Question. All too often I see stories in the media about religious Jews who cheat others in business. Isn’t this a contradiction in terms?
Answer. Not only is it a contradiction, but it was specifically targeted by Rabbi Yisra’el Salanter (1810-1883) who founded the “Mussar” (“Ethical Correction”) movement in eastern Europe.
The word “mussar” comes from the Bible (Prov. 1:2 etc.), and before Salanter’s time there were great ethical works such as Chovot HaL’vavot and M’sillat Yesharim, which were both analysed and revered throughout Jewry. What Salanter did was to remove the subject from mere academic study.
He urged people to repeat over and over the key principles of ethical behaviour so that they were internalised and became second nature. He said that just as a Jew could train himself to avoid all “t’refah”, so he could train himself to be instinctively ethical. He would have agreed with one of my teachers, who said,
“It’s important to go through the Torah, but equally important for the Torah to go through you!”
Salanter thought the Chassidim and Mit’nagg’dim were not introspective enough. The Chassidim were too attached to their Rebbes; the Mit’nagg’dim were too intellectually proud. He saw how the secularists tried to be ethical without theology, but he thought they were not spiritual enough and that their ethics would evaporate.
Isidore Epstein used to say that ethical secularists were like a train which continued to glide along until the effect of the power wore out. Secularists, Epstein said, benefit from the foundations laid by the religious believers, but after a generation or two the ethics would be at risk of dying out.
One of the problems we have with the religious revival of recent decades is that some people are lopsided in their religion, worrying about whether their food is glatt kosher without attaching the same importance to the kashrut of their relationships.
Question. Does Judaism believe in celebrating birthdays?
Answer. The Torah has very few references to birthdays of any kind.
From the story in B’reshit 40, we see that it was gentile kings’ birthdays that were celebrated, and by the time of the Maccabees such occasions had become a problem for Jews because they could be forced into eating forbidden food and other acts contrary to Jewish teaching.
The Mishnah Avodah Zarah warns against doing business with a heathen close to the date of idolatrous festivals, including the Roman ruler’s birthday.
From the Jewish point of view, one of the few birthdays recognised was the 60th, since then a person was freed from the possibility of “karet”, which some explain as dying young.
Obviously tradition has come to attach great significance to a girl’s 12th and a boy’s 13th birthday because they mark the passage into religious adulthood.
As a general rule, it is probably more important to celebrate the anniversary of an achievement than to mark the coincidental date of one’s birth. This has the added advantage of ensuring that people do not take seriously the astrological calculations based on the zodiac sign of the date one was born.
Question. Why is Psalm 100 part of the morning prayers?
Answer. Its Hebrew name is “Mizmor L’Todah”, “A psalm of thanksgiving”. It was recited daily in the Temple when the “korban todah”, the thanksoffering, was being sacrificed. It was omitted on Shabbat and festivals when there was no “korban todah”, though it was retained in the medieval Sephardi liturgy. The thanksgiving theme makes it eternally relevant even in the absence of a Temple. The sages say (Lev. R. 9:7) that in time to come when other rituals may lapse, thanksgiving will remain. Saying the psalm every day is a pledge that whatever the day may bring we will thank God and use it for the best.
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.