Thursday, June 27, 2013

Pinchas - The Zealotry of Phinehas

The previous parsha ended with the the violent act of zealotry of Phinehas, who killed a Jewish man that was engaging in public fornication with a Midianite woman, thereby saving the Jewish people from a plague. Parshas Pinchas begins immediately following this incident, with God's declaration to Moses:
Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, has turned My anger away from the children of Israel, in that he was very jealous for My sake among them, and I have not destroyed the children of Israel in My jealousy. Therefore say, Behold, I give to him My covenant of peace. And it shall be for him and his children after him, a covenant of eternal priesthood; because he was jealous for his God, and made atonement for the children of Israel.
The commentaries note that the Torah emphasizes the lineage of Phinehas, going back two generations, to his grandfather, Aaron the priest. This is particular significant, given that the Torah had already introduced us to Phinehas, and his lineage, just three verses previously.

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 82b, cited by Rashi here) explains why Phinehas' lineage is emphasized:
התחילו שבטים מבזין אותו ראיתם בן פוטי זה שפיטם אבי אמו עגלים לעבודת כוכבים והרג נשיא שבט מישראל בא הכתוב ויחסו פנחס בן אלעזר בן אהרן הכהן
[After the incident,] the tribes began to disparage Phinehas, saying, "See this son of Puti, whose maternal grandfather fattened calves for idolatry, and he has killed a prince of a tribe of Israel!" Scripture [therefore] came and stated his lineage: Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the Priest.
(Rashi, on the Talmud, explains, that Phinehas' father, Eleazar, had married one of the daughters of Jethro - who was also known as Putiel. Jethro has originally been an idolatrous priest.)

On the simple level, this attack against Phinehas was entirely unjustified and represented nothing more than the type of anger that would be expected after such an incident. Now matter how justified Phinehas' action was, and no matter how beneficial it may have been to the nation, the reality is that after a violent incident such as this, there will inevitably be some very strong negative emotions.

However, if this were nothing more than the usual angry words that tend to float around after any incident of this sort, there would be no reason for the Torah and the Sages to record the exact nature of the complaint. The fact that this information has been transmitted to us indicates that there is something more significant going on. It would seem that the disparaging remarks about Phinehas' ancestry were, at least at first glance, justifiable, and it was therefore necessary for the Torah to emphasize that Phinehas was also the grandson of Aaron the priest.

Phinehas' act of zealotry, in which he unilaterally acted to execute a sinner, is obviously one fraught with difficulty on many levels.While, in the final analysis, there is indeed a principle that certain sins, such a public fornication with a non-Jewish woman, are indeed subject to a special law that "zealots may kill him" (קנאים פוגעים בו), in practical terms this law is extremely limited in scope. Many commentaries emphasize that one of the conditions required for a person to act on this principle is that they must be genuinely motivated purely out of love and "jealousy" for God. Any other motivation renders the act forbidden.

Thus, when the Jewish people looked at Phinehas, who alone, of all the great men in Israel, had chosen to act in this manner, they were deeply skeptical that his actions had been motivated purely by his moral outrage at the desecration of God's honor. After all, he was himself the grandson of an idolatrous priest, and, in fact, the son of a Midianite woman! Perhaps his motivation derived from other, less pure elements, that he had received through his non-Jewish ancestry. It was only with through God's revelation that it became clear that Phinehas' zealotry was rooted entirely his love of God, and that his actions were worthy of the grandson of Aaron the priest.

Questions from a College Student

Some time ago, I received the following series of questions from a (non-Jewish) college student from a course she was taking. These were questions that she had to answer about several different religions, and she had been referred to me as a resource on Judaism. I have edited the questions slightly, to focus specifically on Judaism (as the original questions were written with reference to multiple religions).

How would Judaism react to the following issues:

  • Animal testing 

Judaism recognizes a general prohibition against causing unnecessary suffering to animals. (This prohibition is derived from several Biblical sources, including Exodus 23:5.) Thus, for example, virtually all Jewish authorities prohibit hunting for sport. Even when the use of animals is permitted, which is the general rule for human benefit (e.g. food, clothing, labor), there is still an obligation  to refrain from causing excessive suffering. With regard to animal testing and experimentation, the general approach taken by most authorities is that, assuming steps are taken to avoid unnecessary suffering, animal testing and experimentation is permitted as long as it provides a real and non-trivial benefit to human beings. However, while simple in principle, practical application of this rule can be complex, and can only be determined on a case-by-case basis.

