Recent Questions
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Ask the Aish Rabbi a Question

Recent Questions:

Most Important Prayer

I have heard many different opinions and would like to know which prayer is the most fundamental to Jews, the Amidah or the Shema?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

It is impossible to compare, because the Shema is not really a "prayer" at all, while the Amidah is the optimum prayer.

The Shema is not a "prayer" in the ordinary sense of the word, even though it is an integral part of the prayer service. The Shema is a declaration of faith, a pledge of allegiance to One God, an affirmation of Judaism. It is the first "prayer" that Jewish children are taught to say. It is said on arising in the morning and on going to sleep at night. It is said when one is praising God and when one is beseeching Him. It is the last words a Jew says prior to death. It is the expression of Jewish conviction, the historic proclamation of Judaism's central creed.

On the other hand, the Shemona Esrei (a.k.a. the Amidah) is the heart of every prayer service. It contains the basic components of prayer: praising God, petitioning Him, and thanking Him. Whenever the Talmud refers to "Tefilah" (the Hebrew word for "prayer") it means the Shemona Esrei, and not any other blessing or supplication. The obligation to pray three times a day is fulfilled only by reciting the Shemona Esrei three times a day.

So you see, the Shema and the Amidah fulfill completely different purposes.

To learn more, read "To Pray As A Jew" by Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin, from which this answer was derived.

Stones on Graves

At the end of the movie Schindler's List, I saw people placing stones on the top of the headstone. What is the reason for this?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

One idea is discussed in the Talmud (Eidiot 5:6): "Elazar Ben Hanoch was excommunicated. When he died, the court laid a stone on his coffin. From here we learn that if any man dies while under excommunication, they put a stone on his coffin." The Talmud (Smachot 5:11) also says: "An excommunicated person who dies is worthy of stoning. But not that they placed a heap of rocks upon him, rather a messenger of the court places a stone upon his coffin – in order to fulfill the mitzvah of stoning."

Rabbi Klonimus, who was buried next to the great Rabbi Ovadia M'Bartenura, asked that stones be placed on his grave, so that if he had committed any transgressions that warranted excommunication, this would atone for it. (Code of Jewish Law Y.D. 334:3)

But I think in today’s time, we follow a second reason for putting a stone a grave. Rabbi Yehudah Ashkenazi writes in Be'er Heitev, his 18th century commentary on the Code of Jewish Law (O.C. 224:8), that the custom of placing stones on the grave is for the honor of the deceased person by marking the fact that his grave had been visited.

In a similar custom, the Code of Jewish Law (Y.D. 376:4) says that upon visiting a gravesite, you pull up grass and toss it behind your back. This shows our belief in resurrection: Just as grass that withers can grow again, so will the dead rise in the messianic era. (source: Machzor Vitri 280)

Siamese Twins

A case of Siamese twins has hit the media and I wondered what the Jewish position would be.

The twin girls are joined at the lower abdomen. One has no heart or lungs and is being kept alive by her sister. The medical opinion is that the one with the heart and lungs has a good chance of survival if separated from her sister. If not, they have only a few months to live.

The girls parents are devout Roman Catholics and believe that the girls' fates should be decided by "God's will." They are appealing against a recent High Court decision to allow the surgery. Meanwhile, time appears to be ticking away for the twin girls.

What is your opinion?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

Such complexities are not new to Jewish law.

A case of Siamese twins is mentioned in the Talmud (Menachot 37a), and in recent times, the illustrious Rabbi Moshe Feinstein used Talmudic sources to present a clear and unambiguous ruling in such a case when new-born Siamese twins were brought to Children's Hospital in Philadelphia. (Dr. C. Everett Koop, who subsequently became Surgeon General of the United States, was then the hospital's Chief of Surgery.)

Doctors had determined that if the twins – who were sharing critical internal organs – would remain joined together, both would die. The only option was to perform an operation which would kill one and save the other. But, argued the moralists, isn't this murder?

When the team of two dozen medical professionals were awaiting a decision, and indeed, were expressing impatience, Dr. Koop quieted the group with the following statement:

"The ethics and morals involved in this decision are too complex for me. I believe they are too complex for you as well. Therefore I referred it to an old rabbi on the Lower East Side of New York. He is a great scholar, a saintly individual. He knows how to answer such questions. When he tells me, I too will know."

Here’s how Rabbi Feinstein arrived at his decision. He asked the doctors: "How do you intend to perform the surgery?"

They told him: "We will save Baby-A, and kill Baby-B."

Rabbi Feinstein then asked, "Could you reverse the procedure and achieve the same results? Meaning, could you use all the available organs to save Baby-B and instead kill Baby-A?"

The doctors answered: "No. Baby-A is the only one we can save."

At which point, Rabbi Feinstein told them to go ahead and perform the surgery. His decision was based on the Jewish law which states that if one person is directly threatening to kill another, then it is morally correct to stop the pursuer, even if it means killing him. The law of the pursuer applies even in the case where the threat to life is unintentional, for example where a fetus is unwittingly threatening the life of its mother. (see Maimonides – Foundations of Torah 5:5)

Applied to the Siamese twins case, Rabbi Feinstein ruled that since Baby-B had no independent ability to survive, the very existence of Baby-B was threatening the life of Baby-A. This gave Baby-B the status of a killer (albeit unintentional), and Baby-A could, so to speak, stop his killer.

In a recent case brought before the British High Court, they used a much different line of reasoning. Judge Robert Johnson said that for Mary – without heart and lungs – her harsh life would only worsen as low levels of oxygen in her blood further destroyed her brain. So killing Mary – by stopping delivery of Jodie's blood – would be an act of euthanasia, like withdrawing food and water from a terminally ill patient. If they stayed together, the few months of Mary's life would be hurtful and mean nothing to her, he said.

The contrast is quite ironic. The ruling of the Talmud is predicated on the preservation of life. Whereas the British court ruling is based on a decision to end a life, that of the non-viable sister. Without that factor, they'd be prepared to let Jodie, the viable sister, die.

These cases always involve numerous medical and legal factors, and we cannot derive any practical decision based on this discussion. But this does illustrate how in a world full of ethical issues, the truth of Torah is precious today more than ever. Society is increasingly searching for direction, giving new meaning to the Jewish role as a "Light Unto the Nations" (Isaiah 42:6).

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