Category: Judaism A-Z

Judaism from A to Z—”F: Free will (a different perspective)”

Judaism from A  to Z—”F: Free will (a different perspective)”

Since every human being is endowed with free will, even if a superior orders you to perform an evil act, Jewish law forbids you to follow the order. If you  carry out the order, you cannot then blame the person who issued it, for you should not have listened to it. From the Jewish perspective, indeed from any religious perspective, God is on a higher plane than the person who gives the illegal order. One must follow the ethical commandments of the Torah and not an immoral one.

At the trials of the Nazi war criminals held after World War II, most Nazis offered the defence that they were only “following orders.” From the perspective of Jewish law, this was no defence. On October 29, 1956, the eve of Israel’s Sinai campaign against Egypt, the Israeli government feared a “fifth column,” and issued an order to Arabs living in Israel to remain inside their villages under curfew. At one Arab village, Kfar Kassem, some people went to work, apparently unaware that a curfew had been imposed. Israeli troops, encountering them, opened fire and killed forty-nine villagers. At their court-martial, the soldiers defended themselves with the claim that they were following military orders. The court rejected this defence and eight of the soldiers were convicted of murder. They should have known, the judges ruled, that it was immoral and forbidden to open fire on unarmed civilians. No “order” from a superior officer could justify what they had done.

Quite simply, according to Jewish law, if one is given an immoral order, one is obligated not to carry it out. If one does implement it, he or she is no less blameworthy than the person who ordered it. In the Talmud, this principle is known as “Ein shaliach le-dvar aveirah”. This expression means literally, “There is no messenger in a case of sin.” A messenger normally cannot be blamed for the contents of the message he delivers, no matter how ugly or infuriating it is. All blame should be directed at the one who sent the message. But if a messenger is sent to perform evil, he cannot defend himself by saying that he was only acting as someone else’s agent. Because “there is no messenger in a case of sin,” he bears full and personal responsibility for any evil he does.

Rabbi Adrian M Schell 

(Source: J. Telushkin: Jewish Literacy )

Judaism from A to Z—E: “Eye for an Eye”

Judaism from A  to Z—E: “Eye for an Eye”

If one could speak of biblical verses being vilified, then “an eye for an eye” would be the most vilified of verses in the Bible. It is commonly cited to “prove” the  existence of an “Old Testament” ethic of vengefulness, in contrast with the supposedly higher ethic of forgiveness to be found in the  “New  Testament.”

However, the biblical standard of “an eye for an eye” stood in stark contrast to the legal standards prevailing in  societies surrounding the ancient Hebrews. The Code of Hammurabi, a legal code hundreds of years older than the Torah, legislated retaliation even against innocent parties. Thus, if A constructed a building for B, and the building collapsed and killed B’s daughter, then A’s daughter was put to death (Law number 229).    The  biblical law of “an eye for an eye” restricted punishment  solely to the perpetrator.  Furthermore, unlike  Hammurabi’s code, one who caused another’s death accidentally was never executed.  “An eye for an eye” also served to limit vengeance; it did not permit “a life for an eye” or “two eyes for an eye.” The biblical principle was that punishment must be in line with the deed, not exceed it.

In the time of the Talmud, “an eye for an eye” was not carried out literally. Jewish tradition teaches that it was never practiced. The rabbis of the Talmud feared that the process of removing the perpetrator’s eye might kill him as well, and that, of course, would be forbidden (Bava Kamma 84a). “An eye for an eye” was therefore understood as requiring monetary compensation equivalent to the value of an eye. The same was applied to almost all the other punishments enumerated in the same biblical verse, “a tooth for a tooth, a wound for a wound.”

The only punishment in this set that was not converted to a monetary fine was capital punishment for murderers, “a life for a life.” The Torah believed that premeditated murder deserved the death penalty. However, Torah law also forbade remitting a murderer’s sentence with a monetary fine. Life and money, according to biblical  ethics are incommensurate; one can never atone for murder by paying money. In this regard too Torah law differed from the laws of the neighbours of the ancient Jews which would sometimes fine those who had murdered people belonging to a lower social class and which made certain property crimes (for example, looting at a fire) capital offenses.

 In Jewish law property crimes could never be punished by death  and murderers could never be let off with  payment of money, even if the family of the victim was willing to accept it (Numbers 35:31).  Both in its insistence that evil must be punished and in its equal insistence on setting limits to that punishment, “an eye for an eye” is a basic principle of biblical justice.

Rabbi Adrian M Schell  (Source: J. Telushkin: Jewish Literacy )

Judaism from A to Z—”Diaspora”

Judaism from A  to Z—”Diaspora”

Diaspora identifies any place outside of the land of Israel where Jews live. The term derived from the Greek διασπείρω diaspeiro (“scatter”). The first diaspora began with the biblical exile to Babylon in the sixth century BCE. Even so the exile was followed by the return, under Ezra and Nehemiah, many Jews remained in Persia and Babylonia and a Jewish colony was soon established at Elephantine in Egypt, too. By the time of the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, Jews could already to be found throughout the Roman and Parthian empires. Despite deportations there was no general exile of “Palestinian Jews“ in 70, though Christian propagandists alleged one as “evidence” that Israel had been rejected by God.

By definition many Jews live in the ‘Diaspora’ today. Some refer to this still as ‘Exile’ (‘Galut’) but, if the possibility exists to go to Israel, and one does not take it, staying voluntarily in another country, one cannot really claim to be in exile any more. There are still unfortunately some Jews whose circumstances do not allow them to move freely, and these are still ‘captives’ to some extent. There are also many Israelis who have left the country to seek their living and luck elsewhere.