  • Famine

(I’m not clear on what the “issue” of famine is in the first place. I am going to assume that the question is what the Jewish position is on helping people that are suffering from famine (although that would seem to be rather obvious).)

Judaism has always stressed charity as a moral obligation and providing aid to those who are suffering from starvation and famine is obviously an integral part of that obligation. In practical terms, when one personally encounters such suffering there is a clear obligation to provide aid to the best of one’s ability. There is also a broad moral obligation to make efforts to provide aid to suffering people wherever they may be, but what this means in practical terms must be dealt with on a case by case basis.

  • Women’s reproductive rights

In general, the terminology of “rights”, rather than obligation, is foreign to traditional Jewish thought. Like every aspect of life, reproduction is encompassed by a number of laws and obligations in Judaism. There is a basic commandment to “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28), which is understood to bear within it a prohibition against engaging in any kind of birth control (unless medically necessary). Abortion is forbidden as a crime akin to murder, and is only permitted when necessary to save the life of the mother. Again, outside of clear medical emergencies, the exact application of these rules can be complex and can only be determined on a case-by-case basis.

  • Environmental concerns

There are many traditional Jewish teachings that indicate that, although God has given the earth to mankind to use for his benefit, we are expected to do so in a responsible manner. Wanton wastefulness is explicitly forbidden by Jewish law. (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hil. Melachim 6:8-10) There are also sources that indicate an obligation to maintain the public domain in an aesthetically pleasing manner, and to avoid damaging the environment in a way that harms other people.

  • Homosexuality

Judaism absolutely prohibits engaging in any form of homosexual relations. Male homosexual relations is explicitly forbidden by the Torah (Leviticus 18:22, 20:13) as a crime bearing the death penalty. The prohibition against female homosexual relations is derived from Leviticus 18:3, and while completely  forbidden, is of a less severe nature. It should be noted that all of this refers only to actual relations. Sexual orientation per se is of no significance in Jewish law.

What does Judaism teach about what happens in death? Reincarnation and the soul?

Judaism absolutely recognizes the existence of the “soul”, which can be best understood as the non-physical locus of the human personality. One of the basic foundations of Judaism is the concept of reward and punishment, i.e. that God rewards us for our good deeds and punishes us for our (unrepented) bad deeds. Included in this principle is the concept that the primary domain of reward and punishment is the afterlife.

The concept of reincarnation does exist in Judaism, however the concept is markedly different from popular conceptions of the idea.

How does Judaism view God? Does an all-powerful God allow people to suffer?

Judaism defines God as the omnipotent and omniscient Source of Existence. All existence is dependent upon Him, but He is not dependent on anything. He is the only true Power in the universe, and nothing can happen against His will. This includes that which we perceive as evil.  As the prophet Isaiah said, “I am the LORD, and there is none else, beside Me there is no God... That they may know from the rising of the sun, and from the west, that there is none beside Me; I am the LORD; and there is none else; I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace, and create evil; I am the LORD, that doeth all these things.” (Isaiah 45:5-7)

How can a person reach salvation in Judaism?

The general theme of “Salvation” is a Christian concept that does not carry over well to Judaism. Of course, when we are threatened with destruction, either as individuals or as a group, we pray to God for salvation from destruction. Similarly, when we have sinned we are required to repent and pray to God to forgive us and save us from our iniquity. However, the general idea that a human being is, by nature, “unsaved” is foreign to Judaism.

What is the meaning or purpose of life in Judaism?

Judaism sees the purpose and goal of human life as striving to achieve an ever-growing connection with God. One achieves this connection through the fulfillment of God’s commandments, prayer, and the study of His Torah.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Tisha B’Av – The Ninth of Av

On the Ninth of Av it was decreed on our fathers that they would not enter the Land (of Israel) [Bamidbar 14], the Temple was destroyed the first time and the second time, Beitar (the stronghold of the Bar Kochba rebellion) was captured, and the city (of Jerusalem) was plowed under.
Talmud Taanis 4
As the anniversary of the most tragic events in Jewish history, the ninth of Av is the most important day of mourning in the Jewish year. Other than Yom Kippur, it is the only fast day in the year that lasts a full night and day. All other fasts begin in the morning and end that night. Tisha B’Av begins at sundown and continues till the following nightfall. Tisha B’Av carries several additional prohibitions that are not required by the other fasts.


