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Ask the Aish Rabbi a Question

Recent Questions:

Great Teshuva

My friend and I are having a disagreement about degrees of righteousness in God's eyes. Who is greater: One who is virtuous by inclination, or one who is virtuous by choice - i.e. one who must struggle with his passions and transform vice into virtue?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

The Talmud says: "In a place where a ba'al teshuva (spiritual returnee) stands, even a full tzaddik cannot stand" (Brachot 34b). The idea is that by having sunk to the lowest depths, and then genuinely turning one's life around, the distance traveled in a positive direction is so great that it even exceeds those who have always been on the plus-side.

(Of course, one would not want to deliberately get into a negative situation, because there is no guarantee of coming out. Further, it often leaves residual stains.)

The great Mishnah commentary, Tifferet Yisrael (Kiddushin 4:14), tells of a fascinating event in the life of Moses:

An Arabian king sent an artist to the Israelite camp with orders to paint a portrait of Moses and to return with it to Arabia. (Those were the days before digital cameras.) Upon receiving the portrait, the king's physiognomists prepared a "face-reading" analysis of Moses to determine the base nature of Moses' personality. The ensuing report described Moses as greedy and arrogant. The king rebuked his physiognomists for their patently absurd analysis, given Moses' sterling reputation for kindness and humility.

The king decided to resolve the matter by visiting the Israelite camp and relating to Moses all that transpired. Moses assured the king that the physiognomists were as competent as the artist. Moses explained that by inclination he had many character flaws. Only sustained self-discipline and sheer determination enabled him to overcome his natural inclination and to obtain the stature and glory that were now his.

I should mention that various rabbis doubt this story, given the other sources that Moses was righteous from birth. But the idea is valid: Through sheer determination, we can overcome our flaws and achieve great spiritual heights.

Irrational Anti-Semitism

I recently saw that a full-page advertisement honoring four Israeli women (Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch, and some others) was rejected by the editors at Ms. magazine. Why the double-standard of hatred against the Jews?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

For a publication that fancies itself at the forefront of women's rights, the rules are apparently different when the women are Israeli.

It never fails to amaze me. Israel is a bastion of pro-Western liberal democratic values, in a region dominated by dictators and fundamentalists. So why is the world constantly attacking Israel? It seems to me so irrational, and just another in the long line of historical anti-Semitism.

Anti-Semitism is definitely unique in its universality, intensity, longevity and irrationality - falling outside of normal sociological bounds.

Maybe the following will help explain. In 1987, President Chaim Herzog of Israel commissioned a colloquium on anti-Semitism. Professor Michael Curtis of Rutgers University spoke there about the reasons for anti-Semitism:

"The uniqueness of anti-Semitism lies in the fact that no other people in the world have ever been charged simultaneously with alienation from society and with cosmopolitanism, with being capitalistic exploiters and also revolutionary communist advocators. The Jews were accused of having an imperious mentality, at the same time they're a people of the book. They're accused of being militant aggressors, at the same time as being cowardly pacifists. With being a chosen people, and also having an inferior human nature. With both arrogance and timidity. With both extreme individualism and community adherence. With being guilty of the crucifixion of Jesus and at the same time held to account for the invention of Christianity."

And there you have the total irrationality of anti-Semitism!

Inferior Class of Jews?

My wife and I were married by a rabbi who also performed our son's Bris. Our son is now six years old – and I believe he meets all the criteria for Pidyon Ha’Ben.

When I contacted our rabbi regarding a Pidyon Ha’Ben, he informed me that his movement of Judaism does not do this anymore. The rabbi said it's ludicrous to redeem your son simply because his last name is not Levi. He explained that most rabbis are not from the tribe of Levi, and that a child with the last name Smith is no less important in God's eyes.

After speaking with the rabbi, I got the sense that performing a Pidyon Ha’Ben would be acknowledging that my son is an inferior class of Jew. Is this correct? I want to do right by God and my son.

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

It is very impressive that you are pursuing clarity on this issue, particularly with all the dissuasion you've had until now.

Let's start from square one: Pidyon Ha’Ben refers to the "redemption of the first born son," and is commanded in the Torah (Numbers 18:15-16).

The reason behind this mitzvah is to remind us how during the Exodus from Egypt, God killed the first-born Egyptians, yet miraculously spared the first-born Jews. And since one's first child brings so much happiness, it's a fitting time to acknowledge that everything we have belongs to God. (Numbers 3:13)

But what does the tribe of Levi have to do with all this? The background is a bit complex, so here goes:

Originally, God intended that the first-born of each Jewish family would be a Kohen – i.e. would serve as that family's representative to the Holy Temple. (Exodus 13:2, Exodus 24:5)

Then came the incident of the Golden Calf. When Moses came down from Mount Sinai and smashed the tablets, he issued everyone an ultimatum: "Make your choice – either God or the idol." Only the tribe of Levi came to the side of God. (Exodus 32:26)

At that point, God decreed that each family's first-born had forfeited their "Kohen" status – and henceforth all the Kohanim would come from the tribe of Levi. (More specifically, the descendants of Aaron became the Kohanim, with the rest of the tribe of Levi taking on other responsibilities in the Temple.)

