Monthly Archives: September 2012

Kavod Habrios as a Halachic Ideal

Guest Post by Daniel Kahn

The centrality of kavod habriot in the Jewish legal tradition may be traced throughout the writings of generations of torah scholars, and has led to magnificent decisions on the normative plane. As Orthodox Jews, this halachic concept influences our actions on a daily basis.

A discussion of the topic must begin with defining semantics. The Hebrew word “kavod” is loosely translated as respect. Overall respect can be categorized into 2 categories: honor, a respect based on position, and dignity, a respect based on the divine image that is contained in every individual who makes up the “briyot”, or the created.

In Parshas Shoftim, we receive the commandment to go to war under certain circumstances, as well as some of the rules related to taking such action. The Torah enumerates exemptions to potential fighters who find themselves in unique situations, such as the newly married, one who has just completed building a home, or one who has planted a vineyard. In addition to these exemptions, the Torah includes in this list  the fearful and soft-hearted as well.

The Sifre brings the opinion of Rav Yochanan Ben Zakai who says that each one of the exemptions except for the last category requires witnesses in order to prove entitlement. He continues to explain that the only reason the Torah exempted them is for the sake of the fearful. If  a faint hearted person would be seen walking the streets peacefully while his brothers are at battle, he would become embarrassed. The Torah therefore included additional opportunities for exemptions so that he would not be forced to walk the streets alone, but would rather be among others staying home. The frightened are also not required to bring character witnesses to prove they have fearful dispositions, thereby minimizing any publicity and potential embarrassment.

In the Mechilta, Rav Yochanan Ben Zakai is mentioned as well in the context of the compensation a thief must remunerate to the victim of his robbery. Rav Yochanan is quoted in relation to the law that when one steals an ox and either sells or slaughters it he must pay 5 times the value of the principle object, in contrast to when the object of the theft is a sheep, wherein he only pays 4 times the value. He explains that really the payment for theft of either animal should be equal, yet the Torah felt bad for the thief of the sheep who would have to walk around with a sheep on his back (an embarrassing situation), as opposed to the thief of an ox, who could lead the animal by a rope.

In these two midrashei halacha we see the power of kavod habrios and the lengths the Torah goes in order to maintain its prominence.

What does this mean for us on a practical level?

Rav Ovadiah Yosef was once asked the following question by a baalas teshuva (someone who “returns” to God) who had given birth to her first son:  Her husband assumed the child required a pidyon haben, a ‘redemption of the first born child’. However, unbeknownst to her husband, the questioner had an abortion years earlier, which meant that halachically she did not actually require a pidyon haben. She wanted to know if  she could proceed with a fake ceremony because she did not want to tell her husband about certain aspects of her past.

Rav Ovadiah allowed her to keep the matter concealed, and they performed the ceremony with the brocha despite the fact that it would apparently be a bracha levatala (a blessing for no reason). In response to such concern, Rav Ovadiah writes that “gadol kavod habrios shedochech lo saaseh beTorah” clearly trumps a saying a bracha levatala, an offence he considers to be on the rabbinic level.

Additionally, I have seen in a book on the customs and practices of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik recorded by Rabbi Reuven Ziegler that when a baal korei will become embarrassed by being corrected in front of the whole khal during laining, it best to abstain from such because of the severity of the issue.

It is clear then that kavod habriyot, which has truly led to magnificent rulings on the normative plane, should be considered a practical and important halachic ideal in our day to day lives.

–Daniel is a law student in Bar Ilan University

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Must I Wear a Hat?

“When will you wear a hat?” My Chavruta (learning partner) asked.

He was a young Israeli rabbi, and we had become quite friendly over the months that we had been learning together. While the question could be understood as coming from a ‘holier than thou’ perspective, I do not think it was. He was my friend, and he wanted me to wear a hat, because he wanted me to do what he thought was right.

I understood this, so I answered without insult or malice.“When I find out that it’s halakha (Jewish law), I’ll wear one.”

“Really?” His eyes glimmered. He thought he had me.

