A Question of Jewish Law

October 19, 2016

Standing by my Brother …

Filed under: Jewish Law,Life Cycle,Prayers and Blessings — chaimweiner @ 12:15 pm

Question: Is it permitted to call two siblings, or a parent and a child, one after the other to the Torah?


Answer: When reading the Torah in public it is the custom to divide the Torah reading into sections and to call different people to read. The number of people who are called up depends on the day. On a regular weekday 3 people are called, on Rosh Hodesh – 4, on Yom Tov – 5, on Yom Kippur 6 and on Shabbat 7. There is also a custom not to call close relatives one after the other. This restriction can make it difficult when there is a family event, such as a Bar or Bat Mitzvah.

The Shulchan Aruch states: Two brothers are allowed to read from the Torah one after the other, and a son after his father, but we do not permit this because of the “evil eye”. Even if one [brother] is called for the 7th Aliya and the other [brother] for Maftir, the second brother should not read because of the evil eye. [OH 141:6]

From this, we see that in principle it is permitted for family members to be called one after the other, but we do not allow it because of superstition. Two members of the same family standing next to each other on the Bimah was considered dangerous and in previous generations, this was a serious consideration. The modern equivalent is the custom of some families not to fly together on the same aircraft in case there is a crash.

Is there any way around this restriction? What if a person says that they are not superstitious and not concerned about the evil eye? Rabbi Chaim Benbenishti (Izmir, 17th Cent.) rules that if a person says that he is not concerned about the ‘evil eye’ we try to dissuade him. [Knesset Hagdolah ad loc.]. From this, we understand that we do not usually allow individual preferences to override communal customs.

There are other approaches, based on the idea that it is sometimes possible to confuse the ‘evil eye’ and reduce the risk. Aaron Samuel ben Israel Kaidanover, (Belarus, 17th Cent.) writes that we are only concerned in a place where they call people to the Torah by name. [Emunat Shmuel 47] However, in a community where names aren’t used, we need not be concerned. [Note: Many communities call people to the Torah simply as ‘Rishon’, ‘Sheini’ without using personal names.)  R. Yakov Shalom Sofer [Budapest, 19th Cent.] writes that it is permitted to call two brothers one after the other in a place where the first brother goes down from the bimah before the second comes up, so that they are not standing next to each other at the same time. [Torat Chaim 141:4]

Another approach is to increase the metaphorical distance between the two siblings and thus decrease the risk. They allow one brother to be called for the seventh reading and the other for Maftir because a Kaddish is recited between the two. Others, such a Yosef Caro quoted above, feel that this not enough of a break, but they would allow two brothers to be called where the second reading is from a separate Torah scroll. This is the case on the High Holydays and festivals. Still, others are more lenient on Simchat Torah, where many people are being called to the Torah. The feeling is that this reading is more of a celebration than a formal legal requirement.

From this, we can see that while there are some limited ways to increase the number of members of the same family who can be called up, the Rabbis were very reticent to reject the prohibition or enable an easy way to get around it.

Many of us are uncomfortable with such superstitious ideas and would happily ignore this rule. It could be that in the past the Rabbis were more superstitious than we are and therefore less inclined to compromise. It could also be that the Rabbis intuitively felt that one family should never be allowed to dominate the public space. Even on our special occasions, the Bimah belongs to the whole community, and families need to respect that.


Rabbi Chaim Weiner

Tishre 5777

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January 28, 2016

30 – Father of Many Nations

Filed under: Conversion,Jewish Law,Life Cycle,Marriage and Divorce — chaimweiner @ 10:17 am

Question: What is the proper way to refer to a convert when called to the Torah?

Answer: The use of family names is a late phenomenon.  Since many people share the same name, to avoid confusion the custom is to refer to a person together with the name of their father.  This is the case when a person’s father is a Jew.  A person who converts to Judaism is seen as one who has been born again.  Therefore, we no longer link them back to their biological parents.

The earliest evidence we have for the naming of converts comes from headstones found in ancient cemeteries.  From these we know a large number of names dating from the Second Temple period, including several people who were referred to by the title ‘HaGer’, meaning ‘the convert’. This is also the case in early rabbinic literature. One of the early translations of the Bible to Greek was done by Akilas HaGerYehuda ben Gerim was a student of Rabbi Yohanan.  One of the leaders of the rebels in the Great War against Rome was Shimon Bar Giyora, which derives from the word HaGer.  Even if the use of ‘HaGer’ was not universal it was certainly not uncommon.

The use of the word HaGer continues into the Middle Ages.  However, starting from the 11th century we find converts being referred to as ‘Ben Avraham’ or ‘Ben Avraham Avinu’.  Two different explanations are given. Gershom ben Yakov HaGozer, a Mohel  [13th century, Germany] writes that when naming the child of a convert, the child should be referred to as ‘Ben Avraham’ because Abraham was the first convert to Judaism. Rabeinu  Asher [14 century, Germany and Spain] writes that when recording the name of a convert in a GET he is referred to as ‘Ben Avraham’ because Abraham was blessed by God as the father of many nations.  There are many other halachic authorities who rule that the proper way to refer to a convert is ‘Ben Avraham’.