This created a situation where all Jewish first-borns are "potential" Kohanim, while the descendents of Aaron are the "actual" Kohanim.

Therefore, God gave us the commandment to redeem the first-born from a Kohen, who essentially is serving in place of the first-born.

Now for your question: Isn't all this discriminatory? Just by virtue of birth is a Kohen inherently "better" than a non-Kohen?

The answer is yes and no.

We all accept the idea that "status" can be passed down genealogically. Imagine someone born into the family of Rockefeller. He would automatically have vast financial resources and social status. Is this fair? After all, his only claim to fame is that some distant ancestor excelled!

So, too, a Kohen is a Kohen today by virtue of an exceedingly great act that his ancestor did in refusing to worship the Golden Calf.

Whether fair or not, it's a genealogical reality that applies to many aspects of life. Some people are born smarter, some prettier, and some more athletic. However this does not make one human being better than another. It just means that we all have different limitations, and a different potential to be fulfilled. (In fact, the tribe of Levi "lost out" in one regard, in that they were not assigned a tribal portion in the Land of Israel.)

Actually, the greater a person's potential, the greater degree of responsibility. One of the reasons why Esav (Esau) sold the birthright to Jacob is because Esav thought he would suffer grave consequences as a result of performing the Temple service improperly. Indeed, if a Rockefeller would squander his wealth and abuse his social status, he would be held culpable – much more than if a non-Rockefeller did so!

But in truth, we've missed a basic point. In Judaism there is a much higher value than one's status as a Kohen – the "Crown of Torah."

Torah learning is regarded as the most important of all mitzvot, because it opens the door for observance of the other mitzvot. As the Talmud says (Shabbat 127a): "The study of Torah is equal to the sum total of all other mitzvot."

The Talmud asks who deserves more honor: A non-learned Kohen Gadol (High Priest), or a Torah scholar with badly-tainted lineage (for example the product of an incestuous relationship)? The answer is that Torah scholarship supersedes simple Kohanic lineage.

So when we speak about fulfilling one's Jewish potential, there are no restrictions, no special classes of Jews. Torah is not the exclusive domain of some priestly class. Rather, it is open and available to all. And we are required at all times to involve ourselves personally in its study and practice.

Furthermore, while everyone may not be cut out to be a scholar, everyone can share in that merit by supporting Torah scholarship. The classic example of this is a partnership made between the two Jewish tribes of Yissachar and Zevulun. The people of Yissachar were professional scholars, while the people of Zevulun excelled in business and trade. The two group made a 50-50 partnership: Zevulun supplied Yissachar with funds, and in return Yissachar agreed to split the merit of their Torah learning. Indeed, this provision is used even today as the model for many similar, private arrangements.

Yet when all is said and done, aren't Kohanim still regarded as "special?"

The definition of peace is not that everyone is equal or that everyone has exactly the same needs as everyone else, but rather that everyone knows their place, knows what they're capable of, knows what their contribution is, and is accepting of themselves and that others' contributions as equally important and valuable. Everyone has a vital role to play, regardless of occupation or skill, and we are only expected to excel with the tools we have.

The story is told of the great Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (20th century Jerusalem), who asked his congregation to delay beginning the evening prayers until the street sweeper arrived. Said Rabbi Auerbach: "This man is devoted and committed to his work, and takes pride in the contribution he makes to Jewish life. I wish that I would have such pure intentions in my own work!"

It is interesting that the Priestly Blessing set forth in the Torah (Numbers 6:22-27) is essentially a blessing for peace. The Kohanim are the prime example in Jewish life where we could be setting ourselves up for jealousy – "my position versus your position." Yet the Torah assigns them the specific role as messengers of peace!

And who was the quintessential master of peace? Moses' brother – Aaron the High Priest – who occupied the second-highest position in Jewish communal life. Yet Aaron was known as the master of peace. Despite his "special" status, Aaron brought harmony by teaching that no one's "package" is inherently better than another’s. And that's the key to true peace – never treating others as less important.

One last point mentioned in your question: A person's last name does not determine whether or not they come from the tribe of Levi. While it is true that many families named Levi are Levites, this is far from an absolute rule. Imagine an Eskimo who converts to Judaism and legally changes his last name to Levi. That doesn't make him a Levite!

Nor are all Kohen's named Kohen. Many Kohanim are named Katz, which is an acronym for Kohen-Tzedek – "righteous Kohen." And the family today with the most verified lineage of Kohanic ancestry is named "Rappaport!"

The only valid method of being a Levite (or Kohen) is to have an unbroken tradition, passed from generation to generation, stretching back to the time of Moses. In many Jewish communities, meticulous records were kept throughout the generations to ensure that ancestral lines remain clear.

Finally, while a Pidyon Ha’Ben is usually done one month after birth, even if the opportunity was missed, the obligation still remains. My best advice is to contact a local rabbi with solid knowledge of the Talmud and Code of Jewish Law. There are many technical details regarding Pidyon Ha’Ben, and not all first-borns are obligated in the mitzvah.

I wish you the best success in raising your son in the Jewish tradition. With your honest approach in your relationship to God, he's got an excellent role model already.

Read more about Pidyon Ha’Ben at