Letters Dec 2006
Reader: What constitutes giving of charity? Does giving money to the poor, or to a street person asking for a handout, count? Does giving money to an organization like the Red Cross count?
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim: The Shulchan Aruch states that giving to other nations is categorized as part of Tzedaka, as a “path of peace”. So you may count that charity as part of your 20%. However, and this applies even to Jews, one must not give to a person who is a sinner, and has not repented. Of course this is difficult to assess, but based on the principle of “Judging your friend favorably”, we must not assume others sin with no reason. Furthermore, as a Rabbi once taught, we are not permitted to turn down any poor person’s request. But we need not give so much, since he or she asks of all people. Therefore, the obligation to “supply all he or she lacks”, does not fall squarely on any one individual; we may give a beggar 25 cents. But our giving in general is limited to 20% maximum. The only exceptions are multimillionaires, and those on their deathbed – both may disperse more than 20%.
Reader: If one is supposed to give 20%, is some degree of rounding acceptable? For example, if 20% of a paycheck turned out to be $228.328, should we round to the nearest cent, or can we round to the nearest dollar? I don’t mean to split hairs here; just want to make sure that I do it correctly.
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim: I would follow Maimonides’ teaching that the mitzvah of Tzedaka, more than all other positive commands, requires the most care. I would round “upwards”, to either a cent or a dollar, as you wish in each case. But make sure not to exceed 20% total on all profits of the year.
Reader: If I receive a settlement in an automobile accident that includes an amount over and above actual damages - an amount designed to make up for loss of time, pain and suffering, etc. - is that amount subject to charity?
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim: It seems to me that such a settlement is also profit, and would be subject to Tzedaka.
Reader: I work for a large firm. My paycheck is calculated something like this:
minus federal taxes
minus Social Security taxes
minus amount used to purchase company stock
minus my cost of elective benefits
minus a state tax
minus an amount set aside to pay for health care expenses with pre- tax dollars (this is elective)
minus my elective contribution to a 401(k) retirement plan
equals net pay.
I have been assuming that the correct amount on which to calculate charity is as follows:
minus federal taxes
minus Social Security taxes
minus state tax
minus my elective contribution to a 401(k) retirement plan (which I would presume to pay charity on once it is withdrawn)
equals net pay for the calculation of charity.
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim: Yes, that is correct.
Reader: Rabbi: Allow me to commend you on yet another excellent article, the one appearing this week entitled “Why the World was Created.” In the context of the article, twice you raised the issue of our Avot fulfilling the mitzvoth. This issue has always caused me some acute disquiet since, as you say in your article:
“God cannot command mad to celebrate the Egyptian Exodus, until it occurred. So it is clear that the Torah of 613 commands could not possibly exist in early generations. The Rabbinic commentaries that state “Abraham celebrated Passover” must be understood on a deeper lever, since the Exodus did not yet transpire.”
Your observations caused me to ruminate and investigate exactly what the Hachamim meant when they stated the Avot fulfilled the mitzvoth and what esoteric message they sought to impart. I flipped back a few parashot and looked at the Akeida Yitzhak. Specifically, just as Abraham was about to plunge the knife into his most beloved son Yitzhak and offer his child up to Hashem as a korban, Hashem prevents this most perplexing of deeds and tells him in Bereshit Chapter 22 verse 12. “Do not lay a hand on the boy”, he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”
What does it mean that Hashem only now knows that Abraham fears Hashem? Which Abraham is Hashem referring to? The Abraham who had already passed nine (9) previous tests in which his fealty to God was tested and in each and every circumstance his fidelity to Hashem was proven to be unsurpassed? The Abraham who founded ethical monotheism – an idea that is unsurpassed in its impact in the entire course of world history? The Abraham who is 99 years old and has only shown love and dedication to Hashem since his early age? So given everything that preceded the Akeda, how could it be that only now Hashem knows that Abraham fears God? Moreover, by all accounts this fear of God is apparently the apotheosis of knowledge and love of God since God required no further tests of Abraham. What exactly is this fear of God that we should aspire to?
