Category Archives: Parsha in our lives

Responding ‘Amen’

… And all the people shall say, ‘Amen!’ (Deuteronomy 27:26)

Citing the above verse the Gemara states that by reciting Amen the Jewish people obligated themselves to abide by the Torah. In addition, reciting Amen to a prayer is an expression of hope that the prayer will be fulfilled (Shevuot 36a).

The Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law, written in 1563) rules that if someone hears another person recite a blessing, they are obligated to respond ‘Amen’ (Orach Chaim 215:2). Rabbi Yisrael Meir HaKohen Kagen (known as the Chofez Chaim, d. 1933) rules that this applies even if one only heard God’s Name and the conclusion of the blessing (Mishnah Berurah ibid. 6). One should respond Amen immediately after the blessing is completed; it should not be before completion or a long time after.

It is necessary to respond Amen when a child makes a blessing, provided that the child made the blessing over something in which they are actually obligated. If the child was merely practising the blessing to learn it, such as a Bar Mitzvah student rehearsing the blessings for his Torah or Haftarah reading, one should not respond Amen (Orach Chaim215:3). Similarly, if an adult errs and makes an unnecessary blessing one should also not respond Amen.

The Gemara cites the verse ‘Declare the greatness of the Lord with me, and let us exalt His name together’ (Psalms 34:4) to mean that those responding ‘Amen’ should not make their voice louder or quieter than the person who recited the blessing (Brachot 45a).

The root of the word (אמן) is the same as the word emunah (אמנה) meaning faithfulness or belief. The Gemara also teaches that Amen is an acronym for אמלך נאמן – God, trustworthy King (Shabbat 119b). The Shulchan Aruch requires those responding Amen to have in mind that they are testifying to the truth of the blessing and believing that God will bring about the prayer in the future (ibid. 124:6).

Reciting Amen transforms a personal blessing into a communal prayer. At the same time it affords others the opportunity to acknowledge God and demonstrate their faith in Him.

Paying on time

On that day you shall pay his hire; the sun shall not set upon him… (Deuteronomy 25:15)

The Torah commands that hired labourers must be paid on the same day that they complete their work (known as lo talin – lit. do not leave over). According to the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish law, written in 1563), if the work of the employee is completed in the daytime, payment must be made by the employer by sunset that day (Choshen Mishpat 339:2). Similarly, if the work is completed at night, payment must be made before sunrise. The same law also applies to rental fees due at the end of the rental period (ibid. 339:1).

Exceptions to this law include a case where the employee agrees to defer payment before undertaking the job. Similarly, employees who are hired on a frequent basis could be paid monthly. Those hired occasionally would require immediate payment as the employee’s expectation is to be paid without delay. In the case of a babysitter, unless they agree to be paid at a later date it is incumbent on the family to pay them before they leave.

An employer must also pay their employee in a way that is both legal and accessible. It is not permitted to substitute other items for payment as compensation.

Rabbi Yaakov Yeshaya Blau (d. 2013) addresses whether it is permissible to pay an employee with a cheque, rather than cash at a time when the banks are shut. This is especially pertinent when paying babysitters as most babysitting is done at night. Given that the money cannot be transferred into the babysitter’s account until the banks open in the morning, does this constitute an inevitable act of lo talin?

Rabbi Blau answers that while it is not ideal, provided the cheque is not post-dated and the babysitter agrees, it acts as a pikadon – collateral, which essentially constitutes payment even though the money is not accessible immediately (Pitchei Choshen, Sechirut 9 note 36).

This law is one of many given to protect worker’s rights and make employers responsible for treating casual hired labourers properly.

Moving boundaries

You shall not move your neighbour’s boundary… (Deuteronomy 19:14)

While the Torah prohibits infringing another person’s property by moving a boundary marker (hasagat gevul, lit. infringement of boundary), the essence of this law is much more extensive. Rashi (d. 1105) cites another example of hasagat gevul which prohibits planting near a bordering field if water and nutrients will be drawn from the neighbour’s land, reducing its fertility and harming the neighbour’s livelihood (Rashi on Shabbat 85a).

In a similar vein, while the Gemara appears to promote marketplace competition by stating that one is entitled to set up a shop adjacent to an existing shop, it rules that a mill owner may prevent another mill from opening nearby if it will interfere with his business (Bava Basra 21b). Rabbi Yair Chaim Bacharach (d. 1702) held that competition is always permitted provided that taxes are paid to the local authority (Chavot Yair 42).

Rabbi Mordechai ben Hillel (d. 1298) ruled that if there is a shop at the end of a closed alley, it would be forbidden to open a similar shop at the beginning of the alley as it would attract customers in before they reached the other shop (Mordechai, Bava Batra).

