OzTorah: Ask the Rabbi.


Question.     I read an article which sounded familiar. I checked and found that the author had lifted and passed off as his own work whole sections from something I had written. This is against Jewish law, isn’t it?

Answer.        Plagiarism, the theft of another person’s words, transgresses the law of “Do not steal”.

There is an associated but more complicated issue – the adoption of someone else’s ideas. Jewish law requires that one’s source should be acknowledged: “He who quotes a thing in the name of the one who said it brings redemption to the world”. This applies even though ideas disseminated by their author are meant to become part of mankind’s cultural heritage.

The question is whether the author has a legal as well as a moral claim. If the author or their associates expend time, money and material on publishing a work, others must not adversely affect the publication by causing a loss, e.g. by producing a pirated edition.

In the 16th century when the Maharam of Padua issued an edition of Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, Rabbi Moses Isserles forbade the purchase of a rival edition. Opponents of the ban said that it would only hold validity if it were clearly stated to have geographical or personal limitations.

There is an issue in regard to photocopying. If you buy a book it is yours and in most cases you can copy or even destroy it (though there is a problem if the text contains the Divine Name), but if the book belongs to a library, there are restrictions on copying.

When I was a Jews’ College student in London, I found that the file copies of the “Jewish Chronicle” had been defaced; the weekly sermon had been cut out, presumably by an aspiring preacher (not me) who had no ideas of his own. I guess the College could have considered legal action against the malefactor if they had caught him.


Question.     Where does the notion of a minyan come from?

Answer.        The word means a count or quorum. Ten males of thirteen and over constitute this quorum. With it, the Torah can be read publicly and “Bar’chu”, “Kaddish” and the repetition of the “Amidah” can be recited.

The reason for the number ten derives from the story of Sodom where God agrees with Abraham to save the city if there are ten righteous men there. Twelve spies are sent to investigate Canaan – and ten, called a congregation, influence the people’s thinking. Ten is the basic unit of society.

Many other Jewish practices or teachings come in tens – Ten Commandments, a minimum of ten verses for “K’ri’at HaTorah”, ten Psalms beginning “Halleluy-ah”, ten Divine utterances at the creation of the world, etc. (Talmud M’gillah 21b).

The sages say that when ten are assembled for prayer or study, the Divine presence is with them. Maimonides declares that prayer is more effective with a minyan, and a person who does not pray with the congregation is considered a bad neighbour.

Certain other numbers were used for sub-groups in a community, such as “shivah tuvei ha’ir”, the “seven good men of the city” akin to the town council; or the “m’zumman”, the group of three who combine for a communal grace after meals. Talmudic sources (Sofrim 10:7) record a view that a minyan could be seven (or even six), but this is not the normative law.


Question.     Why is it supposed to be good to study Torah at night?

Answer.        Before my teacher, Isidore Epstein of blessed memory, became a lecturer at Jews’ College in London and subsequently the College principal, he was the rabbi of an English provincial community.

The president passed by the rabbi’s house late one night and was not impressed to see that the lights were still on in the study. He expressed himself quite forcefully in the morning that this was not the kind of rabbi the community wanted – one who did not know it all but still needed to sit up and study!

He was probably a good president, but he did not understand. No-one ever finishes studying and the rabbi needs time to study when there are no distractions or interruptions.

Rambam goes further (taking it for granted, as does the whole halachah, that study is for everyone, not just rabbis) and points out that learning at night has inherent advantages:

“Even though it is a mitzvah to learn both day and night, a person acquires most of his wisdom at night. If one learns at night, the thread of Divine love follows him by day, as it is said, ‘The Lord grants His love by day and by night His song is with me’ (Psalm 42:9).”

Rav Soloveitchik comments that at night there can be a struggle to concentrate and to push away disruptive thoughts but if one succeeds they deserve to sing with God.


 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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