If one turns to Devarim 10:12 I think we may find the answer. There, Moshe tells us: “And now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the Lord your God.” What is it that Moshe is asking Israel in asking that they “fear the Lord our God.” What does that entail? How does one fear God? Simply continue on with the verse and the answer unveils itself - “to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.” And that was Abraham, to wit, in fulfilling the dictate to sacrifice his own son; Abraham demonstrated that he loved Hashem with all his heart and with all his soul. He was the paragon of faith and the quintessential Jew. As stated in your article, “Abraham possessed the same perfections “as if” he celebrated Passover.”
In allowing himself to fulfill every command, he demonstrated to the world that he loved Hashem with all his heart and with all his soul; a level that stands as the ultimate standard by which we all are to aspire. But the question remains – how do we simple Jews “serve the Lord [our] God with all [our] heart and with all [our] soul.” While we may aspire to be an Abraham, we are certainly not there yet. Is there any message the Torah can impart that can help us reach this most sought after, yet elusive of goals? Certainly, just continue reading the next sentence – “observe the Lord’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good.” Thus, by observing Hashem’s commands and decrees, or more specifically, the mitzvoth we too can be on our way towards “serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.”
Which brings us back to the original question - what did the Hachamim mean when they stated the Avot fulfilled the mitzvoth? Simple – inasmuch as Abraham proved that he feared Hashem he had shown that he had indeed “serve[d] the LORD God with all [his] heart and with all [his] soul” as if he had “observed the Lord’s commands and decrees.” As you stated in your article, “Most people aren’t an Abraham. Thus, we need a Torah to assist us towards a lifestyle Abraham led. For Abraham, it as if he followed all the mitzvoth since he wholly and fully responded to the call of “what does the Lord your God ask of you.” For us post-Sinaitic Jews, we must follow the mitzvoth – but not for Hashem’s good but “for our own good.”
Genes, Genders and Gentiles
Reader: Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim, by reading your site I’ve learned that for Judaism, all human beings are Gods creatures and that even if the role of Jews are different from that of Gentiles, we all have the same rights. Have I understood well?
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim: Yes, that is correct. However, there are technical differences that must be understood in each and every case. On the surface, certain laws might appear racially biased.
Reader: People quote the Talmud out of context and use them to “demonstrate” that Judaism is a racist religion. Maimonides states in his Mishneh Torah, (Hilchot Rotze’ach 2:11): “A Jew who killed a righteous Gentile is not executed in a court of law.” Can you explain me in what context this affirmation can have sense?
I think it is very limitative to divide the world in Jews and non-Jews, I think there are very different kind of persons. When in the Talmud there is a statement about gentiles, does it regards to all gentiles? Are we considered with free will? Are we recognized by our acts?
Thanks for your time,
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim: Not all Gentiles are referred to in all cases. There are righteous Gentiles and there are idolatrous and even murderous Gentiles, as we witness in Iraq and Israel. And a Jew can exhibit the same exact behavior. But it would be a fair statement to say that observant Jews and Noachide Gentiles are less inclined to idolatry and murder, than are non-Noachide Gentiles and non-observant Jews; the latter lack Torah education. This is not racist, but simply true. It is equally true that religious fundamentalists are more inclined to murder themselves and others, than are other Gentiles. This commentary applies to cultures, not to genes emanating from certain religious groups. This is clear from Esav’s great sins, while his twin Jacob was a prophet who abstained from sin. There are Jews who side with Palestinians in Israeli day parades, and others who violate idolatry, deifying their Rebbe as infallible and still alive, and a worthy recipient of their faxed message to his grave.
Let us be mindful that before God gave the Torah, there were 7 Noachide Laws, which applied to each and every human, including the prohibition of murder. After God gave the Torah, He did not lessen the evil of murder. It was not ‘then’ permitted to kill people after the Torah was given! Surely, the Torah came to enforce greater laws, not weaken laws. Such laws teach for whom we violate the Sabbath to save a life, and who are not worthy of such acts. God created morality, and He alone dictates what life is worthy of saving, when it creates a Sabbath violation. It is not our place to determine the value of each individual life, in any given circumstance. Those who attempt to do so, in fact, disagree with the Creator of life.
The author of the Shulchan Aruch comments on Maimonides’ words, stating that although the human courts can no longer punish the murderer of a righteous Gentile, the murderer’s fate is nonetheless handed over to God. Therefore, the sin is equally evil, but the ‘administration’ of punishment has been transferred from human courts, to God. Perhaps this transfer after Torah was given, was not to lessen the crime of killing any human, but to elevate the crime of killing a Jew: one who now upholds God’s complete system of 613 Laws. When one law appears to be lowered in gravity, it may not mean at all that the crime is lessened, but the lowered status has another aim: to elevate something relative to it.
