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Recent Questions

Why Convert?

I have a question about converts. After witnessing countless acts of anti-Semitism and persecution against the Jews, why would anybody want to be a part of that? While I can see where they'd be sympathetic toward Jews and inspired by their perseverance and survival, I do not see why anyone would willfully say, "Hook me up with this religion so that people might wanna kill me, too!"

Maybe I cannot fully understand the mind of a person turned onto Judaism, but it doesn't seem logical to want to be a part of a religion that is constantly being attacked, even in today's "modern" world.

I love being Jewish, but I want to know why people would want to join.

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

You have good intuition. The Code of Jewish Law says that when someone approaches a rabbi expressing interest in conversion, the rabbi should initially discourage them with warnings about the threat of anti-Semitism.

Those who do end up converting, however, do so because they believe in the Torah and want to be part of the Jewish legacy - whatever the cost might be.

Over the past 4,000 years, whether during the Inquisition, Crusades, pogroms or Holocaust, Jews have endured the torments of exile, torture and ovens - yet continued to remain loyal to the Jewish people. Abraham himself was thrown into a fiery furnace. That gave strength to others to follow, and in more recent times, Soviet refuseniks like Natan Sharansky and Yosef Mendelovich willingly underwent years of psychological and physical torture for the sake of being Jewish.

I'd like to suggest that you ask yourself the same question: Why is it worth it to identify as a Jew? Of course, a Jew is always a Jew - regardless of whether they reject their heritage, ignore it, or practice another religion. But theoretically - why not just change your name and assimilate away?

To the Western ear, "sacrificing for a belief" sounds like a drastic action. Is there logic and reason to what our ancestors did? And where did they find the strength to lay down their lives for Jewish beliefs?

The answer is that even stronger than the human will to survive, is the drive for meaning in life, and to make a difference in the world. It is amazing but true. We see that a mother will send her beloved son off to war - with the very real risk of his getting killed - because she believes in the justice of the cause.

Rabbi Noah Weinberg says: Everyone should find a cause so meaningful that they'd forfeit their life for it. Because if you don't know what you are willing to die for, then you haven't begun to live. If you don't have meaning in your life, even with all the physical enjoyments, beautiful vacations and even a wonderful family, you will feel that something is missing.

This is the secret of Jewish heroism. This is why so many Jews throughout history have sacrificed their lives for what they believe. Because when you go ahead and LIVE for that cause, it is with unparalleled power and pleasure.

So what is the "Jewish cause?"

Values that the civilized world takes for granted - monotheism, love your neighbor, peace on earth, justice for all, universal education, all men are created equal, the preciousness of life - are foundations of Judaism. So though we were exiled, oppressed, beaten and gassed, in the process we defined the moral makeup of humanity. This is an enormous impact and we accomplished it under the most adverse conditions.

Adherence to these ideals was only possible by a tenacious commitment to mitzvah observance. For instance, in the Bergen Belsen concentration camp, the Chanukah celebration went on, at great risk to their lives. From the meager food portions, bits of fat were saved up. Others pulled threads from their tattered garments and twisted them into a makeshift wick. A candle-holder was fashioned out of raw potato. And even dreidels for the children were carved out of a precious wooden shoe.

Without that unwavering adherence to mitzvot, the Jewish people could never have made such an impact. As Rabbi Yisrael Spira (the Bluzhever Rebbe) told his fellow inmates in Bergen Belsen: "By kindling this Chanukah candle we are symbolically identifying ourselves with the Jewish people everywhere. Our long history records many bloody horrors our people have endured and survived. We may be certain that no matter what may befall us as individuals, the Jews as a people will - with the help of God - outlive their cruel foes and emerge triumphant in the end."

When faced with conversion or death, we knew we had to fight to keep the Jewish message alive.

A famous rabbi once revealed to me the secret of his greatness. He said: "When I was 18, I made a decision to undergo a thorough process of self-examination. I took all of Jewish thought and practice, and emptied myself of it - metaphorically. I did not stop observing the mitzvot. But intellectually, I put everything on the table so I could look at it. I looked at Shabbat, for example, and asked myself: What is this? How do I relate to it? What aspects do I appreciate, and which aspects don't I understand?"

The rabbi continued: "I needed to grow up and become my own person. I repeated this process with all realms of Torah. It took years. But now my convictions are strong and unshakable. I know who I am, and more importantly, why."

Every convert is forced to ask: What is the value of observing Shabbat, eating Kosher, giving tzedakah, refraining from gossip, and saying the "Shema" every day?

"Why be Jewish?" Whether potential convert, or born Jew, it's an essential question to ask.

Number of Jews at Exodus

Thank you very much for all your wise and interesting writings. For the last two years, I've been teaching an adult seminar called "Discovering the Beauty of Judaism" at a Reform congregation, and I use Aish HaTorah material.

Now my question: I remember that the number of Jews leaving Egypt was 600,000. But I read recently that the number was in the millions! Is this true?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

It is written in the Torah, "The Children of Israel journeyed... 600,000 adult males on foot, besides the children." (Exodus 12:37)

Since the verse only includes the number of men who were 20 years of age and over, we can extrapolate the total population by including the women and children as well.

According to Rabbi Yonasan ben Uziel (circa 1st century CE, author of an Aramaic translation of the Five Books of Moses), there were 3 million Jews in total who witnessed the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. (see Targum Yonasan – Exodus 12:37) It is probable that a comparable number of Jews left Egypt.

By the way, the Talmud says that 80 percent of the Jews never even left Egypt. They were so steeped in Egyptian culture that they were unwilling to join the Exodus. As such, they were lost to the Jewish nation forever.

Best of luck in your Torah studies – and teaching!

Shabbat Candles & Havdalah on Chanukah

During the Shabbat of Chanukah, which is lit first - the Menorah or the Shabbat candles?

And then on Saturday night, which do we do first - the Menorah or the Havdalah service?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

On Friday afternoon during Chanukah, we first light the Chanukah candles. The reason is because if we would light Shabbat candles first, this would signify the onset of Shabbat - and we are not allowed to light Chanukah candles on Shabbat. (Code of Jewish Law O.C. 679:1)

But following Shabbat on Saturday night, there are different opinions as to which should be done first. On one hand, it makes sense to say Havdallah first, because that signifies the end of Shabbat and now gives permissibility to lighting Chanukah candles. Also, there is the Talmudic principle of "Tadir U'sheino Tadir, Tadir Kodem" - the activity that is performed more often should be performed first (Zevachim 89a).

Furthermore, it would seem a contradiction to be lighting the Chanukah candles - an activity which is forbidden on Shabbat - when we still have yet to officially usher out the Shabbat!

On the other hand, there is another rule which states "Afukei Yoma Me'acharinan" - we seek to prolong our observance of Shabbat (Rashbam - Pesachim 102b). Another reason offered for prioritizing Chanukah is due to its role in publicizing the miracle.

This is a situation of competing halachic principles. Since both approaches are valid, everyone may do according to his custom.

(sources: Meiri - Shabbat 23; Taz - O.C. 681:1; Mishnah Berurah 681:3)

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!

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