• Home
  • Parashah Insights
  • Ask the Rabbi
  • Festivals & Fasts
  • Articles
  • Books
  • About

    Ghosts – Ask the Rabbi

    July 31st, 2016

    Q. Does Judaism believe in ghosts?

    GhostbustersA. Despite suggestions to the contrary, the answer is No.

    This applies regardless of whether the living try to summon up the ghost or whether the ghost appears on its own initiative.

    The Jewish belief as summed up by Maimonides (Guide 3:46) is that when you die, your body is buried and your soul returns to God (however, Nachmanides is more inclined to think that in the afterlife, people have both bodies and souls).

    In Maimonides’ view, your soul is immortal but as it has no longer has a body, it can only “appear” in a spiritual or metaphorical way.

    Joseph was unable to sin once he saw the d’mut d’yukno shel aviv, “the appearance of his father” (Rashi on Gen. 39:11, based on Sotah 36b). The thought of his father Jacob came into his mind and steeled his conscience. His father had taught him morality and courage, and as his father’s son he could strengthen himself against sin.

    Many people ask themselves, ”What would my father or mother think (or say)?” and have a strong feeling of how the parent would handle a specific situation.

    In folklore there are references to spirits and demons, but the rationalist tradition deny that they have any authentic physical shape, form or presence.

    The Torah forbids enquiring to or of the dead (Deut, 18:11), though some say that communicating with the dead is not impossible though it is forbidden. Maimonides regards such communication as witchcraft and pagan.

    It is true that the Bible reports contacts with the dead, e.g. King Saul using the Witch of En-Dor to summon the deceased judge Samuel (I Sam. 28), but whilst Chai Ga’on thought this was a one-of-a-kind miracle, Shmuel ben Chofni Ga’on said the witch was an imposter who fooled Saul.

    Roaming ghosts figure in many traditions, but the stories are generally dismissed as imagination.

    Even Australia has Jewish ghost stories such as Abraham Davis of Broome, who (a tall bearded figure wearing a tallit) haunted his former house when it became the home of an Anglican bishop. After 1957 when the house was demolished there were no further sightings of the ghost.

    Words are precious – Mattot

    July 31st, 2016

    quiet silenceParashat Mattot opens (Num. 30:3) with a person making a vow or swearing an oath.

    Both teach the lesson of being careful with one’s words. If you utter a vow or oath you must be certain you know what you are doing and not just scatter your words to the four winds. It is better to remain silent than to say something you haven’t thought out properly.

    Actually, remaining silent is good advice at all times. I knew of a senior lawyer who was a member of a community board and hardly ever opened his mouth at meetings. When he did speak it was only because he had something significant to say, and even then he was brief and to the point. Realising that his words were golden, the board sat up and took notice.

    In contrast there was a communal organisation of which I was the president for a time, and unfortunately there were a few people around the table who constantly spoke very volubly. As chairman of the meetings I waited until they stopped for breath and then firmly interposed, “Well, thank you Mrs… Now let’s move on to the next item!”

    If words in general require great care and deliberation, vows especially do. Their consequences are so severe that one must be warned.

    The Torah says (Deut. 23:23) that not vowing is no sin; Kohelet says (Eccl. 5:4) that it is better not to vow than to vow and not fulfil.

    The Erev Yom Kippur Kol Nidre is an annual admonition to hold back from making vows, even if you really mean every word at the time.

    Speaking to the leaders – Mattot

    July 31st, 2016

    Moses Children of IsraelMoses expounds the laws of vows “to the heads of the tribes of the Children of Israel” (Num. 30:2).

    We are surprised that this seems a rather limited declaration addressed to the leaders rather than a general proclamation to the people as a whole.

    One possible explanation is that this was a sort of ancient microphone. Moses did not have a loud enough voice to be heard by the whole assemblage of Israel, so he gathered the tribal leaders and gave them the message. Each leader then did the same to the elders of their own tribes, and in this way Moses’ words were imparted, published and promulgated amongst the whole Israelite camp.

    This method was not limited to this specific subject but was utilised for all of Moses’ div’rei Torah.

    The Ramban (Nachmanides), on the other hand, explains the procedure as intended for quite a different purpose. It was not that the people had no right to know this particular set of laws, but if the laws had been proclaimed in their entirety to the whole people there would have been questions, grumbles and complaints, and most people would have misunderstood.

    Laws which give a father power to annul some of the vows uttered by a daughter are an example. Power in a husband to annul some of his wife’s vows is another instance. There needed to be a more nuanced way of explaining the Torah system of vows and vowing.

    The leaders knew their people and could couch the message in terms appropriate to their audience.

    Where I stopped – Mass’ei

    July 31st, 2016

    trainParashat Mass’ei – which describes the journeys and stopping places of the Children of Israel in the wilderness – reminds me of an early stage in my career when I was Religious Director of the Association for Jewish Youth in Britain.

    I travelled all over the British Isles, mostly by train. Luton, Letchworth, Leicester, I visited youth clubs in all these and many other places. What I hardly ever saw was the place itself.

    Yes, I got to the railway station, was met there and taken to the club, eventually got back to the station and took the last train back to London. Sometimes I fell asleep in the train and woke up with a start at Paddington or St. Pancras.

    In later years I sometimes revisited the cities I had been to in my AJY days, but this time I didn’t see much of the city either. I was there as a tourist and went where the tour guides took us. Did I discover who the local people were, how they lived, what happened there in historic times, what was worth knowing about their way of life? Rarely.

    That’s why every year when we read Parashat Mass’ei I am annoyed with myself. That’s why when the commentators elaborate on the Israelites’ stopping places they remind us of what happened in each place.

    That’s why when one takes a tour it’s often best not to follow the organised program but to wander and watch. The things to see and remember are not the town halls, public buildings and statues, but the people.

    The lineage of Pinchas

    July 24th, 2016

    pinchasMany people populate the Torah text, but not all are introduced like Pinchas with a family tree. We learn about Pinchas that he was “the son of Elazar (who was) the son of Aaron the kohen”.

    The fact that Pinchas was a kohen is certainly relevant to the story, since before long we learn that though he did an unpriestly thing by killing an offender, his k’hunah was not stripped away. But why do we need to know about his relationship with Elazar and Aaron?

    Rashi’s theory is that people were gossiping about him and drawing attention to various unsavoury things in his family background, suggesting that there was a streak of violence in the family. In this situation it was necessary to silence the gossip-mongers and restore Pinchas’ reputation as a grandson of Aaron.

    What this adds to the story can be filled in if we remember that Aaron was the supreme peace-maker, “loving peace and pursuing peace”.

    Peace is a supreme ideal, but not at any price. Not even for the sake of a quiet, peaceful camp could Pinchas – despite his Aaronic descent – allow moral evil to go unchecked.

    It might have seemed out of character for a grandson of Aaron to resort to violence when an intolerable act was committed, but the story tells us that there are limits to peace.