As a Rabbi once taught, men do not ridicule a woman in their morning blessing “Blessed are You that I was not created a woman”. This blessing is a relative means of thanking God for the additional laws we possess as men. The very order of the prayers bears out this truth. We first thank God that we are not without Torah: not a Gentile. But we do not ridicule a Gentile with this statement. We don’t now why God created one person as a Jew, and another as a Gentile. A Jew cannot claim intrinsic superiority over a Gentile. It is one’s perfection that elevates him or her. Many Gentiles are more righteous than some Jews. I can attest to that personally.
We then bless God for not being with fewer laws: a slave. And then we bless God for not being created a woman, who has more laws than slaves, but less than men. The progression of these three blessings indicates that we are in fact not ridiculing other humans, but that we are most thankful when compared to Gentiles, less thankful when compared to slaves, and even less, but still thankful, when compared to women. Again, the fact that I am a man, in no way means I am more perfected than a woman, a slave, or a Gentile. We simply recite our appreciation as men, for additional obligations. God created a system where men and women are essential. Each possesses their own role for mankind. And just because someone is created a woman, this does not mean men’s laws are restricted from her performance. For any woman, slave or Gentile may follow the entire Torah. But again, God’s wisdom decreed that genders, Gentiles, and Children of Israel exist.
Man could not exist without a female parent. So it is quite foolish to ridicule women. We also could not exist, had God not created the first Gentiles! Unfortunately, many egotistical Jews read one statement, and then jump to suggest it elevates them over other humans. To those Jews, I remind them of this: Messiah, King David and King Solomon all descended from Ruth the righteous Gentile. Abraham, Noah and Adam were all Gentiles.
Some statements do ridicule Gentiles since they do not abide by God’s laws, and many times violate them. And the same ridicule is made regarding Jews. In the first letter in this week’s issue, I respond to a reader who inquired of giving charity to Gentiles, which we must do. The Torah also teaches that a Jew who sinned and did not repent is not given charity. A Jew who kills, or brazenly violates even minor Torah laws, is killed. (Maimonides’ Hilchot Rotze’ach, 4:10)
When one’s father and Rabbi are both thrown from a ship, and neither can swim, the Rabbi must be saved first. This displays the Torah’s value system. If someone killed accidentally, the court does not sentence him to death since he did not comply with Torah laws of “intent” or premeditation. If someone kills another by not giving him food, there is a lack of “action”, and again, he is not treated as another, who killed with a gun, where activity is present. Nonetheless, Maimonides still calls him a murderer (ibid, 3:11) and adds, “One who seeks out blood, his blood will be sought out”. The Torah has precise definitions, and can only be appreciated after much study, since God’s wisdom is not easily apprehended, nor are people’s emotions easily changed.
I mean by all these examples, to unveil a very exact system of Torah, one that demands we abandon infantile ideas, and elevate our thinking, and decide matters not based on subjective preferences, but by God’s wisdom. This does not happen quickly…but with earnest study, it can.
A Gentile is required to keep a very minimal system, and those laws’ benefits are apparent. If a Gentile cannot abide by prohibitions against murder, adultery, stealing and the few others, this displays a very corrupt individual. If the Gentile kills by accident, he has failed more grievously than a Jew who killed by accident. So although a Jew is not killed for accidental murder, a Gentile is. The rule we derive is this: that which is more incumbent on an individual, is treated more harshly. Thus, an adult is punished for his robbery, while a child is not. This displays the same lesson.
Reader: Dear Rabbi Moshe Ben Chaim, Thank you for your response. Your raised several points which I will try to address one at a time. Your first point seems to be that if in fact God created the stars “with a stream of light already in travel” that the “wisest of men (Einstein) viewing this object’s light and using reasoning will miscalculate its age. God is really fooling us.” I disagree. Einstein would not have miscalculated. He would have calculated correctly with the data and information he had at hand. His answer was correct assuming that the light he was seeing had in fact emanated from the distant star and taken all that time to reach him. My point was that it did not necessarily do so, and that he might have been operating from a false premise. His calculation may have been accurate, and his conclusion based upon that data correct, but not necessarily the truth.