There are also authorities who say that a convert should be referred to as ‘Ben Avraham Avinu’.  Rabbi Alexander HaKohen, [15th century, Germany] an expert on Gittin, writes that one should refer to a convert by the name of ‘Avraham Avinu’ and not just ‘Avraham’ in order not to mislead.  Joseph Karo in the Shulchan Aruch rules that in a GET, the title ‘Avraham Avinu’ should be used.  The use of Avraham Avinu is prevalent since the 17th century.

In recent years there are those who have opposed the use of a special name for converts, pointing out that it is forbidden to shame a convert by reminding them of their former life.  However, historically the title ‘convert’ was not seen as a derogatory title. No one felt that the need to hide the fact that they had converted.

Following historical precedent, the correct way to refer to a convert is either ‘HaGer’, ‘Ben Avraham’ or ‘Ben Avraham Avinu’.  In communities where both father’s and mother’s names are used, it is appropriate to refer to both Abraham and Sarah.

In the case where a child’s father is Jewish, there is no reason not to refer to his biological father.  Also, an adopted child should be referred to by his adoptive parents’ names.  This follows the halachic principle that a person who raises a child assumes the status of a parent.

Rabbi Chaim Weiner

Shevat 5776

Based on ‘What is the Proper Way to Refer to the Parents of a Convert?’

Responsa in a Moment 10:4  – Rabbi David Golinkin.

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February 2, 2011

To Include Or Exclude?

Filed under: Life Cycle — chaimweiner @ 4:01 pm

Question: Can a child who has not been circumcised have a Bar Mitzvah?

Answer: There is no doubt that, according to Jewish law, status is automatically conferred from mother to child, and that a child is considered Jewish solely by virtue of his or her birth. A Brit does not make a child Jewish, and the lack of Brit Milah has no impact on a child’s status. Not fulfilling the Mitzvah of Brit is no different from not keeping kosher or not observing Shabbat. There is no inherent Halachic reason why an uncircumcised person should not be called to the Torah or be allowed a Bar Mitzvah or a Jewish wedding or any other Jewish activity. He is the same as anyone else who fails to keep aspects of Jewish law and who is not excluded from being called to the Torah.

However, based on their understanding of the circumstances, Rabbis do have the authority to introduce bans based on the Halachic concept of Lemigdar Milta – literally, ‘to erect a fence around the matter’. The Talmud [BT, Yevamot 90b] looks at the story of the prophet Elijah, who built an altar and offered sacrifices on Mount Carmel. This is strictly forbidden in Torah law, but the Talmud concludes that Elijah was allowed to do this in order to prevent the worshipping of idols in the community. This is proof that it is permitted to introduce practices to maintain and strengthen core principles of the Torah.

Following this principle a community may decide to regulate its practice – for example by limiting who can be called to the Torah or have access to other religious services, in order to defend the religious standards of the community. Historically, there have been many communities that have prevented uncircumcised men from reading from the Torah or getting married.  This was the practice of many Orthodox communities in Germany in the 19th century following the guidance of S. R. Hirsch and E. Hildisheimer. [See Rashan 67]

Although the Brit is a Mitzvah like all others, historically it has had a particular significance. From Hellenistic times there have been attempts to ban circumcision and Jews have given their lives to preserve their right to maintain the practice. Communities have understood that the neglect of  this Mitzvah has more serious implications for Jewish identity than the neglect of other Mitzvot. Consequently, the Brit is one of the most widely observed of Jewish practices.

Erecting a communal fence only makes sense if it is likely to achieve its purpose. Rabbis and community leaders need to judge whether introducing such a ban is worthwhile. To be effective, synagogues need to work together so that they do not undermine each other.

In an open society, where people have a choice of which community (if any) they choose to join, it is unlikely that coercive tactics will lead to an increase in observance. In most cases, communal bans only push people away from the Jewish community. Therefore, today most communities follow the basic letter of the law – and allow Bar Mitzvahs and weddings to all.

Rabbi Chaim Weiner

Based on R. DZ Hoffman, Melamed Leho’il, YD (Section 2) 79

November 18, 2010

A Jewish Mother

Filed under: Life Cycle — chaimweiner @ 12:12 am

Question: It is well known that in Jewish law a child inherits its religious status from its mother. What is the status of a child who was born as the result of an egg donation, where the birth mother was Jewish, but the egg donor was not?

Answer: As medical techniques that enable egg donation are fairly recent, there are no direct precedents to this situation in classical rabbinic sources. There are however two possible sources to guide us in our thinking – one in the Midrash and one in the Halachic sources.