Those who emigrate to Israel are described as ‘making Aliyah’ — ‘going up to Israel’ — in the same way as one ‘goes up’ to the capital city of a country — and are ‘Olim’; those who leave long-term or permanently to live elsewhere are therefore sometimes described as ‘making Yeridah’ and are ‘Yordim’ — ‘those who go down’.

When the State of Israel was established in 1948, many Israelis expected Jewish communities in the Diaspora to relocate en-masse to their homeland in Israel. When they didn’t this posed a challenge to the Israeli-Diaspora relationship, but not all Jews are Zionists (and not all Zionists — those who believe that Israel is the homeland for all Jews — are Jewish. Some Christians share these values, often for theological reasons of their own! )

In his book, State of Israel, Diaspora, and Jewish Continuity: Essays on the “Ever-Dying People”, philosopher Simon Rawidowicz creates a wonderful bridge for both Jewish communities to support another: “Two that are One,” however, must not be understood as a one-sided obligation; each must mutually recognise the other. The Diaspora of Israel must build the State of Israel with all its strength, even more than it has in the past seventy years, and the State must recognize the Diaspora as of equal value, and an equally responsible co-builder and co-creator of all Jewish life.

Rabbi Adrian M Schell 

(Source: Rabbi Walter Rothschild, Norman Solomon, Rabbi Josh Weinberg)

Judaism from A to Z—”Birkat ha-mazon, grace after meal”

One of the most important prayers in Judaism and one of the very few that the Bible
commands us to recite, is never recited during synagogue services. That prayer is the birkat ha-mazon, grace after meal.

In Deuteronomy 8:10 we are commanded that, when we eat and are satisfied, we must bless the Eternal, our God. This commandment is simply fulfilled by reciting a birkat ha-mazon (blessing of the food) after each meal. Reciting birkat ha-mazon is commonly referred to as bentsching, from the Yiddish word meaning “to bless.”

Importantly, the grace after meals is recited in addition to the various brachot over food recited before our meals (e.g. Ha-Motzi). The most well known birkat ha-mazon consists of four blessings, three of which are dated back by our tradition to the time of Ezra and the Great Assembly (around 500-300 BCE) and a fourth which was added after the destruction of the Temple (70 CE). These blessings are:

· Birkat Hazan (the blessing for providing food), which thanks God for giving food to the world,

· Birkat Ha-Aretz (the blessing for the land), which thanks God for bringing us forth from the land of Egypt, for making God’s covenant with us, and for giving us the land of Israel as an inheritance,

· Birkat Yerushalayim (the blessing for Jerusalem), which prays for the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the coming of the messianic time; and

· Birkat Ha-Tov v’Ha-Maytiv (the blessing for being good and doing good). It emphasises the goodness of God’s work, that God is good and does good.

In addition to these four blessings, the full birkat ha-mazon incorporates many psalms and additional blessings for various special occasions (weddings, holidays, guests, etc.)

If you would like to hear the birkat ha-mazon sung and a download of a full version of the text, please  click here: ( You can also find there  a shortened version, which is a wonderful way to start incorporating bentsching into your home rituals.

Rabbi Adrian M Schell

(Source: Jewish FAQ/

Judaism from A to Z—”Afterlife”

Judaism from A to Z—”Afterlife”
The afterlife (Olam haBa) is rarely discussed in Jewish life, be it among Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox Jews. This is in marked contrast to the religious traditions of the people among whom the Jews have lived. The afterlife has always played a critical role in Islamic and Christian teachings, for example. Jewish teachings on the subject of the afterlife are sparse: Our Torah has no clear reference to the afterlife at all.

Since Judaism does believe in the “next world,” how does one account for the Torah’s silence? I suspect there is a correlation between its nondiscussion of the afterlife and the fact that the Torah was revealed just after the long Jewish sojourn in Egypt. The Egyptian society from which the Hebrew slaves emerged was obsessed with death and the afterlife. The holiest Egyptian literary work was called The Book of the Dead, while the major achievement of many Pharaohs was the erection of the giant tombs called pyramids. In contrast, the Torah is obsessed with this world, so much so that it even forbids its priests from coming into contact with dead bodies. The Torah, therefore, might have been silent about the afterlife out of a desire to ensure that Judaism not evolve in the direction of the death obsessed Egyptian religion.

In Judaism the belief in the afterlife is less a leap of faith than a logical outgrowth of other Jewish beliefs. If one believes in a God who is all-powerful and all-just, one cannot believe that this world, in which evil far too often triumphs, is the only arena in which human life exists. For if this existence is the final word, and God permits evil to win, then it cannot be that God is good.

According to Judaism, what happens in the next world? As noted, on this subject there is little material. Some of the suggestions about afterlife in Jewish writings and folklore are even humorous. One story teaches, Moses sits in heaven and teaches Torah all day long. For the righteous people (the tzaddikim), this is heaven; for the evil people, it is hell. Another folktale teaches that in both heaven and hell, human beings cannot bend their elbows. In hell people are perpetually starved; in heaven each person feeds his neighbour.

All attempts to describe heaven and hell are, of course, speculative. Because Judaism believes that God is good, it believes that God rewards good people; it does not believe that Adolf Hitler and his victims share the same fate. Beyond that, it is hard to assume much more. We are asked to leave the afterlife in God’s hands.

Rabbi Adrian M Schell
(Source: Joseph Telushkin. Jewish Literacy )