Stanmore and Canons Park Synagogue
Stanmore and Canons Park Synagogue

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     Rabbi Mendel Lew    Rabbi Dr Jeffrey M Cohen

Ask the Rabbi is an archive of questions asked by menbers of the community over the years, and answered by Rabbi Dr. Jeffrey Cohen (R) and Rabbi Mendel Lew (L).

Rabbi Mendel Lew …

Q. My cousin has asked me if I would take the Pideon Haben service for his first born. I am not a Cohen however, I have read that a man who is married to a Bat Cohen can undertake to redeem the child. Can you confirm if this is indeed permitted as my wife is the daughter of a Cohen (I would be very honoured if it was allowed!!).

A. I'm afraid that only a true Kohen may perform a Pidyon Haben. No one else qualifies.

What is interesting is that various codifiers have explored whether a Kohen's wife may perform the ceremony. They conclude that in exceptional circumstances she may be permitted to do so, but that no Bracha can be recited and, significantly, the ceremony must be performed a second time when a Kohen becomes available. But a Kohen's daughter does not qualify, and her non-Kohen husband most certainly does not. I can recommend a number of good, qualified, Kohanim from our community!

Q. I am re threading my Tallit Tzitzit having realised they are not Kasher and want to know whether I just throw them or need to send them for burial.

A. If I understand you correctly, you are enquiring about disposal of the worn threads of the Tallit and not the Tallit itself. In truth, there is no difference as the threads are treated with equal sanctity to the Tallit and, as such, must be disposed of in the prescribed manner for sacred items, i.e. burial.

Q. Dear Rabbi, I think the new routine of making Kiddush on Shabbat morning in the Shul rather than upstairs in the hall is excellent - firstly everone can hear Kiddush being made and secondly the gentlemen keep their talesim on until after Kiddush is made - however I would love to know why you need to wear your hat to be able to make Kiddush?

A. I'm delighted that you are pleased with Kiddush being recited in Shul. I agree that more people can now hear Kiddush loud and clear.

As to why I insist on donning my hat at this point, allow me to illuminate on the subject of head covering in Jewish law. The Talmud [Shabbat: 156b] associates the covering of ones head to awe of Heaven (piety).

The Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) [Chapter 2] mentions the same. Hence the name Yarmulke, which is a combination of 2 Aramaic words YAREI and MALKA = Awe of the King. But awe evokes one of 2 reactions: 1) Fear. One is afraid of someone. 2) Deep respect. One is in awe of a great individual. Both of these emotions apply to G-d.

One should carry a degree of fear when one considers His immense and infinite power. At the same time, one should always be in awe and respect of His supreme being and how He rules over the universe.

Recognising these 2 feelings of awe explains why many men don two head coverings: a Yarmulke and a hat, particularly during prayer when one is intimately devoted to G-d. At Shacharit, many men place the Tallit over the head to serve as the extra head covering.

Kiddush on Shabbat morning takes place after the prayers have concluded. It is therefore inappropriate to have the Tallit still covering the head. On the other hand, the head ought to still have the two coverings in honour of Kiddush. Consequently, I place the hat on my head at this point!

Q. Dear Rabbi Lew, Many thanks for your very interesting answer - but this now leads to a further (2 part) question - does it therefore imply that those of us who only wear one head covering are (a) being disrespectful to The Almighty? and (b) that our prayers have less value?

A. An important component of a Jew's relationship with G-d is that of gradual and continuous self-improvement. As individuals, we are constantly striving to be better people towards those we love, our friends and the wider society.

Our relationship with the divine deserves nothing less. If anything, we ought to work even harder in this area. Thus, one will always find individuals choosing to be more observant and striving to be more committed. While this appears to create division between those that live this more virtuous lifestyle and those that choose not to, it is a misguided approach.

The decision of those that are elevating their spiritual experience should be admired and respected. When an individual chooses to don a hat in order to have two head coverings, that is an extra dimension of man's bond with G-d. But this most definitely does not negate the authenticity and purity of the one who chooses to wear only one head covering. The prayers of this individual are just as heartfelt and genuine as the one who has 2 coverings.

Q. In what circumstances is it permissible to blow the Shofar at the end of the Neilah service BEFORE the end of Yom Kippur, as happened in Shul some years?

A. I'm glad you raise the point as it allows us to better understand the role of the Shofar.

The primary reason for sounding the Shofar is that the service of Neilah has just drawn to a close. The precious time of Yom Kippur, when we feel intensely close to G-d, is over and G-d - in a manner of speaking - ascends back to heaven.

As with a human sovereign, we accompany this departure with the sound of a horn, a special one - the Shofar. The Shofar itself is not Muktzeh (something prohibited on Shabbat or Yom Tov) on account of the sound it produces. The reason for not sounding it on Rosh Hashanah that occurs on Shabbat is not related to the Shofar per se but to the possibility of carrying it into the street.

If not for this prohibition, the Shofar would be sounded ON SHABBAT, too! According to the Code of Jewish Law (Chapter 133, paragraph26) as long as the sun has already set, one can conclude Neilah and sound the Shofar, even if it is Shabbat! It is preferable to sound the Shofar at the correct time (after Neilah), even though the fast is not yet complete than to sound it after Ma'ariv, albeit the fast is over, for the reason already explained.

Q. During the Three Week's it is customary to be more stringent in our observance, In particular during the nine days where we refrain for particular normal habits such as the partaking of meat. As such could you please explain why it is necessary during this period of public mourning for there to be a Kiddush on Shabbos. It would never have been held by the previous generation.

A. While you are correct that the first nine days in the month of Menachem-Av are a time of great sadness (recalling the siege and destruction of Jerusalem and the holy temples) - which is marked by, among other things, a prohibition to consume meat - there is a notable exception to this rule.

Shabbat is a day of rest, but it is also a day of joy. On the verse "And in the day of your gladness …" [Numbers: 10.10] the Midrash (Sifri) explains this 'day of gladness' to be Shabbat. Echoing this thought, the Talmud (Yerushalmi, 5a) confirms that the joy of Shabbat is inherent in its divine makeup. Indeed, this special day has always been distinguished by its pleasure and joy. It is why there is no mourning on the Shabbat during a Shiva.

The Code of Jewish Law (122) is clear that on Shabbat of the 9 Days, the usual restrictions at this time are curtailed. Although there are different traditions relating to this particular Shabbat, it is clear that Shabbat's joyous character is still maintained. Holding a Kiddush is both an honour to Shabbat, as well as an opportunity for the community to come together in a spirit of unity. This would be an appropriate way to mark this crucial time in our calendar.

Q. A boy is born in Haifa - his mother is Sephardi and his father is Ashkenazi - what does that make him?

A. A Jew! That is the first and most important criteria. With regard to which tradition the child is obliged to follow, that is a question that must be addressed well before the child's arrival.

The real issue is when a man from an Ashkenazi background marries a woman of Sephardic background (and vice versa), whose tradition must be followed? Or can they each follow their own unique paths?

Answering the latter point first, they may not follow two different traditions. There must be no confusion and no ambiguity in the home. And the consensus is that the husband's tribal affiliation and customs take precedence.

There is, however, an important point to consider. The wife may continue any tradition that does not negatively impact on family life and harmony. She may, therefore, continue to pray in her accustomed Nusach, providing her husband does not object, and that it is done discreetly.

The child's religious future is determined according to the father. Even were the father to depart this life, the mother is obliged to raise the child in accordance with the father's traditions.

Rabbi Dr. Jeffrey 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.