The following is a list of the basic prohibitions on Tisha B’Av:
  • We are forbidden to eat or drink anything for the entire period. (A person who has difficulty fasting for health reasons should consult a rabbi.)
  • It is forbidden to wash oneself, even just one finger. The only exception is the required washing upon rising in the morning and after using the bathroom. Even in these cases we may only wash until the knuckles. If one has soiled his hands he is permitted to clean the soiled area only.
  • It is forbidden to wear leather shoes. (There is no prohibition against other leather items.)
  • Marital relations are forbidden.
  • With several exceptions, one may not study Torah on Tisha B’Av because the study of Torah brings joy. The exceptions are the book of Eichah (Lamentations), the book of Job, the “bad” passages in Yirmiyah (omitting the passages of consolation), and various Talmudic and Midrashic passages which deal with the destruction of the first and second Temples and with the laws of mourning. Even in these cases we are not permitted to study in depth.
  • We are not permitted to greet each other on Tisha B’Av, even to say good morning. If you encounter someone who is unaware of this law and he greets you, it is best to inform him of the law (in a polite manner) so that he will not resent your non-response. If this is not possible, then one should respond in a low voice and with a somber manner.
  • The night of Tisha B’Av and the following day until chatzos hayom (midday) we do not sit in a normal chair. Instead, we sit on the ground or on a low stool.
  • It is best to avoid work on Tisha B’Av until chatzos hayom (midday).
  • One should not go for pleasurable walks or engage in any other activity that might distract from the mourning.

The Day Before

Although the fast itself begins at sunset, certain aspects of the mourning of Tisha B’Av begin earlier. From chatzos hayom (midday) of the eighth of Av and on it is best to refrain from Torah study in the same manner that one must on Tisha B’Av itself. However, many authorities are lenient in this matter. Certainly one should not engage in frivolous activity but should prepare himself for the upcoming fast.

It is customary to eat a meal before Mincha (afternoon prayers). This meal carries no restrictions. It is customary to eat well at this meal in preparation for the fast, but care must be taken not to overeat so that one can eat the Seudah HaMafsekes comfortably.

Tachanun is not recited during Mincha.

After the Mincha prayers it is customary to eat the last meal. This meal is called the Seudah HaMafseket (Separating Meal). It is forbidden to eat more than one cooked food at this meal. (This includes any form of cooking even roasted, fried, or pickled.) Meat, wine and fish are forbidden. Intoxicating drinks should be completely avoided.

The meal is eaten sitting on the ground or a low seat. It is customary to eat a hard-boiled egg (which serves as the cooked food). It is also customary to eat a piece of bread dipped into ashes and to declare, “This is the Tisha B’Av meal.”

During the meal, three men should not sit together so that they will not have to recite the Birchas HaMazon (Grace after Meals) as a group (mezuman). If they do eat together they still do not form a group.

When the eve of Tisha B’Av falls out on Shabbat, none of these restrictions apply.

Tisha B’Av Night

All of the prohibitions of Tisha B’Av begin at sundown. It is therefore necessary to remove one’s leather shoes shortly before sundown.

It is customary to remove the paroches  (curtain) from the Aron Hakodesh (Holy Ark) in the synagogue before Maariv (evening prayers). It is also customary to reduce the lighting in the synagogue. (In many synagogues, it is customary to pray by candlelight on Tisha B'Av night.)

After Maariv is completed, the book of Eichah (Lamentations) is read aloud to the congregation. After Eichah is completed, the congregation recites Kinos, poetic prayers of lamentation.

It is proper for a person to sleep in a less comfortable manner than he is normally accustomed to. If he usually sleeps with two pillows then he should sleep with only one. Some have the custom to sleep on the ground on the night of Tisha B’Av and to rest their head on a stone.

