between “house-to-house” lending and “arms length” commercial investment?
Yes, the law does distinguish between the two and taking interest from “arms length” commercial investment is permitted. The laws against usury are very strict but, especially in Babylon, where there was a highly developed commercial life, many problems arose concerning which business transactions were an infringement of the law and which were not. Chapter five of tractate Baba Metzia in the Babylonian Talmud is full of intricate details on these matters (throwing, incidentally, a flood of light on the social and economic conditions of the Jews in Babylon).
However, their form of society was vastly different from our own so that in determining the law for our day the principles of ancient law must be examined and applied to the new conditions. The famous Babylonian jurist, R. Nahman, said (Baba Metzia 63b): “The general principle concerning usury is: all payment for waiting for one’s money is forbidden.” The Rabbis understood “payment” to include even the performance by the borrower to the lender of any special favour he would not otherwise have conferred, e.g. to greet him more warmy than he would have done if he were not in his debt. The Shulchan Aruch rules that if A lends B a hundred coins on the condition that B will give one to charity it is usury (Yoreh Deah 160, 14).
Cases of partnership are discussed in the Talmud; for instance, whether it is usury when a man provides capital for a retail business in return for a share of the profits. Eventually, in order to avoid the prohibition, a special document, shetar iska, was drawn up. The purchase of shares in limited companies is obviously in a different category since the investor bears the risk of loss, and the most devout Jews see no objection to such investments. Recent responsa have discussed these topics at length. A list of some of these is given by Rabbi David Feldman in his edition of Gantzfried’s Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, section 66.
10 July 1970:
I see the United Synagogue is celebrating its centenary. Is there any religious significance in a celebration of this kind?
The only birthday mentioned in the Bible is that of Pharaoh (Genesis 40, 20). Nor was it known until comparatively recent times for the birthdays of great Jews to be celebrated, perhaps in obedience to the sentiments expressed in the verse: “A good name is better than precious oil; and the day of death than the day of one’s birth” (Ecclesiastes 7, 1). There are records of the Herodian kings celebrating their birthdays with pomp and ceremony, but not those of any other Jews during the whole of the rabbinic period and the Middle Ages. The exception, of course, is bar-mitzvah which became established from the fourteenth century. However, some Chasidic groups do celebrate the birthday of their leaders and since the last century it has been the practice among Jewish scholars to present a festschrift of their essays to one of their number who has won distinction on his 60th, 70th or 80th birthday. So much for the birthday of individuals. With regard to institutions it can be argued that the festivals of the Jewish year, all of which commemorate great events in the past, remind us that it is proper to give thanks to God for these and similar events. One would have thought that it is therefore perfectly correct for a religious institution like the United Synagogue, with a long record of public service, to mark its centenary with a celebration. It will be recalled that much was made for the same reason of the Tercentenary of Anglo-Jewry in 1956.
24 July 1970:
The principal-elect of Jews’ College is reported to be planning to enforce strict segregation of the sexes in college studies. Is there a basis in Halacha for this step? Do you agree that the reasons are valid in this day and age?
There is no doubt that passages advocating the segregation of the sexes are to be found in the rabbinic literature The best known of these (Sukkah 51b-52a) states that at “the rejoicing of the water-drawing” on the feast 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 of 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. A woman’s voice was said to be a sexual enticement (ervah) as well as her hair and her legs (Berakhot 24a). One rabbi ruled that it is forbidden for a man to be served at table by a woman, even a child, other than his wife (Kiddushin 70a). Many centuries later Rabbi Joel Sirkes (1561-1640) ruled that when men and women sit together in the same hall at a wedding banquet it is wrong to recite the formula “in whose abode is joy” during the Grace after meals because where the “evil inclination” is present there is no joy.