I have to be clear with you, I was already fairly certain it was not mandated by Jewish law to wear a hat, because while my father wanted me to wear a hat when I turned 13 (it’s a Rav Soloveitchik thing), he never really got into the issue with me, or told me that it was halakha1. Mostly because it’s not. But my friend thought that it was, and he got a Mishna Berura (written by the saintly Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan) to prove it.

I don’t remember the specific placement anymore (perhaps someone could provide it in a comment), but if my memory serves Rabbi Kagan’s ruling was that while praying (and especially while reciting the blessing after meals) one must wear a hat, since we wear hats in the street. Being that while in public we dress with a certain level of respect for those around us, how can we dress in a less respectable manner before God Himself?

I agreed with this logic. I think we should dress respectably to pray, don’t you?

“But I don’t wear a hat in the street…” I countered. Rabbi Kagan was clear. If wearing a hat is part of dressing in a respectful manner, then we should wear one to pray. But if it is not part of dressing respectably, then it is no longer relevant!

“So what?” my friend countered back. “It’s the halakha!”

“But he made it dependent on the reason!”

“Maybe it was dependent on the reason then; but now, it is halakha.”

I shrugged, and that was that. We had finished our learning for the day, and I went home.

It seems to me that my friend was advocating a position where anything that was ever done as a part of Jewish law or life in the past must be kept even when the reason no longer applies. In his opinion, this would apply not only to laws from the Sages (who themselves argued about this point), but seemingly to every custom or law ever made, like the law of wearing a hat to pray, which was declared based on a reasoning that no longer applies today.

Certainly, this point is not intuitive, and the rabbis I consider my teachers have not advocated this position. I think the onus is not on me, but on my old friend, to prove that Jewish law and custom really do travel through history like fly-paper, so that while we may add, nothing can be taken off.



1-Though if you actually want to know my father’s position on the matter, you will simply have to ask him. I may have wildly misunderstood him, and I cannot take responsibility for representing his opinion on this or any other matter, in fact.


Filed under Miscellaneous

Equality Before God

I wrote this for Elana Sharp’s weekly Dvar Torah email list. Contact me if you’d like to be added.

In the beginning of Netzavim, we are given a list of the people “standing” before God, about to enter the covenant with Him. This list includes all elements of Jewish society, starting with “Your heads…every man in Israel:” and “Your children, your wives, and the stranger who lives in your midst…” (Deut. 29:9-10).

In sum, all of the people are present before God, “from your wood-choppers to your drawers of water”.

Now, isn’t that an odd way to summarize that everyone is present, to say from wood-choppers to drawers of water? Wouldn’t you say from the “heads of the people” to the drawers of water, or from the wood-choppers to the elders? Why does the Torah choose as examples two kinds of people who are most likely in the same rung of society, and a relatively low one at that!?

The answer is quite simple, and provides for us a great lesson in Judaism: Before God, there are no social classes, only servants who equally stand before Him.

Indeed, we are taught that all levels of society were present to enter the covenant, and that is important to note, so that we can understand that truly everyone was there. However, the Torah summarizes what “everyone” is for us: from the wood-choppers to the drawers of water, we are all equal before God, and “anyone” may be considered “everyone”.

This means that we each have the equal responsibility to serve God, and that no one may look to another level of society, higher or lower, to serve God for them. As individuals we are each obligated completely in this regard.

Of course, on the flip side, we see that we all receive equal credit for accepting the yoke of the Mitzvot upon ourselves, and we should not think that there will be someone else who has a greater standing before God than we do.

In this time of year, it is particularly relevant to remember that we are all standing before God, in a covenant with Him, so that we may focus on what is required of each of us.

Shabbat Shalom, and Shana Tova!


In Parshat Bea’alotekha a similar point is made, when Joshua runs to Moses and tells him that Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp (Num. 11:26-29). Joshua tells Moses “Kela’em”, which is translated variously as “stop them”, “imprison them” (Rashi), or “Kill them”. Moses, however, responds to his student “Are you jealous on my behalf? Would that all of the people would be prophets, and God would place His spirit on them!”

