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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Recent Questions

Evolution – Who Cares?

There’s so much talk about whether God created the world or whether it evolved by chance. But I’m wondering: What difference does it make how this all came about anyhow?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

The difference is simple yet profound: If world is accident, then we are, too. And if we’re an accident, then there's no purpose to our creation. Life is random, not meaningful.

If we are just a random collection of molecules, should we have any more respect for a human being than we do for a dog? Should we save a drowning dog or a drowning stranger? Is it acceptable to label a race of people sub-human and to enslave or kill them all? And what difference does it ultimately make anyhow?!

The Torah says that God blew into Adam a spiritual soul (Genesis 2:7). Man is not just a smart monkey. Man is a qualitatively different creation. This "spiritual consciousness" separates man from all other creatures, enabling us to sanctify life and get close to God.

Maimonides writes: "As long as you are occupied with the mathematical sciences and the technique of logic, you belong to those who walk around the palace in search of the gate. When you complete your study of the natural sciences and then get a grasp of the metaphysics, you enter into the inner courtyard and are in the same house as [God the King]."

It matters because the essence of life is that we have a higher purpose, more than just consuming hamburgers and fashion and iPods. Those things can be useful tools to get us where we want to go, but we have to know where to go!

Jewish Giving

I am doing some research on the giving habits of various religions and population groups. This information will be helpful in my giving the Kol Nidre Appeal for my synagogue this year. Unfortunately, the level of giving in my synagogue is dismal and I want to try and educate our congregation (800 families) as to where we stand versus other religions.

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

Jewish charitable giving is something that Jews take for granted. Back from the time that Abraham welcomed the strangers into his tent (Genesis ch. 18), charity has been a foundation of Jewish life. Based on Leviticus 25:35, Maimonides lists charity as one of the 613 mitzvahs.

Here are some sources I was able to locate:

Studies conducted in 1986 and 1988 found that a higher percentage of Jews, regardless of their socioeconomic background, give to charities more so than non-Jews. (see: M. Rappeport and G. Tobin, A population Study of the Jewish Community of MetroWest New Jersey; V.A. Hodgkinson and M.S. Witzman, Giving and Volunteering in the United States: Finding from a National Survey Conducted by the Gallup Organization)

According to a 1951 report on American philanthropy, "Jews, who constitute less than 4 percent of the total population, undertake campaigns for their welfare funds which exceed the totals raised by all the non-Jewish Community Chests in the country." (Maurice J. Karpf, "Jewish Social Service and Its Impact upon Western Civilization")

Today there are many Jewish billionaires who give generously to charity. Unfortunately, the vast majority of that money goes to non-Jewish causes: universities, hospitals, libraries, etc. While these are certainly worthwhile charities, in the meantime Jewish educational programs are struggling to survive, and as a result many young Jews are missing out on a proper Jewish education.

Perhaps you could emphasize the need to take care of our own communal needs first, and with that the Jewish people can get a real boost toward fulfilling its role of tikkun olam and serving as a light unto the nations!

Withholding / Delaying Notification of Death

My father passed away about 3 weeks ago. We decided at the time not to notify his brother whose health is precarious and whose mental acuity is not 100%. On the other hand, as a result, my uncle never sat shiva with the family. It feels very awkward to me, especially since family members regularly visit him and I can’t imagine the subject will not come up. I’ve heard that in such situations people sometimes tell the relative at a later date. Is that appropriate?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

I’m very sorry about your father’s passing, first of all. May his soul find peace in heaven and may he be a worthy advocate for the entire family.

In terms of your question, the truth is, by the letter of the law, there is no obligation to inform a person that his relative died – even though as a result he will not observe the laws of mourning. This follows the principle that we avoid spreading bad news. It is also not considered causing him to sin inadvertently by not mourning his relative. Since he did not know about his relative’s passing, he had no obligation to mourn. (The only exceptions are the sons who will have to recite Kaddish for their father.)

In practice, however, since the relatives are bound to find out anyway and would be quite upset if such devastating news were withheld from them, we do inform all relatives. The exception is a relative who is in failing health. If there is any possibility that the distressing news might aggravate his health, he should not be informed. (See Shulchan Aruch Y.D. 337:1 and 402:12.)

In your uncle’s case it sounds like it would be better not to notify him of the death at all. It sounds like nothing would be gained from it. The relatives should try their best to be careful in his presence, especially when the subject of your father comes up. (I should add that although we avoid sharing bad news, we are not allowed to lie for that purpose. If such a person would ask point blank if his relative is still alive, we would have to admit it to him. If on the other hand he is not entirely lucid, the issue can usually be skirted.)

There are times when the family feels an older relative should be told, but not right away. Say for example he is physically and mentally sound and is sure to find out sooner or later, but sitting shiva for an entire week would be too much for him. In such a case it might be appropriate to delay notification. If he first hears about his relative’s passing 30 days later, the laws of mourning are much more lenient. The 30 days are counted from the deceased’s passing rather than his burial, but the notification must be after 30 days rather than on the 30th day (Gesher HaChaim 24:1:(6)). (The situation is known as a sh’muah rechokah – a distant notification.)

Note that this situation requires a careful judgment call. If the relative will become agitated that the news was wilfully withheld from him for so long, it would be better to notify him immediately.

The laws of mourning for a delayed notification are as follows:

(1) The mourner does not tear his garment unless it’s for a parent (402:4). He should recite the blessing “dayan ha’emes” (“the True Judge”) on hearing the sad news.

(2) He should do a single act of mourning – such as removing his (leather) shoes or sitting on a low chair – for a short time (402:2).

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

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