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Due to limited resources, the Ask the Rabbi service is intended for Jews of little background with nowhere else to turn. People with questions in Jewish law should consult their local rabbi. Note that this is not a homework service!

Ask the Aish Rabbi a Question

Recent Questions:

Why Do We Shake the Lulav?

Why do we shake the lulav in different directions? What is the significance of it?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

We shake the four species in six directions altogether – the four directions, up and down. The most common custom is to first wave towards the east, then to continue with the directions in a clockwise manner, then to wave upwards and then downwards. An alternate custom, based on the Kabbalistic teachings of Arizal, is south, north, east, up, down, west. This is the practice of many Hassidic and Sephardic Jews. In general, these six directions represent all of physical space.

The Talmud (Sukkah 37b) gives two reasons why we wave the four species in these directions: to praise the God of the heavens and the entire earth (its four directions), and as a prayer that God withhold "bad winds" (from the four directions) and "bad dew" (from above to below). Meaning, we ask that the natural forces of the world function in harmony with man rather than destructively. Since Sukkot falls at the start of the rainy season (in Israel), the four species are brought as a way of entreating God that the winter be wet and bountiful. The shaking of them – asking for beneficial winds and dew, adds further to this prayer.

It’s interesting to note that the only other instance in which there is a mitzvah to wave is while holding parts of the Temple sacrifices, and the Talmud gives the identical reasons for those wavings as well. We thus find a fascinating correlation between the sacrifices and the Four Species. Perhaps the notion is as follows.

Very often, Temple offerings serve the purpose of harmonizing the spiritual realm with the physical. They enable God’s beneficence to flow unobstructed from the upper spheres to the lower. On Sukkot as well, we take the Four Species to supplicate God for rain – that God’s goodness descend from the Heavens to grant us physical blessings as well. Thus, both mitzvot include a special mitzvah of waving them. We recognize that the same God of the Heavens is the God of the earth and all reality. This enables Him to shower the physical world with the blessings of the spiritual.

Lag B’Omer on Sunday

I notice that Lag B’Omer falls out on Sunday this year. Is anything different on account of this?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

Yes, there is one main difference. Since Shabbat and Lag B’Omer come so close together, we may cut our hair and shave on Friday in honor of both occasions (Rema to Shulchan Aruch O.C. 493:2).

Beyond that, children (and grown-ups) must be careful not to prepare bonfires, and certainly not to light them, on Shabbat day until after nightfall. Happy Lag B’Omer!

Animal Souls

I have a dog that I love dearly. She has brought joy to my life and brought smiles to the faces of many. I've heard many people say that animals don't have souls or that their souls are different from ours. When I look at my dog I feel as though her soul is on a higher level than a lot of people I've met, partially due to her selfless nature. There is no question in my mind that that she knows right from wrong and she will do everything in her power to cheer up someone who needs it. Animals think, express emotion and feel pain and pleasure. Many humans aren't even sensitive enough to know when another person needs emotional support!

How does Judaism view the spirituality of animals – and specifically dogs? Do animals have souls? Is there a special place in Heaven for precious animals? I hope you can shed some light on this issue.

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

You are asking a very deep question.

The great kabbalists explain that all living things – human and animal – have souls. However, not all souls are created equal. As described in Genesis 2:7, every human being has both a "nefesh" and a "neshama." The nefesh is defined as an animal soul – the life force, the instinctual, animalistic drives. The neshama, in contrast, is a purely spiritual component, a divine spark which distinguishes man from animal. This is the part of us which yearns for spirituality and closeness to God.

Humans and animals all engage in emotional responses such as love, fear, loyalty, imagination, memory, intelligence, etc. We run from danger, have survival instincts, and are driven to procreate. This all emanates from the lower animal soul.

But there exists in humans another spiritual entity that is very different and much higher. Humans also have a divine, spiritual soul. Only this soul has the ability to forge a relationship with the Divine, transcendent dimension of existence. This is where humans enter the unique realm of making free will moral decisions. Only humans have the ability to choose higher "soul pleasures" – like helping the poor, even at the expense lower "body pleasures" like hoarding more food for ourselves. You'll never see a hungry dog say to his friends, "Let's not fight over this," or "Let's save some for Fido who came late."

As human beings, we are locked in a constant battle over which soul will lead our lives. The measure of true “humanity” is the degree that one controls the animal soul, because otherwise a person is acting like an animal. (Actually, as the Sages explain, he is worse than an animal. Wasting spiritual potential is something that only a human is held accountable for.)

In light of this, the Torah prohibits the consumption of blood (see Leviticus 7:26). The Talmud explains that the "animal soul" resides in the blood of the beast, and since the animal soul is essentially coarse and unrefined, eating blood internalizes that trait. The Torah's message is "Don't take the animal instinct, the animal life force, and increase its prominence within your personality. Minimize that part of you, and maximize the aspect of you which is spiritual."

(For meat to be kosher, the blood must be removed either by a process of soaking the meat in salt and then rinsing it out, or by broiling it in a flame. Ironically, Jews throughout the ages have been accused of the "Blood Libel" – i.e. killing Christian babies in order to use their blood to bake matzah. As absurd as this claim is, it is even more so in light of the Torah prohibition against eating blood!)

All this is not to demean animals in any way. That is how they were created, and of course they serve an important purpose in the world. They are mentioned throughout the Bible and the Talmud for their great qualities. For example, a dog in Hebrew is called Kelev – a contraction of the words Kol Lev –meaning a "full heart." Thus we can learn from a dog the meaning of loyalty.

Interestingly, one verse in the Torah says that if a Jew has a piece a non-kosher meat, he should "throw it to the dogs" (Exodus 22:30). Another verse says that at the Exodus from Egypt, no dog barked (Exodus 11:7). The Midrash explains that dogs are singled out for non-kosher meat as a special reward for not disturbing the Jewish Exodus.

There is another great difference between animals and humans. The divine human soul is completely independent of any physical substance. For a human being, when the body expires, the divine spiritual soul lives on eternally. Whereas since animals lack a divine soul, when the body expires, their animal soul expires, too. So even though they have an important place in this world, there is no heaven for animals.