Not that Joshua was necessarily against the idea that all Jews should be prophets. Indeed, the traditional interpretation was that Eldad and Medad were prophesying that Moses was going to die and Joshua would take over, and this offended Joshua, who was jealous of the honor of his teacher. Presumably, we are taught this interpretation because the Rabbis assume that indeed, of course it would be good if all of the people would be prophets.



Filed under Parshah

Will Keeping the Mitzvot Really Build the 3rd Temple?

Twice in the past few weeks, I have come across the same message from “Chabad In the Cardo”, which goes as follows:

“Help Build the 3rd Bais Hamikdash…By Doing Acts of Goodness & Kindness”

What exactly is the meaning of this statement?

I believe Chabad in the Cardo is implying that by being nice to people (an important Mitzvah, ask Hillel or Rabbi Akiva), we may literally cause the 3rd Temple to be built. Lest you be fooled into thinking that being nice to others is merely conducive to the kind of constructioni that occurs in a natural manner (Bob the Builder style), the sign comes with a picture, akin to Ikea instructions. In fact, this picture tells us, if we are goodii and keep the mitzvot the Temple will come down ready-made from heaven!


But is such a thing really possible?

This belief, which is extraordinarily popular in our community, may be found in many important classical sourcesiii. Despite this, Rambamiv rejects this belief completely, because there’s no way Mitzvot could have anything to do with the spiritually enchanted appearance of a building-even the Temple- from the sky. In fact, not only is this view untrue in his opinion, but it may be a damaging one, as we will show later on.

There are two reasons Rambam rejects the idea that mitzvot could have magical powers, both of which are explained in Menachem Kellner’s fantastic book ‘Maimonides’ Confrontation with Mysticism’ v.

1) It is logically simpler to explain that mitzvot are not mystically endowed with powers, or do not have special inherent qualities, than to say that they do. Rambam prefers the simplest solution available when answering a question.

We may see his philosophical preference for simplicity when he says that “species and the other universals are…mental notions and that every existent outside the mind is an individual or group of

Why consider species and universals nothing more than categories man has thought of? Because Maimonides, Kellner explains, holds that we shouldn’t suggest a complex answer when a simpler one is available. In our case, this translates into rejecting the belief that mitzvot have qualities that are inherent, essential, or existential to them.

2) Rambam believes that God is “…One to whose unity there is no comparison…in the universe…His power is infinite….and the knowledge of this Monotheism is a mandatory commandment”vii. Because God is completely unique and alone in the heavens, there must not be any magic to affect or control Him. Furthermore, since it’s impossible for mitzvot to share a quality with God, it’s impossible that they are inherently holy or powerful in the way that God is.

For these two reasons, we may see that Rambam constantly demystifies the mitzvotviii, explaining them in historical and philosophical contexts that disagree with the idea that mitzvot have any inherent qualities, let alone the ability to build the Temple.

Rather than explain that they are spiritually mystical rituals that affect the universe or our souls, Rambam explains that every mitzvah “exists either with a view to communicating a correct opinion, or to putting an end to an unhealthy opinion, or to communicating a rule of justice, or to endowing men with a noble moral quality…”ix. They bring us to be “occupied with” Godx, and are “the path of wisdom” which we follow because “it is true”xi. But these are all completely natural elements of the world, and there’s nothing supernatural, mystical, or magical about any of the goals of the Mitzvot.

In contrast, the statement that by doing acts of kindness we will rebuild the Temple implies that the mitzvot have the spiritual magical ability to build something, or to force heaven to build it! Rambam completely rejects this notion, since it contradicts his principle of God’s unity and uniqueness, as well as his philosophical doctrine that the simplest solution should be preferred.

In his view, all buildings must be built in completely natural ways, including the Temple. The Messianic process will be a completely natural onexii, and indeed, we will be able to say that keeping the mitzvot allowed us to reach that point. This natural process of redemption and the building of the Temple is a good example of how the mitzvot work in his opinion. They are a challenge for us, and not a kind of spiritual mysticism with seemingly magical properties.

