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.
I am intrigued by which of the "Big 3 mitzvahs" a Jew is expected to give his life for rather than transgress. What exactly are they, and where do they come from?
The Aish Rabbi Replies:
This is a serious subject with lots of material written on it. We can't possibly learn all the details, but let's try to get a general idea.
Maimonides writes that if a person were to say to a Jew "Violate one of the commandments or I will kill you," the Jew should violate the commandment and not be killed, since that the Torah says "You shall observe My decrees and My laws, so that you shall live by them." The inference from the words "live by them" is that you shall not "die by them!" This however does not apply to three mitzvahs: 1) murder 2) forbidden sexual relations and 3) worship of other gods. (Maimonides - Foundations of the Torah 5:2)
Imagine the case: Mike says to Dave: "Either you kill that person, or I will kill you." The law is that Dave must allow himself to be killed rather than kill the other person. The reason is logical, in the language of the Talmud: "What makes you think your blood is redder than his? Perhaps his blood is redder!" Or in other words, "How can you judge between your life and his? Perhaps he is worthier than you!" Since it is impossible to know who is the "better Jew," one has to let the circumstances play out without killing the other person. (Yoma 82b)
This logic applies even if Mike were to say to the inhabitants of a Jewish town, "Give me one Jew to kill, or if you don't, I will kill all of you." Since it is impossible to decide whose blood is the "least red," the town must not give anyone to Butch to be killed, and they must all allow themselves to be killed. (Maimonides - Yesodei HaTorah 5:5)
FORBIDDEN SEXUAL RELATIONS
The reason why someone must allow himself to be killed rather than be involved in forbidden sexual relations, is because the Torah compares rape to murder. (Deuteronomy 22:26, Talmud - Yoma 82a)
The reason why one must allow himself to be killed rather than worship other gods comes from a verse in the Shema: "You shall love your God with all your heart, WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, and with all your possessions" (Deuteronomy 6:5). In other words, you should love God so much that you're willing to give up your life to serve him (Talmud - Yoma 82a).
The reason why loving God with all your soul specifically applies to the worship of other gods is because the belief that "God is One," the Creator and Controller of everything, is the basis for all of Judaism. The worship of other gods is a denial of this basic tenant.
Hi, I’m standing here in the zoo and want to know if giraffes are kosher. Thank you very much!
The Aish Rabbi Replies:
The giraffe is a kosher species, since it has the two kosher characteristics of cloven hooves and chewing its cud.
So why don’t we eat giraffes?
Let's first dispense with the myth that we don't know exactly what spot on the long neck to shecht it. Actually, since Shechita is permitted anywhere on the neck, this cannot be the problem. (source: Tosefta Chullin 1:11; Code of Jewish Law YD 20:1-2; "Tzohar" p. 262, by R' A. Ben-David).
The real reason we don’t eat giraffes is because we no longer have a continuous tradition of eating this species, and we may not introduce any animals that we do not have a distinct tradition, even if they possess all the kosher signs. (source: Shach Y.D. 80:1 and Chochmat Adam; Chazon Ish Y.D. 11:4)
Although Rav Sa'adya Gaon (in "Tafsir HaTorah"), Rabbenu Yona, Radak, and others translate "Zamer" (listed among the ten types of kosher animals in Deut. 14:5) as the giraffe, we follow the opinion of Rashi (Chullin 80a) and Ibn Ezra (Deut. 14:5) that we do not have an accurate tradition for what is the "Zamer."
There is an additional, practical reason for not eating giraffes. It would probably cost the exorbitant price of $100 per pound, even if they would be produced en mass.
But don't worry. When Moshiach comes and re-establishes the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, this issue will be resolved. Then we could all go out for 15-foot giraffe deli sandwiches. I can hear it now: "Pass the mustard and the ladder, please!"