Project Genesis

The Beginning of the New Year

Filed under: The Jewish Calendar

Question: If Nisan is the first month of the year, why does the New Year begin in Tishrei?

Answer: The year begins on different dates for different purposes: in Nisan, for dating a king’s reign; in Elul, for giving tithes from cattle; in Tishrei, for numbering the years and for giving tithes from crops; in Shevat, for giving tithes from the fruit of trees (Mishnah Rosh Ha-Shanah 1:1). We number the months of the year from Nisan, but the number of the year itself changes in Tishrei. The fact that Nisan is the first month is explicit in the written Torah (Ex. 12:2), and the fact that the years are counted from Tishrei is in the oral Torah (an undisputed statement in the Mishnah).

Yours, Rabbi Azriel Schreiber 

Animal Heaven

Filed under: Reward and Punishment

Question: To the best of your understanding, what is the Jewish perspective on the fate of an animal upon death? Are they considered to have a soul? Does a dog, who gave unconditional love and had been a loyal and brave companion, just disappear?

Answer: Animals are considered to have a nefesh, the lowest level of a soul. This is distinct from humans who have much more developed souls. Although animals can be loving, brave and loyal, we do not see them as having free will, but rather as acting instinctively. As such, they do not have the ability to earn merit and greater holiness for themselves as would a person who has the ability to use his or her free will in choosing right from wrong, good from evil.

Best Regards,
Rabbi Azriel Schreiber

Jeremiah’s Sadness

Question: I was reading in class about Jeremiah and it says that he was always really sad. What was his burden? What was wrong?

Answer: Jeremiah, of all the prophets, was the one who had to witness the actual destruction of the Temple and the Jewish kingdom. For centuries, prophets had been warning of the calamity that would occur if Israel continued to turn away from G-d. But Jeremiah was the one on the job when it happened. As he says in Lamentations (3(1)): “I am the man who has seen affliction by the rod of His wrath.”

Best wishes,
Michoel Reach

To Annul a Vow

Filed under: Miscellaneous

Question: Generally speaking , What kind of vow cannot be annulled?

Answer: In Judaism, if a Jew makes a vow not understanding something about the vow he was making, AND, if he did understand he would never have made that vow, then, in general, it would be possible for such a vow to be annulled. That is the simple question to a not-so-simple subject.

Regards, Eliahu Levenson

Mass Murder in the Torah

Question: The Torah is filled with stories of the early Jews making war on the various locals as they enter the “promised land”, and killing every man, woman, and child in a given village. In some cases they even killed the animals. In one case Moses himself saw his men returning with some local women and children, and ran out and ordered them killed on the spot, lest they create “impurities” in the Jewish camp. In another case he ordered all locals killed, except young women who “have known no man”. These his men could keep.

How can we reconcile this mass murder ordered by Moses with his status among Jews as a prophet and holy person?? He appears to be a murderer on a grand scale. How can the Torah be filled with murder, rape, adultry, idol worship, conquest, etc., from front to back, and still be considered the “Divine Word of God”. Many of my Christian friends have the same questions, and never get a useful answer from priest or pastor. I believe in the one God, may his name be blessed, but I do have a problem with all this murder, rape, etc. in the Torah.

Answer: First of all, I am unaware of any reference in the Torah to any act of rape, adultery or idol worship that was sanctioned or encouraged by either Moses or the Torah itself. So that leaves killing and conquest. These references do exist and can easily and understandably cause discomfort.

Now, if someone were to consider the Torah to be a fraud which only claimed to be the word of God (see Deut. 31:24), but was really created by human beings, then these brutal acts are indefensible. Which moral human being could possibly order such acts? However, we believe that the Torah is actually a true record of God’s communication with Moses. Based on that assumption, Moses never ordered any violence nor did he initiate any conquest. Everything was God’s will (see Deut. 7:1).

What is morality? You might like to read my essay on subjectivity here, which discusses the inherent difficulties that exist in establishing absolute principles of good and evil from a secular perspective. Without God input, any values we adopt are always subject to debate and change. 500 years ago there weren’t many who questioned the moral right of the Spanish to virtually eradicate native populations in the Americas. Today, standards have changed. Tomorrow they’ll change again…and no one can say in which direction.

Jews (and others) who believe in a personal God who created this world and is its true master, will consider His definition of justice to be absolute. Even if we can’t understand it, if God wills that one nation should conquer another then it isn’t just His right, it is intrinsically moral.

I hope this is helpful.