Even though we have great leaders who held an enchanted mystical view of the mitzvot, there are some dangers in seeing the world this way.

If we tell everyone that keeping the mitzvot will protect them, or spiritually cause physical changes in our world, they may stop keeping them if they come to the conclusion this does not work. Furthermore, the belief that mitzvot are to be kept because they have spiritual powers may also cause some of us to forget that though we may keep the mitzvot so that God should protect us, we should strive to keep them because we desire to serve Him.

Additionally, this “enchanted”xiii view of our religion encourages a rejection of science, objective cause and effectxiv, and the way that the world works generally, since it could cause people to they think they have an “in” of sorts with the rules of the universe, and may manipulate the physical world. And that will probably make Bill Nye very angry.

The Science Guy aside, Rambam holds that keeping the mitzvot cannot stave off cancer, build the Temple, or protect us from robbers. If we rely on supernatural means of protection we will each suffer the consequences.

However, if we keep the mitzvot for the reasons Rambam lists, we may be able to return the focus of the mitzvot to the service of God, striving for perfection, and helping each other reach these goals, without the damages of assuming the universe or our mitzvot will do it for us. If we do that, then indeed, perhaps we will soon hire a good contractor to build the Temple, or one will even volunteer.

iRashi on dor haflaga

iiFor example, say, by not shouting or crying, as one had better not.

iiiMidrash Tanchuma, Pekudei, sec. 11, Rashi Tractate Sukka 41a ‘Ee nami,’ BT Rosh Hashanah 30a ‘lo’, Tosafot BT Sukka 41a ‘Ee nami,’ BT Shevuot 15b ‘ein’,Ritva BT Sukka 41a. Hai Gaon lists lists this as a possibility but appears to find it more likely the resurrected dead will be the ones to rebuild the Temple. (cited in ‘Theology in the Responsa’ p.23, Louis Jacobs, Littman Library,2005)

ivHe relies on other sources in this particular matter (ie:how the temple will be built), such as JT Megillah 1:11, Pesahim 9:1, Leviticus Rabbah 9:6, and Bamidbar Rabbah, 13:2. This is also likely the opinion of his followers and later rationalists, but we’ll leave that unanswered for now. However, we can say with confidence that it is certainly not the opinion of any of the Aristotelian Rishonim (Ralbag being perhaps the most prominent among them), for the reasons we will provide, which should make sense according to any Aristotelian.

vLittman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2006 (Oxford), pp.11-15,33-42,59-65. Suffice it to say that this post was made possible by Kellner’s writings, which I am a big fan of.

viGuide for the Perplexed, 3:18

viiMishnah Torah, Yesodei Hatorah, 1:7

viiiAs well as pretty much else anything he can get his hands on. For example, see Shapiro, Marc B., ‘Maimonideian Halakha and Superstition’, pp.95-150, in his ‘Studies in Maimonides and His Interpreters (University of Scranton Press,2008)

ixGuide 3:31

xGuide 3:51

xiMT Teshuva, 10:2

xii MT Hilchot Melachim 11:1, Hilchot Beit Habechirah 1:12

xiii This is how Kellner refers to the world of Maimonides’ opponents throughout his writings.

xiv Not exactly what Hume was aiming for.


Filed under Kabbalah and Chassidus, Rationalism

You’re an Apikores!

One of my pet peeves is how much people throw around the term heresy in Orthodox Judaism. Why does this bother me? Because they have no idea what they’re talking about.

Fortunately for you, I was obsessed with the question of “what is Jewish heresy?” for some time, so I have done a lot of reading (for a layman) on the matter. Furthermore, I have been called a heretic, a kofer, and an apikores, you name it! So if you’re looking for someone with some personal experience in the area- you got the right guy.

Heresy, as it is generally understood in Judaism, is an idea or belief that deviates from dogma, or authoritative beliefs that must be held. To disagree with dogma means a person has broken with Judaism. There are a lot of arguments over why you cannot deviate from certain beliefs, but at any rate, that is the bottom line.

