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Ask the Aish Rabbi a Question

Recent Questions:

Hamsa

I received a gift from an Israeli friend. It is a beautiful mosaic Hamsa, or Miriam's Hand. I am interested in the Hebrew prayer that appears on the back of it. I am wondering if there is an English or transliterated version available. Some say having a Hamsa in the house gives good luck, while others say it is a protection against the evil eye. Can you tell me more about this?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

"Hamsa" is the Arabic word for five. It is customary for Arabs and Jews from the Middle East to raise their hand (five fingers) for good luck and against (Ayin Hara) an evil eye. In Exodus 17:11, we see that when Moses raised his hand, the Jews were successful in battle against Amalek. Conceivably, this is where it originated.

Some have the Hamsa fingers drawn and filled in with Kabbalistic words. This is considered a "Kamaya" (amulet) which is a sort of prayer for good luck. (Code of Jewish Law - Y.D. 179:12)

There is no set text to what prayer is placed on back of the "hand," but usually it is a blessing for peace in the house, or for a successful business. Although your text may be different, here is a sample of what the blessing may say:

"Let this house be a beautiful, peaceful abode. Let tranquility, unity, blessings and success abundantly fill each room, with help from the Heavens above. Let there be raised a righteous generation under the shade of this roof, who will fill this house with the sound of Torah. And let the Divine Presence exist in every corner."

Here's wishing you that all these words are fulfilled!

Witchcraft & Magic

What does Judaism say about the existence of black magic? Is this a real power or just an illusion?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

The Torah accepts that magic and sorcery do exist. Along with nature's normal way of functioning, God also created a way for humans to manipulate it - by the means of magic. Although God does not permit mankind to use sorcery, He had to allow this deviant path to exist in order to give mankind an element of choice. Otherwise we would lack the unique spiritual trait of free will.

However, the Torah prohibits the practice of sorcery, fortune-telling, and divination -- via chance, necromancy, cards, or other fortune-telling paraphernalia. (Exodus 22:17; Leviticus 19:26,31; Deuteronomy 18:10-11)

Maimonides writes that it is forbidden to perform acts and claim that they are done through supernatural forces, because this is what the idol-worshippers used to do -- to bring "compelling proof" for their idol worship, via magic and fortune-telling. (Laws of Idolatry 11:16)

According to Rabbi A.Y. Kook ("Da'at Kohen" 69), it is forbidden to perform magic or fortune-telling. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein also discouraged doing magic tricks, but wrote that it would be permitted if the magician informed people of how the trick was performed beforehand.

To learn more, read "Faith and Folly" by Rabbi Yaakov Hillel (Feldheim.com).

Environmental Protection

Is there a source in the Torah for being environmentally conscious? Do you feel we should be drilling for oil in Alaska? We are doing research project for school and I would appreciate your help.

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

The Torah says that “in times of war, when we lay siege upon a city to conquer it, we are not permitted to cut down fruit trees to aid us in combat. Only a tree which offers no food can be cut down” (Deut. 20:19-20). We learn from this that not only are we not allowed to cut down trees which bear fruit, but anything in the world which provides benefit is forbidden to be destroyed for no reason.

The Sefer Hachinuch (mitzvah #529) says that we learn from this to deeply appreciate all of God’s gifts in this world. He says that the righteous have trained themselves, by way of this mitzvah, to delight in all the world’s treasures and be pained by the unnecessary destruction of even a mustard seed. They go out of their way to protect and save any and all things in the world from destruction, unlike the wicked who wantonly destroy anything and everything in their ways and don’t care the least.

One of the great builders of Jewish education in America in the early 20th century, Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendelovitz, was once walking with a group of students through the forest, when one of them absentmindedly pulled a leaf off a tree. The rabbi was aghast and nearly overtaken by tremors. He explained that the entire world is God’s symphony, and every leaf and blade of grass is an instrument in that great symphony. To pull off a leaf for no reason is to hush the music.

This fits the Midrash which relates: “When the Holy One, blessed be He, created the first man, Adam, He took him around and showed him all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to him, ‘See My works, how pleasant and beautiful they are. Make sure not to ruin and destroy My world’…” (Koheles Rabba 91:13; Mesilas Yesharim ch.1). Although the Midrash means not to destroy the world spiritually, it means physically as well.

For this reason, I personally am a big believer in recycling, as it fits into the Torah perspective of protecting the world. It’s no accident that Rabbi Moshe Gafni, an Orthodox member of the Israeli Knesset, was recently voted the most environmentally-concerned MK.

The Knesset has passed a number of environmental-friendly laws, for example requiring stores to begin using only biodegradable bags, which will need to be purchased by the customers, not just given out.

This prohibition against destruction, however, is not absolute. For example, the Talmud says that if there would be a greater financial loss to protect a fruit tree than its potential benefit, we would be allowed to uproot it.

Based on this principle, I will answer your question about drilling for oil in Alaska. We are talking about drilling for 10 billion proven barrels of oil, located on 0.01% of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. The alternative is to purchase that oil from foreign regimes, many whom support international terrorism.

In the Torah outlook, we need to keep everything in perspective – to always look at the big picture and not miss the forest for the trees. Good luck on your project!