Midrash: The Torah describes Dinah as the ‘daughter of Leah’ [Gen. 30:21]. Following normal usage, we would have expected the Torah to refer to her as the ‘daughter of Jacob’. The Midrash [quoted in Targum Yonatan] explains that a pregnant Leah was carrying a male foetus, but wanted her sister Rachel to give birth to at least 2 of the 12 tribes of Israel. In a miraculous way, the male child in her womb was transferred to Rachel, and a female child was transferred from Rachel to her – and thus she gave birth to Dinah. Although the child was genetically Rachel’s daughter, she is known as the ‘daughter of Leah’ thus indicating that it is the birth mother, rather than the genetic mother that determines a child’s status.

Halacha: It is doubtful that a Midrash should be used to establish novel Halachic principles. The closest situation in the classic legal sources is a woman who converts while pregnant. In this case, the child was conceived to a non-Jewish mother, but was carried for part of the pregnancy by a Jewess. The Talmud [BT Yevamot 78a] states that when a pregnant woman converts, the child does not require an additional immersion after birth. Following this, the Shulchan Aruch [YD 168:6] rules that a child whose mother converts when pregnant, is Jewish. This indicates that it is the birth mother that determines a child’s Jewish status.

However, there is another possible interpretation of these sources. It is possible that in this case the child in the womb is not considered Jewish from birth – but rather the child was converted at the same time as its mother. If this is the case – without conversion the child would not be Jewish, and it was the genetic mother who determined the child’s status! We therefore require further clarification before we can confidently rule on this matter.

There is one further discussion in the Talmud that comes to our aid. In tractate Yevamot [BT 97b], the Talmud asserts that if a mother converts while carrying twins, the babies are siblings. Normally, a convert is considered to be ‘born again’ – and is not considered in Jewish law to be related to his natural siblings. The fact that the twins are considered to be siblings shows us that they are Jewish from birth and not by conversion. Thus – it is the birth mother who determines status in Jewish law.

Modern medicine raises many challenges to traditional legal systems. Although the roots of Jewish law are many centuries old – the principles transcend time and enable us to meet the challenges of a new age.

Rabbi Chaim Weiner

Based on: Artificial Insemination, Egg donation and Adoption, Eliot Dorff CJLS 1994

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July 7, 2010

The Big Bar/Bat Mitzvah Celebration

Filed under: Life Cycle — chaimweiner @ 3:47 pm

Question: Is there a religious obligation to celebrate a Bar Mitzvah? If so, is there the same obligation to celebrate a Bat Mitzvah.

Answer: The Talmud [BT Kiddushin 31a] tells a story about Rav Yossef, who was blind. There is a discussion amongst the rabbis whether blind people are obligated to observe the Mitzvot – and R. Judah  declared that they are exempt. According to the story, Rav Yossef says that when he first heard that the Halacha followed R. Judah (and that he was exempt) he wanted to make a big celebration for the Rabbis. He observed the commandments – and was sure that his reward for observing them, in spite of being exempt, would be great. Then he heard the teaching of R. Haninah the Great, who stated that “One who is obligated and observes is greater than one who is exempt and observes”. Therefore, when he heard that the Halacha didn’t follow R. Judah (and he was obligated), he wanted to make a big celebration for the Rabbis.

We learn from this story that being obligated to observe God’s commandments is a worthy cause for celebration. Based on this, Rabbi Shlomo Luria [16th century, Lithuania] rules that a Bar Mitzvah meal counts as a Seudat Mitzvah. Logically, there should be no difference between boys and girls . Just as we celebrate when our sons reach the age of commandments, so we should celebrate when our daughters do so.

In spite of this, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, a leading authority of 20th century Orthodoxy, (USA) wrote that there is no particular merit in celebrating a Bat Mitzvah. A Bat Mitzvah is no different from any other birthday. When questioned, he later explained that that there is a difference between a Bar Mitzvah and a Bat Mitzvah. The mitzvot that the boy observes are public in nature. From the time of Bar Mitzvah a boy is counted in the minyan, is called to the Torah and reads the haftarah. When a girl becomes Bat Mitzvah the differences are all private. Therefore, there is no obligation for a public celebration.

This opinion was rejected by most other authorities. Of particular note are the words of Rabbi Yechiel Weinberg (20th century, Lithuania / Switzerland) (Seredai Aish 3,93). After showing that it is proper to celebrate a Bat Mitzvah he adds: “The intention of those who celebrate a Bat Mitzvah is to celebrate that their daughters have reached the age of commandments. This is a worthy purpose .… Those who oppose this practice, on the grounds that it is a recent innovation … are mistaken. In previous generations we had no need to publicly educate our daughters – girls were educated in the home, where they learned the fear of the Lord and proper conduct. In our generation the world has changed. The surrounding environment poses a huge challenge to our daughters’ commitment … both common sense and pedagogical principles say we must also celebrate when a girl reaches the age of Mitzvot, and that any discrimination between girls and boys is deeply hurtful.”

In our days the celebration of a Bat Mitzvah is a custom widely practiced throughout the Jewish world. May we see many such celebrations, and may we merit seeing our children grow in their commitments and obligations.

Rabbi Chaim Weiner

Based on R. Ovadia Yossef, Yachve Da’at,  2, 29.

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