OzTorah: Ask the Rabbi.


Question.   Is it true that women should not go to a funeral?

Zachariah’s tomb, Kidron Valley and jewish cemetary on Mount of Olives, Israel. credit: www.theodora.com

Answer.     This is a widespread view but it is more an emotional than halachic issue. Some people have the feeling that women are too emotional to face the harsh reality of a cemetery, but this applies to anyone, male or female. Being shaken by attending a funeral can make men terribly distressed, not just women.

One of the few halachic aspects of the problem relates to a pregnant woman being at the cemetery. The question is whether the pregnant wife of a kohen may go to the cemetery: if her baby is a boy, does this mean that a male kohen has wrongfully been near a grave?


Question.   Why does the Hebrew alphabet have final forms for some letters but not for others?

Answer.     The five letters with final forms which come at the end of a word are kaf, mem, nun, peh and tzadde. A rabbinic source makes them into a mnemonic word, “min hatzofim”, literally “from the watchmen” (Tosafot, Shab. 104a).

A Rabbi with Sefer-Torah. credit:awww.estherziss.com

In the Jerusalem Talmud there is a suggestion that these five letters were specially chosen to have final forms because each stands for an important word. Kaf is “hand”, since the Torah was given by the hand of God. Mem is “ma’amar”, “utterance”, symbolic for the Divine word. Nun is “ne’eman”, “faithful”, since Moses is called “faithful in all My house” (Num. 12:7). Peh means “mouth”, since the Torah was spoken by the mouth of God. Tzadde is “tzaddik”, “righteous”, since God is called “righteous in all His ways” (Psalm 145:17).

A simpler explanation, given by the Vilna Gaon, draws our attention to the fact that ancient writings did not always show where one word ended and the next began. It was therefore useful to have an elongated form for the last letter of a word. This was relatively simple by extending the bottom bar of kaf, nun, peh and tzadde, and by turning the four sides of the mem into a square. This could not be done easily with the other letters and they therefore lacked a final form.


Question.   I knew someone born in Av (otherwise called Menachem Av) whose Hebrew name was Menachem Nachum. Why the double name, since both names mean much the same?

Answer.     A number of Hebrew names are like that, though often the second name is the Yiddish equivalent of the first name. Examples are Simchah Zelig, Baruch Bendit (i.e. Benedict), Uri Feivel (from Phoebus, the god of light), Dov Ber and Ze’ev Wolf. In some cases the first name is Aramaic and the second Yiddish, e.g. Shraga Feivel. Menachem Mendel is a more difficult combination, as Mendel is not a translation of Menachem. However, it probably means “little man” and if so derives from the first syllable of Menachem.


Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem. Rabbi Apple blogs at http://www.oztorah.com

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