Originally published in The Jewish Chronicle.
Some people say that persons both of whose parents are alive must not visit cemeteries. Is this superstition?
I have been unable to find any reference to this in the sources so that it is probably based on superstition. It is possible that since persons with parents have no obligation to visit the cemetery as an act of filial piety the idea emerged that they should not visit the cemetery.
I have heard that there has been a rabbinical objection in this country to naming a child Adam. To me it seems a perfectly good name.
The rule about naming children after Biblical personages is stated in the Talmud. The name must not be that of one of the Biblical villains, e.g., Pharaoh or Haman. This objection obviously does not apply to the name of the father of the human race. The subject of why some names were favoured by Jews and others not is fascinating and has been thoroughly investigated by modern scholars. The name Adam was not used by Jews. This is one of the reasons why researchers into the early history of Chasidism consider Adam Baal Shem, the alleged teacher of the founder of the movement, to be a mythical personage. But the myth would not have emerged if there were any rooted objection to the name Adam.
How is it that, whereas a girl can marry her uncle, a nephew cannot marry his aunt?
The prohibition of a nephew marrying his aunt is stated explicitly in the list of forbidden marriages (Leviticus 18: 12-13 and 20, 19) but there is no such prohibition in the case of uncle and niece. Indeed, there are statements in the rabbinic literature the effect that it is meritorious for an uncle to marry his niece.
However, in view of medical research which has uncovered the risks to the children of such marriages, there has been much recent discussion whether rabbis, nowadays, ought to discourage the marriage of uncle and niece or of cousins. (See the interesting essays initiated by Rabbi Leo Jung in the halachic annual Noam, Vols. 12 and 13.)
10 July 1970:
I have heard that among Chasidim a male child’s hair is not cut until he is three. What is the reason?
Long peyot (side-curls) are among the distinguishing features of the Chasidim. At the age of three a child begins to be trained to keep the mitzvot and his hair is sufficiently long for peyot to be formed when the rest of the hair is removed. The practice appears to have been introduced not by the Chasidim but by the Sephardim in Eretz Yisrael under the influence of the Cabala (according to one report it was done when the child was four years of age). To this day it is the custom at the Lag b’Omer celebrations in Meron for the children’s hair to be cut for the first time. There is possibly an association here with the prohibition of hair-cutting during the Sefira period except on Lag b’Omer.
17 July 1970:
Is a rabbi permitted to marry a proselyte?
The answer is an unqualified Yes. Even a rabbi of the most extreme wing of Orthodoxy, Amram Blau, leader of the Neturei Karta sect in Jerusalem, recently married a proselyte (albeit despite the disapproval of some of his followers). Boaz married Ruth, the supreme example for the Rabbis of the “righteous proselyte,” and King David was descended from these two. A Cohen is not permitted, according to Orthodox law, to marry a proselyte but a rabbi who is not a Cohen is no different from any other Israelite. The rabbi is a teacher, no more and no less. To give him the status of a priest would be contrary to the Jewish tradition. It is true that in one version of a saying of Raba (Berakhot 8b, according to another source Rabbi Judah the Prince) he advised his sons not to marry a proselyte, because she does not have “ancestral merit,” but this is in no way a legal ruling and is recorded by none of the Codes.
14 August 1970:
What are the regulations for pidyon haben?
The first-born son of the mother is to be redeemed by the payment to a Cohen of the sum of five shekalim in silver coins or valuables (but not in banknotes). Nowadays there is some uncertainty about the exact value of five shekalim (a firm has minted special coins for this purpose). To be on the safe side many people use either these coins or five of the new ten-shilling pieces which certainly have the required value. The procedure is described in detail in Singer’s Prayer Book, new edition, pages 405-06. The ceremony is to be carried out on the 31st day of the child’s birth unless this falls on a sabbath or festival, in which case it is postponed until the following day. It is not generally known that if the father is out of town on the 31st day the pidyon can be carried out wherever he happens to be, the presence of the child not being essential.
What first-born sons are exempted from pidyon haben?
Where the father is a Cohen or a Levite or the mother the daughter of a Cohen or a Levite; where the mother had previously had a miscarriage; where the child had had a Caesarean birth.
11 December 1970:
Can a Cohen’s son who has not yet reached barmitzvah age duchan (recite the priestly blessing) in company with other Cohanim?
