Why 8 days of Hanukkah?

Dear Rabbi Hyim: I have a question about Chanukah.  I understand that we celebrate Chanukah for eight days because the Maccabees found only one jar of pure olive oil in the Jerusalem Temple to light the menorah there which was lit every day.  It took eight days to get new additional oil and due to a miracle the oil lasted eight days.  Here is my question: Why isn’t Hanukah 7 days, the miracle was not eight days it was only seven because there was already enough oil to last the first day.  So why eight? Sincerely, Rivka in Baltimore   Dear Rivka, Yours is actually a very famous question that has been written about for several hundred years.  There are literally hundreds of various answers to it.  Some of the more popular ones are that just finding the oil was a miracle, or that they divided up the oil into eight parts, each not containing enough to burn for even one day and each burned for one day making eight days of miracles, and on and on. Two thoughts though.  The first is from Rabbi Abraham Magence, a great righteous man and the Rabbi before me of Bais Abraham congregation.  He said the real person who should be honored for Chanukah is the one who in the face of hopelessness had the hope, foresight and courage to hid at least that one jar of oil. Secondly, I would say that perhaps the true miracle of Chanukah was not the oil lasting for eight days but the war to keep our religion that we won against such a vast Greek army, the few against the many, the persecuted against the persecutor.  That we could remain Jews was the true miracle.  We must appreciate this miracle for all times, much more so that the oil lasting for eight days. Happy Hannukah, Rabbi...

read more

Jewish Polygamy

Dear Rabbi Hyim, Thank you for your column last time about sex in the Jewish community that was very interesting, I even read it to my boyfriend.   Jewish people sure seem to have a healthy attitude toward sex.   On the other hand when I read the Bible I notice that many of the early Jewish figures had more than on wife, Jacob for instance.  Is polygamy permitted in Judaism?   Do Jewish people today have more than one spouse?  I thought only Mormons did that. Sincerely, Shantesha L.St. Louis Dear Shantesha, You have been reading the Bible closely, which is always good.  Indeed the Bible (which is the first Jewish book) does seem to permit men to have more than one wife, and some of the Jewish Patriarchs did.   On the other hand Abraham seems to have had only one wife,  only took a second wife when Sara could not have children.   Isaac his son had only one wife, Rebecca.  Jacob, the third generation, meant to have only one wife but was fooled into marrying the wrong woman and so latter, in addition to her, he married her sister, his true beloved, after working for Laban her father for her for 14 years for her.  Noah seems to have had only one wife, as did Moses. Though the Bible does not expressly forbid polygamy, it does seem that almost none of the Jewish people recorded in the Bible volitionally had more than one wife, they did so only under trying circumstances. Later in history things changed for some Jewish communities. About 1000 years ago, a great Rabbi, Rabbenu Gershom, forbid polygamy for Jewish people in Eastern Europe, the Ashkenazic Jews.  The practice was not forbidden for Jews who lived in Muslim lands such as Spain and North Africa though.  These Jews are called Sefardim (Spaniards), and up until recently some of those communities still practiced polygamy.  In fact some Jews from those lands who moved to Israel after the modern state’s founding still had more than one wife. Just because polygamy was permitted in Judaism for several millennia, the needs of one’s wives of course had to be taken into account.  Thus Maimonides, who was a Sephardic Jew and so was not bound by Rabbinu Gershom’s decree against polygamy, in his Code of Jewish Law writes that a Jewish man should limit the number of wives he has to four in order that he will be able to satisfy them all conjugally. Of course, four wives is a lot of...

read more

Sex & Jewish Tradition

Dear Rabbi Hyim, I am Jewish but not very knowledgeable.  My next door neighbor and I were talking about Judaism and she told me that observant Jews have sex with a sheet between the partners which has a hole in it to accommodate the man’s penis but no actual touching is allowed.  Is this true?  Sounds like a recipe for marital disaster. Sincerely, Jenna P. Little Rock, AK Dear Jenna, Nothing could be farther from the truth.  Judaism and Jewish law consider sex between husband and wife as something very holy even when not solely for procreation.  In fact if a man says he will only have sex with his wife while they are separated by clothes or a sheet this is considered grounds for divorce in Judaism. The Talmud puts it this way (Ketubot 48a): “There must be close bodily contact during sex. This means that a husband must not treat his wife in the manner of the Persians, who perform their marital duties in their clothes. This provides support for the ruling of Rabbi Huna who ruled that a husband who says, ‘I will not perform my marital duties unless she wears her clothes and I mine,’ must divorce her and give her also her ketubah settlement [the monetary settlement agreed to in the marriage contract].” Jewish law dictates that a man may not force his wife to have sex but that he must be available regularly to please her.  The Talmud, Judaism’s most ancient book of Jewish law, even proscribes how often a man must be sexually available to his wife depending on his job and his availability, for men with time and easy jobs, according to the Talmud, this amounts to every day. Though modesty is an important virtue in Judaism and according to some authorities may apply to aspects of sex even within marriage such as not having sex in the light, or in certain positions, the sexual pleasure which binds two people together is of utmost importance. As Maimonides (11th century) in his book of law puts it: “Since a man’s wife is permitted to him, he may act with her in any manner whatsoever. He may have intercourse with her whenever he so desires (as long as she also does) and kiss any organ of her body he wishes, and he may have intercourse with her naturally or unnaturally [vaginally or anally], provided that he does not expend semen for no purpose. Nevertheless, it is an attribute of piety that a man should not act in this matter with levity and that he should sanctify himself at the time of...