Rabbi Yosef ben Meir Migash (Ri Migash d. 1141) limited the restriction on competition to cases where there is no real benefit to the customers. If one shop offers lower prices however, it is permitted to open near a more expensive shop.

In another matter, Rabbi Moshe Isserlis (Rema, d. 1572) ruled in a case where Rabbi Meir of Padua together with Aloizi of Venice published a revised printing of Maimonides’ Mishnah Torah in 1551. Shortly afterwards another Venetian publisher, Antonio Ostinian published his own version undercutting Padua’s. Rema ruled that this was prohibited due to hasagat gevul on the grounds that it would certainly cause Rabbi Padua financial ruin. He ruled that the community should not buy Ostinian’s version until all of Padua’s books had been sold (Rema Responsa 10).

While in general marketplace competition is good, Jewish law also seeks to protect the livelihoods of all. While healthy market competition is good, it must not be at the cost of another’s livelihood.

Against factionalism

You are children of the Lord, your God. You shall neither cut yourselves (lo titgodedu) nor make any baldness between your eyes for the dead. (Deuteronomy 14:1)

God commands the Jewish people that it is forbidden to practise self mutilation over the loss of a loved one. While someone may be wracked with grief, harming one’s body is not an appropriate expression of that grief and according to Rashi (d. 1105) was practiced by heathen sects such as the Amorites.

The Gemara (Yevamos 13b) derives another law from the phrase lo titgodedu which is not make ‘agudot agudot’ – different religious factions. At first glance, this implies a law against halachic diversity. Apart from being impractical, it would seemingly violate other principles, such as eilu v’eilu divrei Elokim chaim (these and those are the words of the living God), which indicates that multiple opinions within halachic boundaries are not only authentic, but equally valid expressions of Torah and Jewish law.

The Amoraic sages Rava and Abaye (5th Century CE) both limit the scope of this prohibition to refer to disparities in local Batei Din (Jewish courts, plural of Beth Din). The essence of each view is to prevent communities from becoming fractured.

Nowadays it is normal for a city to have a number of diverse communities and on occasion different Batei Din. Rabbi Yosef Caro (d. 1575) wrote in his responsa that since each community follows its original custom, each community is considered like a city of its own (Avkat Rachel 32).

Consequently, practical examples of Lo titgodedu apply withinone synagogue. For example, the nusach (text) of the prayer services differs between Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities. If a Sephardi Jew is asked to lead the service in an Ashkenazi Shul, he must forgo his personal custom and lead with the Ashkenazi nusach. When praying privately however, it would be acceptable to pray according to one’s own traditions.

Factionalism cannot be prevented by one monotonic set of laws and customs. On the contrary, pluralism within the boundaries of halacha makes orthodoxy rich and diverse. Yet at the same time, communal customs and practices must be safeguarded to protect their history and integrity of their heritage.

Zimun

You will eat and be satisfied and bless God. (Deuteronomy 8:10)

Unlike the simple explanation that this verse refers to reciting birkat hamazon (the blessing following a meal which included bread), the Jerusalem Talmud (Berachot 7:7) understands that while birkat hamazon is certainly necessary, this verse refers to zimun, the invitation before reciting birkat hamazon required when at least three men eat a meal with bread together (Chief Rabbi’s Siddur page 758). While Rabbi Avrohom Yeshaya Karelitz, (known as the Chazon Ish, d. 1953) ruled that zimun is a Torah obligation, most other authorities rule that it is rabbinic in nature.

According to the Shulchan Aruch (code of Jewish Law written in 1565), if two people sit down for a meal (with bread) and are joined by a third, provided the third person eats a significant amount of food (Orach Chaim 197:3). This includes a case where the third person drank wine or fruit juice (ibid. 197:2).Some include other drinks but the majority and most notably, Rabbi Yisrael Meir HaKohen Kagen (known as the Chofetz Chaim, d. 1933) do not include drinking water (Mishnah Berurah 197:12).

Everyone who eats together has an obligation to partake in zimun even though only one person leads it. If someone needs to leave the group early it is not acceptable to recite birkat hamazon alone without zimun. In such a scenario the one who wishes to leave should recite zimun together with the first blessing of bikat hamazon out loud and then continue quietly. This satisfies everyone’s obligation.

The Cofetz Chaim also notes that zimun can only be recited when the group either sit at the same table or are of the same household (Mishnah Berurah 193:18). In addition, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv (d. 2012) ruled that when a large group come to eat together but at different tables (such as at a simcha) zimun may be recited for the whole group provided the tables are relatively close together (Biur Halacha 167:11).

The act of joining others to thank God for the food we have eaten resonates with the verse in Psalms (34:4) and helps to magnify God’s greatness together.

