I know that a Jew is to say the Shema prayer twice a day - in the morning and in the evening. But I recently saw mentioned that it is said a third time, at bedtime. What's this all about?
The Aish Rabbi Replies:
"Kriat Shema al hamita" is the bedtime prayer we say, which includes the first paragraph of the Shema, as well as the blessing "HaMapil."
The Talmud says that when one goes to sleep at night, his soul goes up to heaven for a daily accounting. That leaves the body "unprotected," so to speak, so we say the Shema and the blessing Hamapil to counteract that.
Another purpose of the bedtime Shema is so that one should fall asleep while saying words of Torah.
Here is the text of "HaMapil":
"Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the universe, Who casts the bonds of sleep upon my eyes and slumber upon my eyelids. May it be Your will, Lord, my God and the God of my forefathers, that You lay me down to sleep in peace and raise me erect in peace. May my ideas, bad dreams, and bad notions not confound me; may my offspring be perfect before You, and may You illuminate my eyes lest I die in sleep, for it is You Who illuminates the pupil of the eye. Blessed are You, God, Who illuminates the entire world with His glory."
On the issue of women wearing a tallit, I understand that women don't generally wear them because they are not required to attend synagogue services 3 times a day. But is there a law forbidding this?
The Aish Rabbi Replies:
A tallit is an embellished form of the mitzvah of tzitzit, which are special tassels placed on a four-cornered garment as prescribed by the Torah.
The primary intention of this commandment was to address a particular failing principally found in men - the inclination toward licentious behavior. Physiologists attribute this to many reasons, yet it's obvious to anyone who reads the news that this is the case.
It was to curb this natural drive that God commanded men to wear tzitzit. As the verses tell us, "And you should see them [the tzitzit] and remember not to follow after one's heart and one's eyes" (Numbers 15:39).
Being that this mitzvah was tailored for man's negative inclination, women have traditionally not worn a tallit.
Nevertheless, from a strictly technical standpoint, women may fulfill the mitzvah of tzitzit. Ashkenazi women may even recite the blessing.
However, this is discouraged for a few reasons:
Firstly, the Torah forbids women to wear garments that are made specifically for a man, as it is written, "A man's garment shall not be worn by a woman." (Deut. 22:5) The Talmudic Sage, Yonatan Ben Uziel, explains the verse as actually referring to tefillin and tzitzit. Therefore if a woman wore Tefillin and Tzitzit which are men's garments, she would be breaking a Torah commandment.
The great Kabbalist the Arizal wrote that the mitzvah of tzitzit is only and specifically for men. (see Kaf HaChaim 17:5)
Additionally, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein states that in many instances where women do wear Tzitzit, it is political statement of women's rights, as opposed to the desire to fulfill G-d's commands. Since the motivation is fundamentally a complaint against the Sages, and not a truthful desire to serve G-d, these actions do not constitute a mitzvah.
To learn more, read:
• “Halichos Bas Yisrael” by Rabbi Yitzchak Yaacov Fuchs
• "Tzitzith" by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan
I often receive emails from different organizations offering that a rabbi will pray for me at this or that great rabbi’s grave. Does it really make a difference where one prays? Isn't praying to a dead rabbi for salvation practically idolatry?
The Aish Rabbi Replies:
It’s a very important question. The notion of praying at the graves of the righteous is well-established. The Talmud tells us that Caleb, one of the spies sent to inspect the Holy Land, separated from the rest of the group to visit the Cave of the Patriarchs (ma’arat ha’machpailah) in Hebron. He prostrated himself before the cave and said to them “My fathers, plead for mercy for me that I be saved from the evil designs of the spies” (Sotah 34b).
Elsewhere the Talmud mentions a custom to visit a cemetery during times of calamity, such as a drought. The reason, according to one opinion in the Talmud, is so that the dead will ask for mercy for us in Heaven (Ta’anit 16a).
It has likewise been a Jewish custom all throughout the ages to consider the graves of the righteous (kivrei tzaddikim) places of pilgrimage, and to visit there and recite Psalms and prayers. Hassidim even leave notes (kvitlach) by their Rebbe’s grave.
As you point out, though, this must be understood correctly. Praying to a deceased person rather than God is idolatry. He cannot help you, no matter how great he was in his lifetime. What he might be able to do is intercede in heaven on your behalf. Thus, when a person prays at a grave, he should either have in mind that the righteous person (tzaddik) help bring his prayers to God, or even better, he should pray directly to God that He help him in the merit of the tzaddik buried here (Mishna Berurah 559:41, 581:27).
That being said, it may well be more effective to openly and sincerely pray to God for your needs yourself, rather than asking some great rabbi to do it for you. God gives us challenges and hardships in life so that we’ll turn to Him and improve ourselves – rather than that we find a great person to take them away for us.