The objection that if God did in fact create the universe this way means He was fooling us does not seem to me to follow. Chazal tell us that Adam Harishon was not created as a newborn, but rather as a fully matured 30-year-old male. I of course was not there, but speculate that if he had undergone a complete physical at the time, the examiner would have found a 30-year-old male with all the telltale signs of his body in fact being 30 years old even if he had only been created that day. There would have been the antibodies of the seven childhood illnesses in his system, a degree of tooth decay consistent with that of a 30 year old, as well as the age appropriate amount of arteriosclerosis in his arteries for example.
Similarly, God could have created the universe 5766 years ago, that had all the history of a 15 billion year old universe, with all the telltale signs there for whoever looked for them, including already existing streams of light reaching Earth from the far distant corners of the universe with out them actually having traversed those distances. This hypothesis is internally consistent, and therefore no less valid than any other.
Finally you state that I contradict myself regarding when I seem to trust my senses and when I do not. I see no such contradiction. I do not “Without basis, reject senses and reason in connection with age issues.” I simply put forth for consideration an internally consistent alternate explanation, that addresses in a totally plausible manner (God after all, is omnipotent) the apparent contradiction between a 6,000 year old universe and a 10 million year old photon appearing on Earth’s horizon.
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim: Fred, the one great distinction between Adam’s adult creation, and the star’s light assumed to be created “touching Earth”, is that God informed man of Adam’s age, but not of the light’s creation already reaching Earth. Therefore, the analogy is not accurate.
What I mean about contradicting yourself is this: on the one hand, you accept the distance of the star based on laws of vision and physics. On the other, you reject your very same perceptions of light’s physics, and claim that time was unnecessary for its travel. Without God informing us – as He did regarding to Adam – that He created the star’s light touching the Earth, we should not assume He did so.
Reader: Dear Rabbi, While davening Shachris, I became more aware of the numerous references in our prayers to Music, Song, Musical Instruments, and Singing. When I returned home I made the following list of these occasions:
Psalm 30: “You undid my sackcloth and girded me with gladness. So that my soul might make music to You and not be stilled, Hashem my G-d, forever will I thank you.”
Baruch She’amar: “We shall laud You, Hashem our G-d, with praises and songs.”
1 Chronicles 16:8-36: “Sing to Him, make music to him.”
Psalms 144:15: “I will sing to Hashem, for he dealt kindly with me.”
Psalm 100: “Come before Him with joyous song.”
Halleluyah! Praise Hashem O my soul! I will praise Hashem while I live. I will make music to my G-d while I exist.
Halleluyah! For it is good to make music to our G-d,for praise is pleasant and befitting. Call out to Hashem with thanks, with the harp, sing to our G-d.
Halleluyah! Praise Hashem with the blast of the shofar; praise Him with lyre and harp. Praise Him with drum and dance; praise Him with organ and flute. Praise Him with clanging cymbals; praise Him with resonant trumpets. Then Moses and the Children of Israel chose to sing this song to Hashem, and they said the following: I shall sing to Hashem for He is exalted above the arrogant, having hurled horse with its rider into the sea. May Your Name be praised forever-Our King, the G-d, the great and holy King-in Heaven and on earth. Because for You is fitting-O Hashem, our G-d, and the G-d of our forefathers-song and praise, lauding and hymns. Blessed are You Hashem who chooses musical songs of praise.
And on each day of the week, a special song was sung in the Temple which we now mimic.
What place does song and instruments hold in Judaism?
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim: A Rabbi once explained why the Final Psalm 150 is about instruments alone. He explained that although we attempt with all our abilities to praise God, and express ourselves with the highest level of expression, meaning with songs, our attempts fall short. “We cannot know God while alive.” Therefore, we cannot praise Him accurately. To demonstrate our inability to verbalize God’s praises, we end Psalm’s with instruments, and no words. With our verbal silence, we attest to our inability. Words cannot describe God, yet we cannot remain silent as sensual and expressive beings. Therefore, we, in a manner, “clap” using instruments. We denounce human words and thought as possessing accuracy regarding God’s greatness. Using instruments, and not saying a word, we simultaneously claim that God deserves praise, but man cannot accomplish this with words.