Tisha B’Av Day

At Shacharis (morning prayers) on Tisha B’Av morning, talis and tefillin are not worn. (They are worn during Mincha instead.) The small tzitzit is still worn but no blessing is recited. Tachanun is not recited. The Torah is taken out and the portion of Deuteronomy 4:25-40 is read and the haftarah from Isaiah 8:13 - 9:23.

After the Torah reading the congregation recites Kinos. This should last until a little before chatzos hayom (midday). After Kinos the prayers are completed. Lamnatzeach and the second verse of Uvo L’Tzion (V’Ani Zot Briti…) are omitted. Some do not say Shir Shel Yom now but wait until Mincha.

It is proper for every person to read the book of Eichah again.

After chatzos hayom (midday) it is permissible to sit on an ordinary seat.

At Mincha we don talis and tefillin. The Torah is taken out and the standard portion and haftarah for fast days is read.

During the Amida (silent, standing prayer) the following prayer is inserted in the blessing of V’LeYerushalayim Ircha:
HaShem our God, console the mourners of Zion and the mourners of Jerusalem, and the city that is mournful, destroyed, shamed, and desolate. Mournful without her children, destroyed without her residences, shamed without her honor, and desolate without inhabitant. She sits with her head covered, like a barren woman who does not give birth. She has been devoured by the legions, and conquered by the worshipers of foreign powers, and they put your people, Israel, to the sword and willfully murdered the devout [servants] of the High One. Therefore Zion cries bitterly, and Jerusalem raises her voice, “My heart! My heart [aches] on the slain! My stomach! My stomach [aches] on the slain!” For You, God, with fire you burned her, and with fire you will rebuild her, as it is said, “And I will be for her, says God, a wall of fire around her, and I will be a glory within her.”(Zechariah 2:9) Blessed are You, God, Who consoles Zion and builds Jerusalem.

The Night After Tisha B’Av

Tisha B’Av ends at nightfall. Even though the fast ends that night, it is proper to not eat meat or bathe until chatzos hayom (midday) the following day. This is because the Temple continued to burn into the tenth day.

Shabbos and Tisha B’Av

When the ninth of Av falls out on Shabbos then the fast is postponed until Sunday. In such a case, while one should still abstain from meat and bathing the following night, one need not do so the next day.

The Three Weeks

The three weeks that begin on the 17th of Tamuz and end on Tisha B’Av are a period of mourning for the Jewish people. It was during this period that both of our Holy Temples were destroyed.

There are two periods within these three weeks. During the period beginning from 17th of Tamuz until the end of the month of Tamuz (a period of twelve days) the mourning is not as intense. The mourning during the final nine days, beginning with the first of Av until Tisha B’Av, is intensified and many additional practices of mourning are added. (This is according to Ashkenazic practice. According to Sefardic practice, the mourning is only intensified during the actual week in which Tisha B'Av falls.)

During the first twelve days the following practices are observed:
  • We do not perform weddings.
  • We do not make the blessing shehechyanu. We therefore avoid purchasing or wearing new garments which require this blessing during this period.
  • We do not shave or get a haircut.
  • We do not listen to instrumental music.
During the final nine days we continue to follow these restrictions in addition to which we add the following practices:
  • We do not eat meat or drink wine except on Shabbos.
  • We do not do construction when its primary purpose is pleasure (such as building a swimming pool) or aesthetic (such as painting).
  • We avoid pleasurable bathing during this period.
  • We do not launder clothing during this period nor do we wear fresh clothing (except for Shabbos).
  • We do not trim our fingernails during this period.
There are many leniencies that can be relied upon with regard to these restrictions in cases of significant difficulty. In any such case, one should consult a competent rabbi.

The Interruption of the Tamid Sacrifice

One of the tragic events of the 17th of Tamuz was the interruption of the korban tamid (the daily offering of two sheep in the Temple). There is some disagreement in the sources as to when this happened (or, more accurately, which interruption of the Tamid service is commemorated on the 17th of Tammuz). Maimonides writes that this occurred prior to the  destruction of the first Temple, when Jerusalem was under siege and they were unable to get the necessary sheep. Others say that it occurred prior to the the destruction of the second Temple. And some say that this refers to an interruption of the Tamid service that took place at an earlier part of the second Temple period, under Hasmonean rule.