The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 128, 34) rules that the son of a Cohen who has not yet reached barmitzvah age should not duchan on his own but may do so in company with other Cohanim as training for the mitzva.
22 January 1971:
At a recent wedding I attended, the bride walked seven times around the bridegroom at the start of the ceremony. What is the significance of this? Is it meant to show that she is subservient to him?
The custom is referred to in some of the sources, but it would seem that originally the bride walked only three times around the groom, said to correspond to the three times marriage is mentioned in Deuteronomy or the threefold betrothal expressed in Hosea 2, 21-22 and recited when one is putting on tefilin: “And I will betroth thee unto me for ever; yea I will betroth thee unto me in righteousness and in justice, and in loving kindness and compassion; and I will betroth thee unto me in faithfulness ; and thou shalt know the Lord.” As with other customs of this nature, the origin is obscure.
12 February 1971:
Are the offspring of the daughters or granddaughters of a Cohen exempt from the ceremony of Pidyan Haben?
If the daughter of a Cohen marries an Israelite the first-born son is exempt from Pidyan Haben. But if their daughter marries an Israelite their first-born son is not exempt since the mother is not a daughter of a Cohen even though she is a grand-daughter of a Cohen.
3 March 1972
A Manchester rabbi has had second thoughts about the institution of batmitzvah which has recently established itself in Anglo-Jewry. We “asked the Rabbi” about barmitzvah and batmitzvah: how far back do they go?
Much has been written on the institution of barmitzvah and there is a whole book on the subject, with a comprehensive bibliography, by Isaac Rivkin (Bar Mitzvah: A Study in Jewish Cultural History, New York; 1942), written to celebrate the barmitzvah of the author’s son.
The idea that a boy attains to religious majority at the age of thirteen and a girl at the age of twelve is found frequently, and universally accented, in the Talmudic literature.
The Mishna (Avot 5, 21) states, for example, in speaking of the ages of man, that “thirteen is for the mitzvot,” i.e., is the age when a boy is no longer trained by his parents to carry out the precepts of the Torah but assumes, as do all other adults, a personal obligation to carry them out.
From the age of thirteen (there is a further qualification that the signs of puberty have appeared, though, it is ruled, this can be assumed once the age of thirteen has been reached) a boy can help to make up the minyan, can blow the shofar and recite grace on behalf of others. He also has the legal capacity to sell property.
The actual term barmitzvah (“son of the mitzvah”, bar being the Aramaic for “son,” and mitzvah meaning “law”) is used in the Talmud not merely for a boy who has just attained his majority, but for any person to whom the mitzvot apply. Its use in its present sense dates from medieval times, while the term batmitzvah for the girl who has reached the age of twelve is even later.
In the course of time various ceremonies became associated with the attainment of barmitzvah. Minors did not wear tefilin even for practice (on the grounds that they could not keep themselves sufficiently clean in body) so that the wearing of the tefilin was a specially important new task for the barmitzvah to perform.
A derasha (legal exposition), generally on the theme of tefilin, was delivered by the boy. This custom, as well as the special barmitzvah banquet, is mentioned by the famous sixteenth-century authority, R. Solomon Luria. The boy was also called to the reading of the Torah.
Rivkind prints a copy of a menu for a barmitzvah banquet in which each item corresponds to events in the boy’s new life. For instance, black coffee is served because of the rule that the tefilin must be black and wine because the initial letters of yayin gefen (“wine of the vine”) are yod and gimmel, the numerical value of which is 13.
In Eastern Europe the boy was called to the Torah on the Monday or Thursday immediately after his barmitzvah. It is only in Western lands, and comparatively recently, that the boy reads the Maftir and Haftara but there are references even at an earlier period to his conducting the service in the synagogue on that day “if he has a pleasant voice.”
The batmitzvah ceremony for girls is modern. Its aims evidently were to encourage girls to acquire a more intense Jewish education and to advocate greater equality of females with males in the religious life of Jewry. In extreme traditionalist circles the batmitzvah ceremony is consequently frowned upon as an innovation not sanctioned by the tradition.
Lavish barmitzvah parties have been severely criticised by many rabbis. In so far as these affairs are ostentatious and wasteful, as well as diverting attention from the central religious features of the occasion, the critique is justified.