Holy door posts

And you shall write it upon your doorposts. (Deuteronomy 6:9)

Many people have the custom to kiss the mezuzah when passing through a doorway. The Gemara relates a story about the Roman convert to Judaism called Onkelos (d. 120 CE) who was the nephew of the Roman Emperor Titus (Gittin 56b) and wrote one of the Aramaic translations to the Torah.

In the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 11a) Caeser wanted to arrest Onkelos for converting to Judaism. Successive legions who came to arrest Onkelos were inspired by his teachings and also converted. Caeser instructed the next group of troops not to talk to Onkelos but just arrest him.

On leaving his home, Onkelos touched the mezuzah and asked the Roman troops, ‘What is this? They replied, ‘You tell us.’ He explained that normally a king sits inside and his servants guard him from the outside. God however, guards from the outside while His servants sit on the inside (Psalms 121:8). Impressed by Onkelos, those troops also converted.

Rabbi Moshe Isserlis (known as the Rama, d. 1572) writes that this is the source for touching (or kissing) the mezuzah when passing it. He adds that on leaving the house one should say (based on Psalms 121:8) ‘Hashem Yishmor tzeitzi u’vo’ meiatah v’ad olam’ – God should guard my leaving and coming from now and forever (Yoreh Deah 285:2).

Rabbi Shlomo Ganzfried (d. 1886) writes that one should kiss the mezuzah when he leaves and enters the house and similarly begin ‘Hashem Shomri Hashem Tzili al yad yemini …’ – God is my guard, God is my shade on my right hand …’ before concluding with the Rama’s formula (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 11:24).

Note that the only sources indicate that the tradition is to touch or kiss the mezuzah of the front door on exiting, not every mezuzah of every door every time one goes from room to room.

Nevertheless, this custom helps to remind us that it is not the mezuzah that protects us, but God and that we need to feel His protection even more when we venture out of the comfort of our homes.

T’nai kaful

And this land, which we possessed at that time; … half of Mount Gilead and its cities I gave to the Reubenites and to the Gadites. (Deuteronomy 3:12)

The Tribes of Gad and Reuven, together with half the tribe of Menashe previously asked Moses if they could settle on the east side of the Jordan River. Moses agreed provided that they assist with the conquest of the land of Canaan (Numbers 32:20-24). The language of Moses’ condition forms the paradigm for legal stipulations in Jewish law known as a tnai kaful (lit. double condition) in which (among other things) one must state both the terms of compliance and non-compliance (Kiddushin 61a).

If a married man dies without children but leaves an unmarried brother, his widow is obligated to either marry the brother (known as yibbum, levirate marriage) or perform the chalitzah ceremony to release her of this obligation (Deuteronomy 25:5). In a case where the husband is gravely ill, the Gemara addresses whether he could grant his wife a divorce on condition that he dies. Tnai kaful is necessary to state that if he does die, the divorce would take effect retroactively and obviate the need for yibbum or chalitzah and if he recovers, the divorce is void and the couple remain happily married.

If someone wanted to purchase a house on condition that necessary repairs were made within three months, as this is a fiscal matter, there is some discussion as to whether a tnai kaful is necessary. If so, the contract must state ‘If the repairs are made within three months, the sale is valid; if the repairs are not made within three months, the sale is void.’

Maimonides (d. 1204) does require tnai kaful in monetary matters (Ishut 6:14). Others such as Rabbi Yaakov Lorberbaum (d. 1832) only require it for real estate and not for moveable items (Netivot HaMishpat 207:1).

Nevertheless, based on the Talmudic dictum of situmta (Bava Metzia 74a) contemporary authorities have ruled that all agreements formulated in a legal contract are binding on the basis that they are commonly recognised as methods of transaction, even though they are not identified as such in the Torah.

Taking risks and preventing harm

… they shall be cities of refuge for you, and a murderer who killed a person unintentionally shall flee there. (Bamidbar 35:11)

While contemporary health and safety laws may not be popular, the Torah strongly implies that killing someone through negligence, albeit unintentional is a serious sin. The Torah generally mandates the promotion of health and safety laws (Deuteronomy 4:9 and Berachot 32b).

These include the command to build a ma’akeh (guardrail) around one’s roof to prevent someone from falling off (Deuteronomy 22:8). This also applies to similar scenarios such as building a fence around a swimming pool or pond.

Other Talmudic examples include the father’s obligation to teach his children to swim (Kiddushin 29a), that it is prohibited to use a shaky ladder (Rosh Hashana 16b), slice bread or meat in the palm of one’s hand (Brachot 8a) or drink water without checking for contaminants such as leeches (Avodah Zarah 12b).

Contemporary prohibitions include driving recklessly (Rabbi Shmuel Wosner, Shevet Halevi 6:112) and smoking (Rabbi Eliezer Yehuda Waldenberg, d. 2006, Tzitz Eliezer 15:39).