read more

Judaism & Abortion

After last week’s Representative Todd Akin debacle, I have been wondering what Judaism thinks about abortion.  Do we believe, like him, there are almost never any grounds for an abortion. Or, do we believe like more liberal politicians, that it is a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion if she wants? Sincerely, Betty Dear Betty, That is a good and complex question.  The Talmud, Judaism’s ancient book of Jewish law, does speak about abortions.  It says that if the baby in utero is threatening the mother’s life, an abortion must be done to save the mother. On the other hand, if the baby has already begun to be born (its head is sticking out),  it is then considered to be a full fledged human being and we would not put aside one life for another. There are various other Talmudic legal cases pertaining to abortion which touch on other issues. These include whether emotional trauma to the mother would be grounds for an abortion, and the various periods within the gestation process, some early ones in which a fetus is less developed which might result in different legal decisions than later in the gestational process.  Such questions are the subject of much Halachic (Jewish legal) debate, and the topic is certainly too large to deal with in this context. In summary, I would say that Judaism falls out in the middle.  A fetus is not a full fledged life, but it is also “not nothing.”  It is a potential life, and this is a very holy thing. We believe that there are cases where an abortion is not only warranted but obligatory.  On the other hand we do not believe that it is anyone’s right to choose to have one for any reason they wish.  Each case must be dealt with in a careful manner on a case by case basis, taking into account both the legal precedent cases within Jewish law and the spirit of the...

read more

Sad Jewish Holiday

Dear Rabbi Hyim I understand from what I read on the Internet that Jewish people are very sad this summer.  Something about one of your Temples being burned to the ground!  Was this an important Jewish temple?  (I have a friend who is a Jew). Was it in St. Louis?  Have you been in touch with the Department of Homeland Security?  I know at the airport those folks are very thorough.  I do wish people would be nicer to you Jewish people.  I like those of you I have met. Sincerely, Stephanie Z.St. Louis Dear Stephanie, Believe it or not Jewish people are sad every summer; not for a Temple that was destroyed recently but 2,000 years ago.  On the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av, in the year 583 before the year one and in the year 70 CE, the Jewish people’s national Temple in Jerusalem, Israel was burned to the ground.  Indeed many very sad destructive things have happened to the Jewish people on this day throughout history.  Here is a link to some of them: http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/946703/jewish/What-happened-on-the-Ninth-of-Av.htm Some people find it strange that we have a holiday on which we are supposed to be sad.  But in reality it is a part of life. To only be happy, to only celebrate festivals, is to ignore a large part of life, history, and who we really are on an emotional, spiritual, and intellectual level. The Jewish people have lived a complex history.  From destruction to great success, sometimes one after the other in but a short span of time, and back again.  As a great Rabbi once said, “For the Jewish people with our complex past, in every moment of grief there is still joy and hope, and in every moment of happiness there is a tinge of...

read more

How to Praise God

Dear Rabbi Hyim, Is the Hebrew word Hallelujah the highest praise we can give God?  If so, why?  If not, what is the highest praise we can give God?  Thank you for your assistance. Sincerely, Betty Dear Betty, The word “Hallelujah” is a combination of two words, Hallelu- “You praise” Jah- “G-d”.  A similar word “Hallejah” means “Praised is G-d”.  In addition other many similar forms are used in the psalms and in the Bible. In Judaism we use many words to praise God.  Every blessing for instance begins with “Baruch” “Blessed (is G-d)”. Interestingly we follow this in every blessing with the word “You” and then several of G-d’s names including the word “Sovereign.”  We praise God by recognizing God as the source of blessing, but we do it addressing God as “You,” as “King,” and with the four letter name of God that is more of a name signifying G-d’s essence. We have many names for God in Hebrew but most are aspects of the way God acts at different times such as: Judge, Warrior, Merciful, Peace, etc. Interestingly we commonly refer to God as “Hashem,” literally “The Name”.  God is so Other, so Infinite, that we acknowledge that G-d on some level cannot even be referred to, and so we refer to God in the 4th person as only “The Name”. Thus in Judaism we do praise God and indeed refer to God in the second person in the context of an intimate Other. However, in contrast, we also recognize that we can not really praise God at all or even refer to God.  Essentially our addressing of God and our conceptualizations of God are clothed in paradox — perhaps as it should...

read more