Ask the Rabbi

A collection of questions posted on the Stanmore Synagogue website and answered by Rabbi Cohen:

Q. Every morning when I wash my hands for the al netilat brocha, I wonder how this sits in Israel with the injunction against wasting water there and I would very much appreciate your thoughts on this.

A. I don't see a problem. Washing one's hands in the morning has a spiritual as well as a hygienic basis (Note that the Al netilat yadayim blessing - the very first of the morning blessings - preceeds the asher yatzar blessing for bodily health). It can hardly be regarded therefore as a 'wastage' of water.

It is because Jews were so meticulous about keeping themselves clean - and washing and immersions were an essential element in achieving that state - that they were immune to so many of the deseases and plagues that decimated other ancient and medieval societies. Indeed, anti-Semitic gentiles used that as ammunition for their pernicious claim that Jews practised witchcraft or were in league with the devil.

Finally, if you've visited Israel, as I know you have, you will notice that water flows in abundance from hosepipes in front of every block of flats, even if all they are watering is a clumpy apology for grass! They can certainly spare a little for netilat yadayim.

Q. I learnt recently that Gerim (converts) are deemed to be like new-born children following their conversion - and as if no longer related to their birth family. The very next day, at the Moradoff siyyum, I learnt that Eliezer, harbouring designs for his children to inherit Avraham, is told by Avraham that His line cannot inherit him as they are Canaanites, and Canaan had been cursed by Noah. Of what relevance is this familial curse if Eliezer is a Ger?

A. First, we must appreciate that we are talking here about a Midrash. There is an overarching principle: ein moshivin al ha-drash, 'We do not raise halachic (or counter-midrashic) objections on a piece of midrash.' You cannot, therefore, use that principle to challenge a drush regarding Abraham's (alleged) rejection of Eliezer's daughter as a marriage partner for Isaac.

Secondly, the principle of ger shenitgayeir kekatan shenolad damiy, 'A convert is like a new-born child,' was a principle that was established only in the rabbinic (pre) Mishnaic period. It cannot therefore be applied (a) to challenge a midrash, as we have just said, and (b) anacronistically, to take issue with a legendary situation occurring nearly two millennia earlier, before the Torah was given and any halachic principles were operative.

Thirdly, even ignoring the above, the matter of the curse is not insuperable. The Torah itself explicitly excludes certain categories (e.g. Ammonites and Moabites) from marrying within the Israelite faith. Idolators would certainly be excluded on other grounds. It would follow therefore that those under the curse that they should permanently remain "a servant of servants" would be similarly excluded.

Q. Why are the Ten Commnandments not included in our daily prayers?

A. They were originally in the Temple liturgy, as testified to by the Mishnah (Tamid ch 5), but were removed 'because of the heretics' allegations. This refers to the New-Christians who asserted that it was unnecessary to observe the Torah laws since only the Ten Commandments came directly from God, the rest being mediated through men. Hence the Christians still adhere (in principle) to the Ten Commandments.

In order to demonstrate forcefully the falseness of that allegation, and that there is no difference in status between the Ten Commandments and any other part of the Torah (few of which appear in our prayers), the rabbis of the first century demoted it by removing it from the daily liturgy.

Q. Where and when does the design of the tephilin come from? And how did the Hebrews follow the mitzvah of tephilin before this design?

A. The Torah describes them as totafot (Deut. 6:8), which is clearly a loan word, probably not even Semitic in origin. Rashi explains it as a combination of two African or Coptic words, tat and fat, both meaning 'two', in reference to the four compartments of the head tefillin. It is mystifying that the Torah should have used these loan words, and might suggest that the contraption the Torah was recommending for binding the holy words to the forehead might have been one already in use among African tribes to bind on their amulets. Whether this was the straps in use from rabbinic times onward we cannot be sure.

The Talmud (Menachot 35a) declares that the shape of the tefillin was already determined "as a halachah from Moses on Sinai," but it is unlikely that the ancient Israelites would have had the wherewithal to manufacture tefillin like ours and to provide them for all males.Thus, this remains a subject shrouded in uncertainty. We do know that they were originally worn throughout the day, but in talmudic times a dispensation was given to wear them just for morning prayer. This restricted use was reflected in the new name, tefillin, given to them, namely 'prayer accompaniments' (from the word tefillah).

Q. Why is Tuesday perceived as a particularly lucky day for Jews?

A. Tuesday, the 3rd day of the week, is regarded as an auspicious day because, in the Genesis account of the Creation, the expression, 'And G-d saw that it was good' occurs twice in reference to that day. Hence it is a 'doubly good day!'

Q. When, where and how did the wearing of the tallit develop?

A. While the Torah prescribes tzitzit (fringes) to be placed on any four-cornered garment, the practice developed in early talmudic times (1st-2nd centuries) among the upper classes and the rabbinic fraternity to wear a large outer robe of fine linen to which the tzitzit were attached. This is referred to in Talmud Bava Batra 98a, and was probably modelled on the Roman pallium. In the course of time this mode of dress was abandoned (probably because it was perceived as chukkat ha-goy, aping the gentiles), but was retained for prayer only, in the form of the tallit.

