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Ask the Aish Rabbi a Question

Recent Questions:

Do I Really Need To Give?

I work very hard for my money and I resent the fact that Jewish charities and organizations are constantly hounding me for donations. If I were wealthy, I could understand. But why are they bothering me?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

The Midrash tells the following story:

There was once a man who owned a large farm. Every year he would harvest a successful crop from the fields, and he'd give the appropriate 10 percent of the harvest to charity.

When this man became older and was on his deathbed, he called his son, and said that he was bequeathing the farm in his son. He warned, "Be very careful to give 10 percent each year to charity." And with that, he died.

The next year, the field produced a large crop, and the son gave 10 percent to charity according to the Torah law and his father's warning. The following year there was also a large crop, and again the son gave away 10 percent. But he thought to himself, "Why am I giving so much of my produce to charity? What a waste!" So he made a resolution not to give charity the following year.

To the son's dismay, the following year's crop was 10 percent of its usual size -- a 90 percent loss!

When his relatives heard, they came to visit him. "We're sorry you lost most of your crop. But it's your own fault. In the beginning, as the owner of the field, you kept 90 percent for yourself and gave 10 percent away. But now that you have refused to give your tenth, God is the owner of the field -- taking 90 percent of the crop for Himself -- and you are the recipient of the 10 percent charity!"

Part of the lesson from this story is that our salary, even though we work very hard for it, is in reality a gift from God. Therefore it is fitting to follow God's instruction to give 10 percent of our earnings to people in need, based on Leviticus 25:35 and Deut. 15:7-8. This is called Ma'aser, literally "one tenth" (hence the English word "tithe"), and is one of the 613 mitzvahs.

Besides this, there is a wonderful feeling in helping to heal the world, and to partner with God and others in the jewish national goal of tikkun olam.

To learn more, read "Ma'aser Kesafim - Giving a Tenth to Charity" edited by Cyril Domb (Feldheim), and "Permission to Receive," by Lawrence Kellemen (Targum Press). See also: Code of Jewish Law - Y.D. 249:2; Igrot Moshe Y.D. 2:112; "Orchat Rabbeinu (Rabbi Y.Y. Kanievsky) 1:302.

Rice and Beans

I just got married and have an important question: Can we eat rice on Passover? My wife grew up eating it, and I did not. Is this just a matter of family tradition?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

The Torah instructs a Jew not to eat (or even possess) chametz all seven days of Passover (Exodus 13:3). "Chametz" is defined as any of the five grains (wheat, spelt, barley, oats, and rye) that came into contact with water for more than 18 minutes. Chametz is a serious Torah prohibition, and for that reason we take extra protective measures on Passover to prevent any mistakes.

Hence the category of food called "kitniyot" (sometimes referred to generically as "legumes"). This includes rice, corn, soy beans, string beans, peas, lentils, peanuts, mustard, sesame seeds and poppy seeds. Even though kitniyot cannot technically become chametz, Ashkenazi Jews do not eat them on Passover. Why?

Products of kitniyot often appear like chametz products. For example, it can be hard to distinguish between rice flour (kitniyot) and wheat flour (chametz). Also, chametz grains may become inadvertently mixed together with kitniyot. Therefore, to prevent confusion, all kitniyot were prohibited.

In Jewish law, there is one important distinction between chametz and kitniyot. During Passover, it is forbidden to even have chametz in one's possession (hence the custom of "selling chametz"). Whereas it is permitted to own kitniyot during Passover and even to use it - not for eating - but for things like baby powder which contains cornstarch. Similarly, someone who is sick is allowed to take medicine containing kitniyot.

What about derivatives of kitniyot - e.g. corn oil, peanut oil, etc? This is a difference of opinion. Many will use kitniyot-based oils on Passover, while others are strict and only use olive or walnut oil.

Finally, there is one product called "quinoa" (pronounced "ken-wah" or "kin-o-ah") that is permitted on Passover even for Ashkenazim. Although it resembles a grain, it is technically a grass, and was never included in the prohibition against kitniyot. It is prepared like rice and has a very high protein content. (It's excellent in "cholent" stew!) In the United States and elsewhere, mainstream kosher supervision agencies certify it "Kosher for Passover" -- look for the label.

Interestingly, the Sefardi Jewish community does not have a prohibition against kitniyot. This creates the strange situation, for example, where one family could be eating rice on Passover - when their neighbors will not. So am I going to guess here that you are Ashkenazi and your wife is Sefardi. Am I right?

(sources: Maimonides - Laws of Chametz and Matzah 5:1; Code of Jewish Law - O.C. 453)

Shooting Down the Plane

Shortly after the September 11 terror attacks, I read that if U.S. intelligence had known that a commercial plane was on a mission to crash into the White House, they would have shot down the plane, thereby killing the passengers, but saving countless other lives.

Yet how can anyone know for certain that the hijacked airplane is going to crash? Maybe the passengers will take control at the last minute, or the hijackers might have a moment of "sanity" and decide not to kill themselves. Therefore how can it ever be permitted to shoot down a plane?

What does Jewish law say about such a scenario?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

When the intelligence information establishes with certainty that the plane will crash, then we must try to save additional people that are liable to be killed, and the authorities are obligated to down the plane.

A comparable case is discussed by Maimonides: Government officers approached a group of people and demanded that one person be handed over for death. The officers declare that unless someone is given over, they will kill the entire group. If the officers do not request a specific person, but rather ask for "any one person" from the group, we are not permitted to hand anyone over. (Although someone would be permitted to volunteer, to save the rest of the group.)

However, if the officers designate a particular person, then Jewish law says he should be handed over.

Applying this to the terrorist scenario: Once other planes have crashed, the evidence is sufficient to say that the people on the plane have already been "designated for death," and therefore we can down the plane in order to save others.

As for the possibility of a last-minute reversal:

The Talmud speaks of the "Rodef," the pursuer. For example, if person-A is running after person-B with a gun, with an obvious intention to kill an innocent person, the Talmud instructs us to save the life of "B" by injuring (or if necessary, killing) person-A.

Here we could ask the same question: Perhaps "A" will change his mind before killing "B." The answer is that since it is beyond reasonable doubt that "B" will be killed, that is sufficient to put "A" out of commission.

Of course, a miracle can always happen. But we do not rely on miracles and therefore the authorities only need to make a reasonable assessment of the most likely inevitability.

All of this gives credence to the heroic actions of the men on Flight 93 who fought with the terrorists, causing the fourth plane to crash in Pennsylvania.

(sources: Talmud – Sanhedrin 73a; Maimonides – Fundamentals of Torah 5:5)