Does all this amount to “Halacha?” Most reasonable people would hold that these attitudes are based on the social conditions of their time and have no application nowadays when the sexes mingle freely on all social occasions. Unless a distinction of this kind is made one should never be present at a public meeting attended by men and women sitting together. Indeed, to be consistent, the principal-elect should not permit girls to be taught the Torah at all since there is a clear din against it in the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 246, 6). I think this is a retrograde step.
21 August 1970:
What does traditional Jewish law say about the worker’s right to strike?
First, a few of the Talmudic statements on the treatment of employees. The prohibition against keeping back the wages of a worker (Leviticus 19, 13; Deuteronomy 24, 14-15) was explained by the rabbis: “Why does this workman ascend the highest scaffolding and risk his life if you do not pay him his wages as soon as they are due?” (Sifre, Deuteronomy 279). Rab’s famous ruling (qualified, to be sure, in certain respects in the Talmudic discussion) is very revealing: “A labourer may withdraw his labour even in the middle of the day” (Baba Metzia 10a and 77a). The reason given is that Scripture says: “For unto Me the children of Israel are servants; they are My servants” (Leviticus 25, 55)—but not servants of servants.
It was assumed that an unspecified contract between employer and employee was governed by the custom of the place in which it was made, e.g., as to the hours of work. In such cases even if the employer paid higher wages than was usual the workers could argue that this was for their greater skill and did not imply that they were to work for longer hours (Baba Metzia 83a). The people of each locality were entitled to fix democratically such matters as prices and wages (Baba Batra 8b). The Tosefta (Baba Metzia 11, 12) states that the bakers of a place are permitted to “make a regia.” According to some commentators the word regia is from a root meaning “to rest” and the statement means that the bakers can call a strike. If this interpretation is correct it is the only direct reference in the rabbinic sources to a strike/
But there can be no doubt, in view of the above and the general Jewish regard for justice and freedom, that in the conditions which obtain in our society workers have a right to strike.
23 October 1970:
Why in the first half of a beracha do we say “Blessed art thou” (using the second person) and change to the third person, for example “who has chosen us” in the latter part of the blessing?
A medieval comment suggests this reason. We have, in the beracha, the tremendous privilege of addressing God directly as “thou,” in the second person. But in order to avoid improper familiarity and the suggestion that humans can know God’s true nature, we quickly change to the less direct third person. But the real reason is one of Hebrew style.
30 October 1970:
Can the son of a mother who converted to Judaism according to the laws of the Reform faith be barmitzvah in an Orthodox synagogue?
According to the ruling of the Chief Rabbi and the London Beth Din, the son of a mother converted by Reform is not considered to be Jewish and so cannot be barmitzvah in an Orthodox synagogue. The reason for this ruling is that a Reform conversion does not meet all the requirements of the din, the traditional Jewish law; notably there is no immersion in a mikva.
According to the din, immersion is an essential for every proselyte. However, some Orthodox rabbis hold that, while the din must be obeyed, a more reasonable and human procedure would be to arrange for the boy to have immersion and then allow him to be barmitzvah without further fuss.
Clearly, the boy’s parents adhere to the Jewish faith and the technicality required by the din can easily be satisfied. This is, in fact, the procedure in certain other Orthodox communities.
I understand women should wear clothes over the elbow and below the knee. What is the reason for this? Does it apply today?
The principle of modesty in dress (tseniut) is that women be decently attired, i.e., those parts of the female form that are normally covered should not be exposed. But what is considered “indecent” in one age is not necessarily so considered in an age governed by different fashions.
A good deal depends on the reference of terms like “normally covered.” Thus, there is a passage in the Talmud which states that it is immodest for a Jewish woman to wear a red dress. Obviously this applied when such dresses were only worn by loose women.
At the beginning of the century it was held to be immodest for a woman to smoke in public and then, indeed, for a woman to do so was to offend against the principle of tseniut.
Does this mean that the Jewish woman can safely follow even the most bizarre fashion? Are there no limits? The answer surely is that good taste and discretion must be exercised, but that it is extremely difficult to lay down hard and fast rules. Judaism leaves room for personal judgement and discretion.