In order to understand what happened at that time, we will first need to quickly review some history. At the beginning of the second Temple period, when the Jewish people returned to the land of Israel and rebuilt the Temple, they did so under Persian rule. When the Greeks, led by Alexander the Great, conquered the Persian empire, the Jewish commonwealth also came under Greek rule. After some time, the Greeks began to oppress the Jews and attempted to outlaw the observance of Judaism. The Jewish people, under the leadership of the priestly Hasmonean family, revolted against the Greeks. After their miraculous victory (celebrated on Chanukah), the Hasmonean family became the kings of the Jewish commonwealth in the land of Israel. The Hasmonean family ruled for a little more than a century, until they were displaced by Herod (with the support of the Romans). 

Although the early Hasmonean leaders were truly righteous and great men, over time their descendants were not always so good. Towards the end of the Hasmonean period, there was a struggle between two Hasmonean brothers, Hyrcanus and Aristobulus (the sons of the previous king, Alexander Jannaeus), over who should be king which eventually led to war. Hyrcanus allied himself with a non-Jewish king and made a siege on Jerusalem. (It was during this siege that the Tamid service was interrupted.) Eventually the famous Roman general, Pompey, got involved, and when all was done, the Romans had become the ruling power in Jerusalem. Thus, the struggle between Hyrcanus and Aristobulus was what first enabled the Romans to assume control over the land of Israel, which ultimately led to the destruction of the Jewish commonwealth and the second Temple.

It is is significant that the initiating event that ultimately led to the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the Jewish people was a struggle between two jealous brothers, for the Talmud (Yoma 9b) tells us that the second Temple was destroyed because of the sin of sinas chinam - unjustified hatred.  As Jews, we believe that God directs the events of history, and nothing simply happens on its own. This event was a sign, both to the people of that time and for all generations, of the inseparable connection between our relationship with God - symbolized by the Temple - and our relationship with our fellow men.

Shiva Asar B’Tamuz – The Seventeenth of Tamuz

The Seventeenth of Tamuz is the anniversary of several tragic events in Jewish history.
  1. The luchot were broken on this day when Moses came down from Sinai and found the Jews worshiping the golden calf.
  2. The Tamid (daily) sacrifice was discontinued on this day. (There is some disagreement in the sources as to when this happened (or, more accurately, which interruption of the Tamid service is commemorated on the 17th of Tammuz). Maimonides writes that this occurred prior to the  destruction of the first Temple, when Jerusalem was under siege and they were unable to get the necessary sheep. Others say that it occurred prior to the the destruction of the second Temple. And some say that this refers to an interruption of the Tamid service that took place at an earlier part of the second Temple period, under Hasmonean rule.)
  3. The Romans penetrated the city walls of Jerusalem on this day prior to the destruction of the second Temple.
  4. An idol was erected in the Temple on this day. (There is a difference of opinion in the Talmud (Yer. Taanis 4:5) whether this is talking about the first or second Beit HaMikdash.)
  5.  The Torah was burnt on this day by Apustemus, one of the Greek oppressors.
In memory of these events we are required to fast on this day to inspire ourselves to repentance.

The fast begins at the break of dawn and ends at nightfall. During this time we neither eat nor drink any food whatsoever, not even water. Even though we are, strictly speaking, permitted to bathe on this fast day (unlike Tisha B’Av and Yom Kippur) the custom is not to bathe on Shiva Asar B’Tamuz.

Pregnant or nursing women, as well as anyone else for whom fasting may be a health problem should consult with a rabbi whether they are permitted to fast. Children below the age of majority (bar or bat mitzvah) do not fast. (In some communities, it is customary for children to begin fasting a short time before they become bar/bat mitzvah.)

It is important to recognize that the primary idea behind a fast is to meditate on the fact that these sufferings came upon us because the sins of our ancestors, sins which we continue to commit, and that we must repent. Someone who fasts but spends the day in frivolous activity has completely missed the point.

The fast of Shiva Asar B’Tamuz marks the beginning of a three-week period of national mourning for the Jews that is completed on TishaB’Av, the ninth of Av.