OzTorah: Ask the Rabbi.



Question.   When does the soul enter the body?

Answer.      Maimonides offers a comprehensive analysis of the soul in his “Eight Chapters” (an introduction to his commentary on the Ethics of the Fathers). For him it seems that “soul” means what we would call personality, which includes but is not limited to one’s spiritual spark.

The question of when the soul, however defined, enters the body, was discussed long before his time in Midrashic and Talmudic sources.

Major views are that the soul enters the “body” at conception, or when the foetus is formed (Sanh. 91b, cf. Men. 97b). Maimonides and others say that what the foetus has is a rudimentary form of soul which matures and reaches higher levels later. The sages believed that even before birth, the soul possesses knowledge, so the learning that comes as the child develops is a rediscovery (Nidd. 30b).

There is a well known view that some aspects of one’s life are decided before birth, especially whom one will marry, but this is more a matter of Divine determination than personal choice.



Question.   Why is Rosh HaShanah called “Remembrance Day” (“Yom HaZikkaron”)?

Answer.      In several places the Torah commands “zikkaron” – remembrance – on Rosh HaShanah, e.g. Lev. 23:24.

There are two aspects: Divine remembrance and human. God remembers our deeds and judges us accordingly; we remember God’s deeds and pray to be worthy of His blessings.

Many of our observances are a reminder to remember. Examples are Kiddush, which is “Zikkaron L’Ma’aseh B’reshit” – “a reminder of the work of Creation” and “Zecher Liy’tzi’at Mitzrayim” – “a reminder of the going out of Egypt”, and leaving a section of a wall unpainted as “a reminder of the destruction (of the Temples)”. On Seder night there is of course Hillel’s sandwich, which is “Zecher l’Mikdash” – “a reminder of the Temple”. The siddur contains, after the daily Shacharit service, a list of six “Z’chirot”, things we have to remember: the Exodus from Egypt, the Revelation at Sinai, the challenge of Amalek, the Israelite provocation of God, the sin of Miriam, and the observance of Shabbat.

With the responsibility of remembrance, however, comes a further duty, which is set out in the verse, “Binu Sh’not Dor VaDor” – “Understand the Years of the Generations” (Deut. 32:7). Don’t only remember, but look for the meaning behind the events. JH Hertz says in his commentary on the Chumash that Israel is the author of the idea of history, which means that Jews have to be both historians and philosophers.



Question.   I get distracted during the High Holyday services. What can I do about it?

Answer.      The prayers require “kavvanah” – intention or concentration. Rabbi Chayyim HaLevi Soloveitchik of Brisk says out in his commentary on Maimonides’ Laws of Prayer, chapter 4, that there are two types of “kavvanah”. One is the knowledge that we are standing before God and that nothing else exists or matters. The second is an understanding of the words so that not only do we speak the words but the words speak to us.

It would help you to cultivate both kinds of “kavvanah”. Turn off and turn away from everything and everybody else, even the service itself, and retreat into a spiritual cocoon where your heart and mind focus on God Then turn to the prayer book and focus your mind and thoughts on a prayer that appeals to you. Even if it means lagging behind the rest of the congregation and omitting a Psalm or “piyyut” (liturgical poem) or two (or more), have a dialogue with the words.

Whatever you do, do not let your shule neighbour break the spell and distract you with conversation.



Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, and was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesperson for Jews and Judaism on the Australian continent. Now retired and lives in Jerusalem.

Blog: http://www.oztorah.com

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