With my best regards,
Rabbi Boruch Clinton

Difference Between Murder and Killing

Question: The death penalty does not fit under the commandment “You shall not murder.” I have understood that murder and killing are two different words in Hebrew, with the word “murder” being used in instances such as Cain and Abel, and when G-d is stating the punishments for such a crime. However, when G-d destroys Sodom and Gomorrah, for example, the word “kill” is used, not “murder”. If you could please explain the difference between the two, from the perspective of how the text differentiates, I would greatly appreciate it.

Answer: As in English there are two different words: “retzichah” for murder, and “harigah” for killing.

It is obvious that not all killing is murder, for the Bible itself imposes the death penalty for certain crimes! Jewish Law also says that if one sees person A about to murder person B, one is allowed to save B with lethal force—if necessary.

The modern death penalty is a complex issue, since the requirements are very different than those of Biblical law. Actually the Talmud says that a court that ordered the death penalty every seven years was called “murderous”—and one opinion says not seven, but seventy! I wouldn’t say the Bible comes down clearly on one side or the other, but in principle supports the concept that a death penalty is a valid deterrent.

Best Regards,

Rabbi Azriel Schreiber 

War and Murder

Filed under: Miscellaneous, Jewish Wars

Question: Torah has valued human life above all and under every circumstances we should try to save human as it is said to save one human being is like to save entire entire mankind. On the other hand, the laws of war of Deuteronomy says that when we go to war with faraway nations we are to give people chance to surrender and if they won’t we are to kill all the men in it. So how can we justify killing all the men just like that when we consider human life above all ? In self defense its proper to kill but for territorial expansion why should we shed blood? I am sure that G-D too wouldn’t allow us to shed innocent blood.

Answer: Thanks for asking this important question. The first thing that needs to be said is that we think of all wars as equal. That is not true. We cannot equate a war that G-d commanded us to fight and a war that we choose to fight. If you learn the Torah’s perspective on warfare you will see that warfare in Torah law is totally different from warfare in the non-Jewish world. That is not possible to understand unless you go very in depth into the Torah’s perspective. To help you do that, here is a link that will describe the concept in great detail. I give this information over in a class format and I find that if you study it well it will give you a great overview of “Jewish warfare.”

Next, let me just say that we are not talking about the modern concept of “holy wars” where people think that they know the will of G-d. The Torah’s concept of war is that G-d commands the Jews to do certain things because in His wisdom this is what needs to happen to bring balance to the world. There is a commandment in the Torah to completely destroy the nation of Amalek. This nation, according to the Torah, is evil through and through. There is no way that anyone from that nation can survive and the world be a safe place. King Saul almost destroyed this nation once but left the king alive for one night. He was wrong and he lost his kingship over that. The results of that night were that the king had relations with a woman, the child grew up and his ancestor ended up being the evil Haman and, according to many Hitler was also a descendant of Amalek.

Be Well, Rabbi Litt

The Value of Friends

Question: Where does the Torah tell us that good friends are hard to find and are very valuable?

Answer: The statement “A friend can be acquired only with great difficulty” is found in the Midrash (Sifrei on Nitzavim; Yalkut Shimoni on Pinchas). Apparently the advice “Acquire a friend for yourself” in Mishnah Avos 1:6 (“acquire”, not “find”) implies that friends are hard to find. Many sources in the Bible and Talmud emphasize the contrast between good friends and bad friends (e.g., Mishlei 18:24; Ben Sira 6:14; Avos 2:9). In Burton Stevenson’s Home Book of Quotations, Laertius’ “Anarcharsis” (Sec.105) is cited for the statement “It is better to have one friend of great value than many friends who are good for nothing”; there doesn’t seem to be a similar statement in the Jewish sources.

Best Regards,
Rabbi Azriel Schreiber

Pinchas and the Priesthood

Filed under: Biblical History

Question: In Parshas Pinchas it states that Pinchas was the grandson of Aharon the Kohen. It further states that because of his courageous deeds espoused in the Parsha, he was to be rewarded with everlasting ‘hereditary priesthood’ to include his descendants. In view of the fact that he was already a descendant of Aharon, did Pinchas not already have the blessing of ‘hereditary priesthood? How could this be considered a reward?

Answer: Hi! Rashi here says from the Gemara that not all descendants of Aharon would have been priests, just the ones born after the bestowal of the blessing. Pinchas, having been born already, needed a special appointment.

Another answer is provided by a midrash on Tanach. It says that although the high priest could be any descendant of Aharon, from the time of Shlomo haMelech onward every kohein gadol would be descended only from Pinchas. This is called here “bris Shalom”, covenant of peace: a play on the name Shlomo.

Best wishes,
Michoel Reach

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