29 January 1971:
Whence is derived the custom of men wearing hats or other forms of head covering for Jewish religious occasions?
On the subject of head covering during prayer, study and other times there is an immense literature. Two full-scale investigations are: Samuel Krauss’s: The Jewish Rite of Covering the Head in Hebrew Union College Annual, Vo. XIX, 1945-6, pp. 121-168, and J. Z. Lauterbach’s: Should One Cover the Head when Participatng in Divine Worship? in Year Book, Central Conference of American Rabbis, Vol. XXXVIII, 1928, pp. 589-603.
There are Talmudic references to having the head covered at all times as a mark of respect and as inductive to the fear of Heaven. In Tractate Shabbat 118b, for instance, we read: “R. Huna b. R. Joshua said: ‘May divine recompense reach me for forbearing to go, with uncovered head, as much as four cubits.’” But these refer clearly to acts of special piety (middat chasidut).
Lauterbach observes: “There is no law in Bible or Talmud prescribing the covering of the head for men entering a sanctuary when participating in the religious service or when performing any religious ceremony.” Indeed, there is negative evidence that covering was not required when the Mishna (Berachot 3, 5) rules that the Shema may be recited by a naked person in a bath if the water us sufficiently turgid to cover his middle. There is no question here of a head covering being necessary.
During the Middle Ages customs varied from place to place. The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 91, 3) remarks: “Some say that it is forbidden to pronounce the divine name with uncovered head and some say that people should be prevented from entering synagogue with un covered head.”
The famous Gaon of Vilna, after surveying the Talmudic evidence, concludes: “According to the strict letter of the law it is permitted even to pray and to enter the synagogue without head covering. There is no prohibition whatsoever against baring the head. But in the presence of distinguished men and at the time of prayer it is proper to have the head covered as a mark of good behaviour (derech ha-musar). Those holy men who stand, always in God’s presence should have their heads covered at all times” (Biur Ha-Gra to Orach Chayim 8, 2). The custom of Anglo-Jewry, with few exceptions (some Liberal synagogues) is to cover the head during prayer and in the synagogue.
12 February 1971:
I am a gentlemen’s tailor and am sometimes asked for a kosher suit. What is this?
The term “kosher” in this context means “suitable,” “fitting,” i.e. in accordance with Jewish law which prohibits any mixture in a suit of wool and linen (see Deuteronomy 22, 11).
4 June 1971:
At some functions it seems to be the custom to stand for the introduction to the Grace after Meals. Why is this?
The custom is by no means universal but where followed it is a demonstration of reverence for the name of God mentioned in the introduction.
22 March 1985:
The Magen David as a Jewish symbol is fairly recent, so that the origin of this very ancient symbol is not to be sought in Judaism. Is it not plausible to suggest that this star originally represented two pyramid slopes and thus had its origin in Egypt?
It is undoubtedly true that the Magen David, while found in ancient times on tombs and other monuments, was only adopted comparatively recently as a Jewish symbol.
In fact, Gershom Scholem, in a famous essay on the subject, claimed that its ubiquitous use among Jews dates from as late as the beginning of the nineteenth century and did not reach its full popular appeal until the use of it by the early Zionists!
As for the origin of the star itself, your intriguing suggestion may well be correct, though there are four slopes in a pyramid, and why not use the actual pyramid rather than a rough represention?
Franz Rosenzweig’s interpretation of the Magen David is well known. According to him, the two interlocking stars represent man reaching heavenwards and God reaching down to encounter him.
Why the star should have been associated with King David is puzzling, although in the late Cabalistic sources the shield of King David did have this form.
A rather more fanciful suggestion is that the sides of the star can be arranged so as to form the letters dalet, vav, dalet=David.
Occasionally, in films about King David, one sees the star a sign in the palace of the king. That is, naturally, the producer’s licence and is grossly anachronistic.