So, for instance, it is usually considered OK to have diverging opinions over whether or not the Red Sea split into two or 12, since this is not a question of dogma. However, whether or not the Torah is from heaven is the kind of argument that can legitimately lead to someone being called a heretic.

If we can prove that Judaism has a set of beliefs that qualify as “dogma”, than any beliefs or ideas that deviate from them are heresy. If we cannot prove it, we will have less success.

The most famous proposed set of Jewish dogmatic beliefs is the 13 principles of Maimonides, which includes things like proper beliefs about God, that Torah is from heaven, and that God will eventually resurrect the dead. Presumably, according to Maimonides, if you deviate from these beliefs you are a heretici.

Now you may say that the 13 principles are our dogma, and they are certainly the most popular candidate that I know of. But a lot of people will disagree with you, and Marc B. Shapiro wrote a book that is simply a list of accepted Orthodox scholars who disagree with the 13 principles. It’s not such a short book either.

Examples of principles that are disputed:

3)That God has no body:

I don’t know anyone myself who believes that God has a body, but Raavad, the most accepted rabbinic authority in France in his own lifetime, did. He writes in his critique of Hilkhot Teshuva 3:7 that people “greater than he (ie:Rambam)” believed God has a body. Ok, so maybe this one isn’t dogma.

6)Moses’s prophecy is the most superior:

Not so says the Ari and the Alter rebbe of Chabad, R. Shneur Zalman. Kabbalists have a better understanding (likutei amarim, ‘igeret hakodesh’, no. 19).

Also, Rav Yosef Albo and R. Tzvi Hirshy Chajes both hold the Messiah will have greater prophecy than Moses did.

7) Every verse of the Torah was given to Moses at Sinai.

Modern Orthodox readers should also be made aware that Rav Soloveitchik’s view (as reported in Nefesh harav) that Yehoshua wrote the last 8 verses of the Torah contradicts this principle. Of course, this opinion appears in the Talmud 3 times, and once in Sifrei.

According to Rambam, it is a mitzvah to hate and destroy anyone who disagrees with his principles. If you will read Shapiro’s book, you will see this list contains many of the Sages, so I would would recommend that you wait to act on this instruction until you have read the book thoroughly. It is called ‘The Limits of Orthodox Theology’, and it is published by the Littman Library on a print by demand basis.

I should add that according to most interpreters, Rambam would see the idea of Sefirot as encroaching on the unity of God, which is of course against his 13 principles. Again we see that kabbala is in hot water with him.

On the flip side, there are those who hold it is heresy to not accept the kabbala, but obviously Maimonides opposes this idea, as is made eminently clear in Kellner’s ‘Maimonides’ Confrontation with Mysticism.’ I can’t imagine a person reading this book and coming away with another idea.

So kabbala might be a moot point, despite the almost daily attempt to claim it is dogma.

I highly recommend every book I have listed here, and I encourage everyone to stop calling each other heretics until they at least peruse a few of them. Also recommended is Doniel Hartman’s ‘The boundaries of Judaism’ and Kellner’s ‘Must a Jew Believe Anything?’.

Kellner’s fantastic book ‘Dogma in Medieval Jewish Thought’ goes through several attempts at Jewish dogma in the two centuries following Rambam, and you can see there that at the very least, Judaism lacks an agreed upon set of beliefs, and even lacks an agreed upon definition of dogma!

In all this uncertainty, it appears that the norm has become to simply accept anyone who keeps the mitzvot as part of the team, an opinion Maimonides seems to vociferously oppose. At any rate, rationalists continue to daven with kabbalists, and in my experience, very few fights break out.

iI say presumably because Menachem Kellner holds this really only applies to the first 5 principles. He discusses this in his Dogma in Medieval Jewish Thought, mentions this in ‘Maimonides’ Confrontation with Mysticism’, and I believe he goes over this as well in his “Must a Jew Believe Anything?’. All are published by the Littman Library.


Filed under Kabbalah and Chassidus, Miscellaneous, Rationalism