Question:  The Torah portions of Leviticus focus on animal sacrifices. I feel very uncomfortable year after year when we try to discuss this concept as part of our weekly Torah Study.  Would you consider an outright substitution of something else for these portions, and what would you recommend?

Answer: If your group is a parashat Hashavuah group, I would encourage you to face the parasha every week, even if it difficult.  Use as many different commentaries as you can find (the Plaut Humash, published by the Reform movement, is excellent, as is the Everett Fox translation of Torah, published by Random House).  You probably can find something in each parasha that stimulates your interest.

If you do want to substitute something else, you might study the Haftarah instead of the Torah portion.  You could even study the Haftarah in its broader prophetic context - sometimes, the story is cut short for the sake of brevity in the service.

Question:   I am doing a paper about the priestly code and the code of Holiness.  I cannot find information on these anywhere. I have tried the library and even a dictionary of biblical references, but I cannot figure out the meaning of these terms.  Can you tell me where I can find them?

Answer: The Priestly code refers to the book of Leviticus, and the Holiness code refers to chapter 19.  Start with the Encyclopedia Judaica in the entry on Leviticus (or see the index, perhaps there is an entry on “Holiness code”), and look at the JPS Commentary on Leviticus, edited by Baruch Levine.  From there, you should find more resources.

Question:  If you have herpes does that disqualify you from blessing the congregation as a Kohen?

Answer: There is no reason that a Kohen suffering from ANY disease or illness, herpes included, may not participate in birkat kohanim.

I suspect that the laws in Leviticus, referring to various kinds of skin diseases and afflictions which would render one impure and unable to participate in ritual life, is what has prompted your question.  Since the destruction of the second Temple in 70 C.E., there has been no mechanism for ritual purification.  Therefore, all of those laws are inapplicable today.  Even had they been applicable, it is unlikely that herpes would affect the status of a kohen, anyway.

Question:  I understand it is forbidden to charge or receive interest on loans. How does one go about buying a house and still observe this mitzvah?

Answer: The prohibition against taking or receiving interest applies only between Jews.  A Jew, therefore, may pay interest to or accept interest from a Christian, Moslem, or any other non-Jew.  Historically, this is the reason that Jews in Medieval Europe were often moneylenders.  Since the church, following Biblical law, said Christians may not take interest from Christians, and since Jews could take interest from Christians, it was a natural profession for Jews, who were so limited in the kinds of professions they were permitted by Christian society.

If you live in the United States or any other predominantly Christian country, the answer to your question is simple.  When you pay or receive interest from the bank, which is a corporation of individuals, you can assume that the majority of the stockholders are Christian, and it either from them you are receiving interest, or to them you are paying interest.

In Israel, it is more difficult.  Clearly, when you receive interest from or pay interest to a bank, you are dealing with a corporation made up almost exclusively of Jews.  Clearly, also, a capitalist society would be impossible without a banking system to finance it.  The solution to the banking problem is to structure the loan agreement or savings account agreement in such a way that the person or corporation receiving interest payments is a partner with the person or corporation paying interest.

In other words, if I take a loan to buy a house, the bank becomes my partner in the house, and is entitled to a share of the money that is earned by virtue of owning the house.  Since we can assume that owning the house benefits me, allowing me to earn my salary with greater security and comfort, the bank is entitled to a share in the profits of my salary over and above the simple repayment of the principle of the loan.  When I repay the loan, then, I add some “interest,” representing the profit that the bank has earned by being my partner.

From the other point of view, if I deposit money in the bank, I become a shareholder in the bank, and am entitled to a share of the bank’s profits.  The bank pays me my share of profits in the form of “interest” on my account.

Question:  Shalom, I am writing a comment in regard to your answer to the question about interest on loans posted in Jewish Community. In your discussion, you suggest several alternative ways of looking at a loan (such as a partnership between the bank and the recipient, technicalities like whether loan is between christian and jew, etc) to justify or redefine “interest” on a loan----interest being  forbidden in the Torah. I think a more straight forward way of looking at the subject would be to simply understand the economic difference in the understanding of money in biblical times with that of modern times.

In biblical times, money was regarded strictly as a currency. Money was something that could be traded for goods and services. My interpretation of the Torah was to consider it wrong  to help one pay for goods and services and and that person have to pay the penalty of “interest”.

In todays world, money is BOTH a currency and commodity. That is to say money is traded in the same way as other goods and services.

Nobody would consider it wrong to charge money for goods and services. Therefore, it should not be considered unethical or even in contradiction to the Torah to charge money (currency) for the use of money (commodity).

With all due respect rabbi, I do not think that we need to find creative means of getting around the question of “interest” on loans. We only need to understand that the way we define and use “money” today differs from biblical times.