Q. Rabbi, could you please explain the significance of the short sentences adjacent to each word of the Birkat Cohanim in the Machzor, particularly as Art Scroll states that we should not utter them.

A. The Priestly Blessing was regarded as a most efficacious time for petitioning for relief from troubling experiences. The Talmud states that someone who is frightened that recurring dreams might presage some personal calamity should stand before the priests while they are blessing the people and recite a special formula for relief. From that context there developed the Yehi ratzon prayer printed in many machzorim. In our age, someone emotionally disturbed by dreams might consult a psychiatrist. In ancient times they looked to prayer to help them through it. The latter method is certainly cheaper!

Because this was the blessing of the people, and the Torah states Va'ani avarcheim, 'And I shall bless them,' some liturgical innovators sought to expand upon and/or elucidate the precise sense of the wording of the Priestly Blessing, as well as to enhance concentration upon that word. And hence each word of the Priestly Blessing was endowed with an appropriate biblical verse, generally commencing with that same word.

The Art Scroll's caution against reciting it is so that one does not interrupt the biblical phrase with an extraneous verse.

Q. What is the significance of eating pomegranets at Rosh Hashanah?

A. Pomegranate is one of the shivat ha-minim, the seven fruits with which Israel is blessed. Its composition of numerous seeds also reflects our desire - sheyarbu zechuyyoteinu - that our merit should multiply at this time.

Q. If a deceased is buried in the evening on the day of death i.e. after Maariv, is the mourner required to don Tefillin the next morning i.e is this counted as the first day?

A. This is an interesting and unresolved issue, with some authorities (eg Mishnah Berurah 38:16) forbidding the wearing, and others (such as Ba'er Heitev) requiring it. We steer a middle course and prescribe the wearing in private, but without the recitation of any blessings.

Q. Being called up to the Tochechoh is often jokingly considered to be a bit of a downer for the guy who's given that aliya. But in reality, isn't ANY part of the Torah as important as any other and should it therefore not carry the same degree of decorum? Similarly, being called to the Aseres Hadibros should carry the same z'chus as any other Aliyah, no … ?

A. Human nature is the factor here. In principle you are right. We cannot rank some parts of the Torah as more or less important. Indeed the Talmud states that the names of the two stopping places in the wilderness, Umimatanah Nachliel, have the same sanctity as any other phrase. However, ancient superstition, rooted in the fear of 'opening one's mouth to Satan' - i.e. that the mere utterance of a curse has a contagious efficacy - has meant that people objected to being discriminated against by being called up to such a fearful topic.

With the Aseret Ha-Dibrot it is the same, albeit converse, logic. Although, as we have said, the passage is no more 'sacred' than any other, yet it was always deemed a great honour to be called to that passage, which Hertz refers to as 'Divine epitome of the fundamentals of Israel's creed and life.' Implicit in that call-up was the recognition that the person was perceived as a role model and a person of spiritual rank whose standing in the community merited that honour.

We should not forget that there are other Torah honours, such as calling up a Kohein and Levi - also men of spiritual status - first (or last), calling up a Rabbi to Shelishi, and, of course, the honours given to the Chatanim on Simchat Torah.

Q. If a washing machine is put on the highest rinse cycle between washes, could it be used for both meat and milk (separately)?

A. I assume you meant 'dish washer.' As I am not au fait with the technicalities of the workings of dishwashers and the composition of the materials with which they are made, I reverted to a Dayan of the London Bet Din. His response was that they do not permit the alternating of milchig and fleishig cycles. There is a fear that a member of the household might be unaware which category of contents are currently in the washer, and mix up the crockery or cutlery.

Secondly, the total effectiveness of the cleaning process, from a halachic point of view, is by no means certain. We cannot be sure, for example, that, by putting it through an intervening cycle, absolutely every single particle of residual meaty fat is removed from the filters. Occasionally the temperature varies between the cycles, which might also be problematic for the total removal of balu'a, absorbed flavours.

Q. When making Kiddush, some people hold the becher cupped in their hand rather than holding by the side. What is the reason? Is it Halacha?

A. This practice probably arose as an attempt to convey the notion of God's 'open hand.' This is referred to in the Grace After Meals: Ki im leyadkha … ha-petuchah. Wine is a symbol of the abundance of divine blessing, bestowed generously - with an open hand.

Q. Why do we have to keep silent between washing our hands and Hamotzi?

A. The washing is preparatory to the essential mitzvah, which is the eating of the bread. We wash in order to re-create the ancient Temple ritual where the priests had to eat their terumah in a state of purity. The table is a symbol of the altar, so when we eat our bread we recall the Temple situation by means of a ritual purification washing.

If we spoke after washing, it would break the essential unity of the mitzvah, and the washing could then be construed as an ordinary act of washing for cleanliness. We retain the holistic character of the act by focusing, through silence, on the ultimate objective: the eating of the bread.