The Chief Officer of Medical Ethics for the Israeli Ministry of Health, Rabbi Dr. Mordechai Halperin goes further to suggest that since every inhalation damages the lungs, smoking maybe akin to murder.

Passive smoking is also a major consideration. Since the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) rules that one may not injure another person (Choshen Mishpat 420:1), Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (d. 1986) ruled that those harmed by passive smoking were entitled by Jewish Law to sue for damages (Iggerot Moshe, Choshen Mishpat 2:76).

Rabbi Feinstein also ruled that it is also forbidden to take illegal drugs. He indicates that becoming addicted is part of the prohibition since we learn from the ‘wayward son’ (Deuteronomy 21:18-21) not to develop damaging habits (ibid., Yoreh Deah 3:35).

In addition, indulging in unnecessary high risk activities such as extreme sports also constitutes reckless endangerment which would be prohibited under the same set of laws.

The Torah demands that we take responsibility for ourselves and others to prevent harm and promote health in every area of our lives. We must not only safeguard the spiritual, but the physical as well which is a prerequisite to responsible living.

Rosh Chodesh Torah reading

And on the beginning of your months, you shall offer up a burnt offering to the Lord… (Bamidbar 28:11)

The laws of the reading of the Torah state that each aliyah (lit. ascent, call up to recite the blessings over the Torah reading) must contain a minimum number of three verses (Megillah 21b).

Furthermore, the Talmud highlights the fact that the text of the Torah contains spaces between verses which act as paragraph breaks splitting up similar conceptual components of the narrative. The Talmud rules that an aliyah must not begin or end less than three verses from one of these paragraph breaks. The concern is that if someone arrives late or leaves shul at the critical moment, they may suspect that the preceding or following aliyah contained fewer than three verses.

The Torah reading for Rosh Chodesh therefore presents a halachic challenge. The portion for Rosh Chodesh is taken from the first fifteen verses of chapter 28 of Bamidbar. However, the portion has to be split up between four aliyot (plural of aliyah). Due to the paragraph breaks in the text, it is impossible to divide the aliyot without violating one of the principles brought down earlier.

The Talmud seems to conclude that the only resolution is to repeat one of the verses and Rabbeinu Nissim (d. 1376) explains that for the second aliyah weshould repeat the third verse. Yet Nachmanidies (Ramban, d. 1270) points out that repeating the third verse still means that someone who walks in may think that the first aliyah was only two verses long.

The Vilna Gaon (Gra, d. 1797) devised an elegant solution which involves continuing the second aliyah (levi) from verses four through eight and then repeating verses six to eight for the third aliyah before continuing to verse ten. The final aliyah continues from eleven to fifteen. While our tradition follows Rabbeinu Nissim, many communities in Israel follow the opinion of the Gra.

It is fascinating that our traditions go to such lengths to avoid any suspicion of wrongdoing, even from someone who was not in shul for the whole Torah reading.

Cursing and swearing

So now, please come and curse this people for me, for they are too powerful for me… (Bamidbar 22:6)

There are many different prohibitions in the Torah against cursing another person. The primary source is found in Leviticus and specifies the law against cursing a deaf person (Leviticus 19:14). Another verse states ‘You shall not curse a judge; neither shall you curse a prince among your people’ (Exodus 22:27). In both cases, the prohibition seems to be limited to cursing specific individuals, in this case the leaders of the Jewish people.

The Midrash and Talmud explain that in the latter verse, the phrase ‘among your people’ is superfluous to the simple meaning and therefore includes a general prohibition against cursing others (Sifra 2:13 and Sanhedrin 66b).

Why then did the Torah specify two very particular prohibitions; one against cursing someone who is deaf and another against cursing Jewish leaders, when a general prohibition would have sufficed.

The Sefer HaChinuch (attributed to Rabbi Aharon ben Yosef HaLevi, d. 1290) explains that the verse which prohibits cursing the deaf teaches us that it is forbidden to curse anyone even if they are not in earshot and are therefore effectively ‘deaf’ to the invective (Sefer HaChinuch 231). One might have thought that since the intended victim is not directly affected, the gravity of the misdeed is weakened, yet this is not the case.

The Talmud offers a different approach. The Torah deliberately brings examples from the two ends of the societal spectrum; the powerful and the vulnerable. The message is that maledictions damage equally regardless of the status or stature of their target (Sanhedrin 66b).

Moreover, while receiving a curse is clearly harmful and upsetting, since the prohibition equally applies when the victim is unaffected, there appears to be another dimension to this act.

Maimonides (d. 1204) highlights that the damage of cursing someone not only affects the victim but is detrimental to the character of the one delivering the curse (negative commandment 317). As we see from Bilaam, someone who curses others denigrates himself to an even greater degree than the one he intends to harm.