Answer: I found your comments very interesting, and have been giving them much thought.  I am somewhat ignorant about Biblical economics and currency, but I have no reason to doubt that your facts are correct in this regard.

The problem with what you have written is with your assumptions regarding whether or not the the Torah WOULD have prohibited interest, had it understood the distinction between the purchase of goods and the purchase of currency.  It is, in fact, impossible to know what the Torah would have ruled had it been written in a more modern economy.

The Torah’s prohibition against taking interest is based on the idea of gemilut hasadim, an act of lovingkindness.  It is our responsibility to help our “neighbors” (in this case, in the the particular sense of helping other Jews) by giving them the use of our money without charge.  Given this basic idea, it is equally likely that the Torah would have prohibited giving/taking interest whether the money was used as currency to purchase money to start up a business, or used as money to buy needed goods or services such as food, clothing, or shelter.

While in principle, an interest-free economy may be a wonderful approach to the use of money, in practice, in a capitalist economic system based on money as a commodity, it was never, to my knowledge, a useable approach.  For this reason, Rabbinic Judaism early on found ways to sidestep the prohibition against giving/taking interest.  It is true that they used creative means to sidestep the prohibition.  But in fairness, your approach is  equally creative, although equally plausible.  Both rely on the principle that “if the Torah had understood our modern capitalist economy, it would have permitted interest to be given/collected under certain circumstances.”  The Talmud gives one set of circumstances, you have given another; but both rely on this principle to abrogate a clear prohibition of the Torah.

Question:  We have studied in the Torah that Aaron was involved in a number of event that displeased God. In one event, Aaron’s wife was stricken with a disease as punishment yet Aaron was spared. At the golden calf, a few thousand Jews were killed as a response to the calf’s worship, yet, again Aaron was untouched. Why does God treat Aaron with such favor?

Answer: Various Midrashim have either try to justify the appropriateness of Aaron’s actions or explain the light punishment.

With respect to the golden calf, Aaron tried to convince the people not to build it by asking for their gold and silver jewelry - he was sure they would refuse.  When they didn’t, he told them to let him make the calf, hoping to delay them until Moses returned.  Obviously, he was unsuccessful!  This is only a Midrash - it is not found in the text of the Torah itself.  But Exodus 32:35 gives us a hint about why Aaron was spared the punishment:  “Then Adonai sent a plague upon the people, for what they did with the calf that Aaron made.”  The real sin was not making the calf - it was worshipping the calf.

With respect to Aaron and Miriam (Moses and Aaron’s sister), various Midrashim, too, were confused as to why Aaron was not punished with leprosy.  They posit that Aaron was indeed punished with leprosy along with Miriam, but since Miriam spoke lashon hara (gossip) first, Aaron’s punishment lasted only a moment while Miriam’s leprosy lasted until Aaron asked Moses to call upon God to cure her.  This, too, is clearly not found in the text of the Torah.  But the Midrashim attempt to correct what appeared to them and appears to us as an injustice.

Question:  Why was Moses forbidden from entering the Land of Israel?

Answer: In Numbers 20:7-12, Moshe was commanded by God to speak to a rock and tell it to bring forth water for the Israelites and their animals.  Moshe, instead of speaking to the rock, disobeyed God and struck the rock twice with his staff to bring forth the water.  Because of this, God said to him, “Because you did not believe in Me, to sanctify Me in the eyes of the Israelites, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them.”

Question:  Could you please inform me of the 7 species?

Answer: The seven species of produce come from Deuteronomy 8:8, and describe the best and richest of the native produce of the land of Israel:

“A land of wheat and barley, of (grape-) vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and (date-) honey.”

Question:  In the Book of Ruth we see that Ruth is given to the Next of Kin of her late husband.  Where else in the Bible do we see next of kin relationships (i.e., wife being passed to brother in law)?

Answer: See Deuteronomy 25:5-10 for a full description of the law of Levirate marriage.  Basically, if a man dies childless, then his brother (or closest relative) is obligated to marry the widow, and the first child of that marriage becomes the heir to the deceased brother.  This is the custom that the stories in Genesis 38 and Ruth 4 are based on.

Question:  There are genealogies recorded of descendants from Aaron.  Why do I not find any genealogies of descendants from Moses?  He had two wives...  were there no children from these marriages?

Answer: Moses had two sons, Gershom and Eliezer, with his first wife, Tzipporah, but there are no children recorded from his second wife.  He may have had daughters as well, but the geneologies of the Torah tend to omit women unless there is a compelling reason to include them.

The descendants of Moses were part of the general tribe of Levi.  I Chronicles 23:15-17 gives the names of Gershon and Eliezer’s children and the end of chapter 24 gives the names of some of the children of the next generation.

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